Early in the pandemic, just after sourdough mania peaked, Tony Quartaro, a chef who, like many chefs, had extra time on his hands, began making pasta in his kitchen. He sent out a text message to his neighbors in Beverly asking if they’d like some. After they devoured the initial batch, they wrote asking when they could have more. They also told their friends. Eventually, he found himself making 100 meals a week. He would send out a message at 9 a.m. on Sunday announcing that the pasta was available, and by 11, he’d be all sold out. That was when he realized he was on to something.
Now Quartaro’s at-home pasta-making operation has grown into a full-fledged business, Gemma Foods. At the pasta shop, which opened in late January, customers can pick up fresh pasta and sauce to cook at home. In the coming months, Gemma will have pick-up points around the city, and as soon as Quartaro can amass a supply of corrugated cardboard boxes, it will start shipping within a 200-mile radius.
“It’s not a meal kit,” Quartaro says. “We’ve done all the work. All you have to do is boil the water. People tell me they can’t believe they made it at home.”
Gemma offers five meals a week; each order costs around $30 and serves two to three people. At least two of those options are vegetarian, one comes with Sunday gravy, and third has that vodka sauce that Quartaro says has developed a cult following among customers and his own family: his sixteen-month-old son literally drinks it. Customers can also buy pasta and sauce a la carte. Quartaro uses ingredients from his West Town neighbors: sausage from Bari and pancetta from Tempesta Market.
Quartaro hadn’t intended to become a pastaiolo, though his first restaurant job, when he was in college, was at a restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas, that made its own pasta. Later, he worked in restaurants in San Francisco and New York before moving to Chicago, where he was at the Bristol, Balena, and Formento’s before moving over to become the culinary director at a now-defunct startup called Wise Apple that specialized in delivering healthy meals directly to customers. This was in 2017, before food delivery became a part of daily American life. But the experience taught him the fundamentals of shipping.
Since the beginning, even when he was still borrowing the kitchen at Limelight, the catering company where he worked, Quartaro envisioned Gemma as a two-pronged operation. The shop, which he describes as “a bakery that makes pasta instead of bread,” is intended to draw foot traffic: there’s a front window where pasta-makers put on a show for passersby, and later on, there will be classes and a table for small dinner parties. But the delivery part, he says, is what’s really going to drive the business.
“It’s pandemic-proof,” he says. “It was born there. The business model is something we can scale.” The building he’s rented in West Town is zoned for manufacturing, which will make expansion easier. (The building was also allegedly the site of a mob hit, a detail that only made it more attractive to Quartaro.) He’s also in talks to start selling the pasta and sauce wholesale.
Quartaro thinks mostly-made restaurant-quality meals that straddles the line between takeout and DIY kits will appeal to customers who’ve spent the past two years eating most of their meals at home. “Delivery of dining is an emerging category,” he says. “I want to be a part of that. The product coincides with what people are looking for if they’re not stepping into a restaurant. It’s for anyone who has nostalgia for Grandma’s cooking, but at a higher level.”
Gemma Foods, 1117 W. Grand Avenue, Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.