Mr. Pasta: Fresh Noodles in Little Buenos Aires
You don't have to hang out with Jorge Stekelorum long to realize his favorite word in Spanish is vení. It can mean several things. But for Stekelorum, it has only one definition: "Follow me."
For more than 20 years, Stekelorum has been making nothing but pasta at his shop, Mr. Pasta, which occupies a narrow storefront in North Beach's Little Buenos Aires. In his workshop outfitted with old pasta machines, a small staff of Argentines, dressed in white, twirl gnocchi on ridged wooden planks entirely by hand.
One of these days, though, he plans to expand his business and sell his noodles not to supermarkets, but to gourmet stores. "When we opened in 1991, we sold pasta to some hotels and restaurants and eventually evolved into retail," he says. "Little has changed since then. We specialize in pasta — and only pasta! One thing's for sure: We won't ever sell to huge grocery stores. Vení, vení."
On a recent Saturday morning, Stekelorum urges me to fall in behind him as he wanders past sacks of stone-ground whole-wheat and semolina flour on the floor. "You see that woman there? She's been coming here for decades. Señora, how long have you been a customer?" he asks an elderly lady who approaches the counter from across the room. She's all of four feet tall.
"Fourteen years — ever since I came to this country" she replies. "And I haven't died yet! You know what that means?"
"We don't put poison in our pasta," Stekelorum responds with a slow grin.
Stekelorum's thick dark hair is sprinkled with a few whites and grays. His eyes are lit like cobalt, lustrous against white. His voice is fluid, words crooned in a porteño melody.
He left Argentina's capital in 1988 and arrived in Miami with thoughts of opening a pasta shop, which to him sounded like a nice idea at the time. Pasta, he admits, has always been his favorite hobby. His mother taught him the craft of noodles.
A practical man with an impractical idea, Stekelorum opened Mr. Pasta in North Beach because rent was cheap. "Back then, the neighborhood was full of pandilleros (gang types). It was a rough time. When customers walked from their car to our store, they had to clutch their purses," he said, pantomiming the movement by taking a few steps while grasping an invisible handbag.
Stekelorum imported mechanical pasta machines, which weigh about a ton each, from Argentina. He showcases the contraptions behind glass like a Design District fashion boutique exhibits haute couture.
"A monkey can make pasta with extrusion machines, but this is different. These need only a switch to turn on. Other than that, they're all nuts and bolts. My machines are old-fashioned; they are unbreakable," he explains, referring to his dough mixer. He pats the device's light-green top like a father taps a son's head.
"Vení," Stekelorum says as he points to green-flecked dough panes, which flow in waves from an adjacent pasta roller. "Like a painting! The puréed spinach dissolves into the mixture each time its goes through the roller. It gets thinner and thinner, greener and greener, until it's completely solid green."
Depending when you ask, Stekelorum might say retail sales account for 30 percent or 20 percent of his business. He sells fresh pasta throughout Miami-Dade and Broward counties — and transactions are simple. Customers call a phone number connected to an answering machine. His biggest clients, the kind with purchasing departments, send requests via email. But Stekelorum prefers the telephone: voice-to-voice, deliveries promised the next day.
Asked which restaurants buy his pasta, Stekelorum clams up. "Some places claim they make the pastas themselves, so I can't tell you names," he says as he steps over a 15-pound cardboard box labeled with the name of a restaurant not far from his place.
"We fulfill special requests for clients," he says. "The other day, someone asked for crushed black pepper in fettuccine; someone else wanted lemon zest. We can do whatever people want."
Clients trek to Mr. Pasta for fresh lasagna sheets: red bell pepper, spinach, whole wheat, egg, and squid ink. Most varieties employ egg whites and semolina flour. This, Stekelorum believes, creates a lighter dough — one less rich than his mother's recipe. Only gnocchi and cavatelli require salt.
"If you make a noodle the old-fashioned way — with salt, oil, egg yolks, and wheat flour — it's too much. Las viejas de antes made heavy pasta. Not everyone can consume salt, you know," he explains.
Want pappardelle? Stekelorum can turn on his massive pasta-rolling machine, equipped with cutters for angel hair, fettuccine, spaghetti, and pappardelle. Whole lasagna sheets are sucked in on one side and spill in thin strips from the other.
Stuffed pasta is more perishable than noodles and sheets. Around the shop, freezers stock trays of chilled ravioli, sorrentino (larger versions of ravioli), and pansotti (larger versions of sorrentino). Fillings include goat cheese, lobster, beef, ham and mozzarella, wild mushroom, asparagus and sun-dried tomato, and pumpkin with amaretto.
"Men don't usually go for the pumpkin. It's more popular with women for some reason," he says. "But we make lots of vegetable fillings because people want less meat now. That's just a tendency we've observed."
Stekelorum recently began experimenting with gluten-free dough, made with cornflour. In the past few years, he has added a variety of sauces to his repertoire: vodka, carbonara, marinara, Bolognese, pesto, and four-cheese. "In Buenos Aires, there's one family-owned pasta shop like this every ten blocks," he says. "In Miami, there aren't other places like this. Everything here has to do with pasta — just pasta.
"Vení," Stekelorum says. He shows me around his pasta shop like Willy Wonka guides children through his factory. Mr. Pasta is, in many ways, an anachronistic Wonka shop — a place where dough replaces candy, vintage pasta machines eschew chocolate makers, and a cavatelli crew substitutes the Oompa Loompas.
He leads me toward the exit. We pass the refrigerator full of lasagna sheets, the pasta machines, the shelves scattered with olive oil, canned tomatoes, and sea salt. All pasta. Only pasta.
When it's time for goodbyes, Stekelorum uses his favorite word in a new way.
"Vení pronto," he says. Come back soon.
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