The first thing that greets me upon entering Mama Del’s of East Haven is a group of several large refrigerators that hold nothing but pasta. Classic lasagna, plump gnocchi, and flavorful broccoli rabe line the shelves, which are peppered with dozens of white cardboard signs labeling the various homemade delicacies. My next greeting comes from the smiling owner, Chris Accabo, who, with a “Hi, how can I help you?” steers me toward the other pockets of pasta throughout the store.
Chris’s shop is about as homemade as his pasta. A stranger to the food industry, Chris previously worked in construction for thirty years. When business began to slow last year, he decided to invest his savings in the then-dilapidated Mama Del’s Pasta Mfg Co. The store, founded in 1965, once supplied pasta to many of Yale’s dining facilities but lost its status as it fell into disrepair. When Chris bought Mama Del’s, he turned it into a family affair, bringing in his nephew Brandon, an aspiring chef, to help run the place. They renovated the entire store, importing industrial-sized Italian pasta-making machinery and transforming a run-down building into a gleaming pasta emporium. “I used to make pasta for my family every Sunday, so I figured, why not make a business of it? I just never thought it would get so big!” Chris says, laughing.
In a way, running Mama Del’s isn’t that different from cooking those Sunday family dinners. Today, Chris’s wife, sister, son, and daughter all work in the shop. Picking up a piece of cavatelli, Chris turns the pasta in his floured fingers, explaining, “You see, we use eggs instead of water, which gives it this nice yellow color.” A glance confirms that the pasta is a wholesome pale yellow, unlike the usual bland noodles found in a box. “And we don’t skimp,” Chris continues. “Good pasta was never made by skimping on the good stuff.”
Since the store reopened last February, its familial, home-cooked appeal has helped business take off. After Chris switched to the quaint packaging now used — “My daughter’s idea, of course. We used to just toss the pasta in plastic bags” — customers from the East Haven area and beyond have come to seek the pasta as a novelty gift, attracted to both its charming appearance and delicious taste. The store sold out of pasta repeatedly over the past holiday season: over 250 pounds were sold in a few short weeks, and business shows no sign of dwindling. Chris plans to expand to another shop he owns down the street, which will double his kitchen size and enable him to keep up with the ever-increasing demand.
The expansion could also help with Chris’s current goal: to return Mama Del’s to its former status as a Yale-syndicated pasta supplier. But so far, little progress has been made. “I called some guy in the Dining Services, but they never got back to me,” Chris laments.
What will it take for Mama Del’s pasta to reach Yalies? Currently, Barilla supplies all of the dry pasta for Yale’s dining halls, except for a few frozen products purchased from Carla’s Pasta, a company located in South Windsor that distributes nationally. “We are always open to exploring local options,” says Gerry Remer, a representative for Yale Dining, but the process is far from simple. “We take many things into consideration,” Remer says, including “product quality, company capabilities, location, food safety, capacity, national contract, ease of doing business, sustainability, cost, product applicability, nutritionals.”
In order for a local business like Mama Del’s to become a Yale supplier, a simple phone call is not enough to establish a relationship. “Distribution relationships and large commodities require a complete sourcing project including a request for proposals (RFP) process and thorough vetting,” explains Remer. “Individual products to be delivered directly can be chosen through interviews and product testing or in a variety of ways.” Also, the issue of capacity is important when considering small businesses. As Remer clarifies, “In general we do not want to be in the position of being such a large customer that the supplier’s survival becomes dependent solely on our business.”
Whether or not Chris gets a Yale contract, there will be one Yalie enjoying his homemade pasta. He sends me away laden with two bags of cavatelli and tortellini and precise instructions on how to cook them. Boil for just a minute or two, until the little cylindrical noodles hit the surface of the water. Then drain.