Date: October 2, 2023 | Story: Jordan P. Hickey | Photography: Rett Peek | Styling: Stephanie Maxwell Newton |
How the founders of Zelli Pasta became the go-to for fresh pasta and gourmet goods in Northwest Arkansas
On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Zelli Pasta in Springdale, a hard-working pasta extruder is pumping out a steady stream of casarecce into a shallow white plastic container. Mitchell Owen, who co-founded Zelli with his wife, Angelina Bowen, reaches into the container and fishes out a single piece. Rolling the ochre-colored pasta between two fingers, Mitchell notes that the texture is far different than normal grocery store pasta. “It’s extruded out through bronze dies and being cut to size, so the bronze die is what’s leaving the texture on the surface of the pasta,” Mitchell says. “See, it’s got these little ridges on it.”
“I would say it almost looks like little spider webs all over the outside,” Angelina says. “But that texture is gonna grab onto your sauce whenever you’re making pasta.”
There is no Italian nonna who imparted pasta-making expertise, no reclaimed Italian heritage driving the enterprise forward (Mitchell’s family roots are Welsh; Angelina’s are French, among others). Rather, what gave rise to everything within Zelli—which has been open just over a year now—was COVID. “A lot of mom-and-pop businesses were birthed out of the pandemic—and this was kind of the same story,” Mitchell says. Early in the pandemic, the pair found themselves making pasta sometimes five times a week. That enthusiasm then sparked a conversation in which Mitchell said: “You know, I really wish I could just make pasta every day.”
“I said, ‘Sure,’” Angelina says, “‘Let’s make pasta every day.’” Which is how the couple ended up with a pasta extruder taking up the lion’s share of space on their kitchen island.
Although the initial plan had been to set up shop as a cottage-food business, Angelina and Mitchell quickly realized that this wasn’t going to be compatible with their two dogs—in no small part because the dogs acquired a taste for the pasta drying in their home office. In time, the couple heard about a commercial space on Emma Avenue in Springdale, just up the road from their home in east Fayetteville. It was perfect.
Since opening in July 2022, the couple says they’ve learned a fair amount that has helped shape the scope and trajectory of their business; you can’t churn out between 28,000 and 30,000 pounds of pasta over the course of a year and not learn a few lessons along the way. But they also learned that they needed to offer items beyond just pasta.
Along with Mitchell and Angelina’s pasta offerings, this is where Zelli the storefront truly shines. To examine the shelves is to feel like you’ve been transported to some distant Mediterranean clime. Shelves upon shelves of imported canned tomatoes bear brands you’re not likely to find anywhere else locally. Closer inspection of a rack of bright circus colors reveals a stunning selection of canned fish. A small refrigerated section punches well above its weight with French butters and Italian cheeses.
When asked how they’ve managed to curate such a remarkable selection of normally hard-to-find products, the couple explains it wasn’t quite what you’d expect. There was no schlepping across Europe, no chance meetings with family-run producers in small Italian villages. All of that research and tasting was conducted from the comfort of their home, but it was transportive in the same way that pasta-making had been for them during the height of the pandemic. Angelina credits Instagram as a tool for sourcing products. “Once you start kind of getting in that rabbit hole, you see a lot of really good options,” she says. “We can read the ingredients and be able to tell what’s gonna be good or not by the way it’s made.”
Ultimately, this notion of finding the best ingredients they can get is at the heart of what drives the store: Everything is about simplicity. The best product is made from the best ingredients. Simple as that.
Want to try your hand at making your own fresh pasta? Read on for Zelli’s instructions on preparing ravioli at home.
PURPLE SWEET POTATO RAVIOLI WITH BROWN BUTTER SAUCE
Yields about 35 ravioli, or 4-5 servings
For the pasta dough
400 grams (1.5 cups) organic durum semolina flour, plus extra for dusting
4-5 large eggs
For the filling
2 large purple sweet potatoes
1 package (16-ounce) of whole milk ricotta (Zelli recommends basket ricotta)
¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Parmesan cheese), grated
1 lemon, zested and juiced
salt, to taste
For the brown butter sauce
½ stick butter
¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1-2 fresh sage leaves
1 tablespoon pasta water
kosher salt, to taste
Notes: This recipe calls for a pasta sheeter, which can be purchased at Zelli or any kitchen supply store. Use durum semolina flour rather than all-purpose flour for all steps, including dusting.
To make pasta dough, weigh out 400 grams (1.5 cups and a scant more) of durum semolina flour and place on a large, flat surface. Create a well, and crack eggs into the center of the well. Use a fork to gently whisk the eggs into a smooth mixture, gradually incorporating flour from the inner wall of the well into eggs. Once the flour and eggs are fully incorporated, use a bench scraper to scrape from the bottom of the dough. Knead dough for 6-10 minutes, rotating 90 degrees as you go. Dough ball is ready when it looks smooth and has a gentle bounce when poked on the top. Wrap completely in plastic and let rest at least 10 minutes (or up to one day, refrigerating if so).
To make the filling, bring a pot of salted water to boil while you peel and dice sweet potatoes. Boil sweet potato pieces until fork tender, then drain and mash through a ricer (or with a fork) into a large bowl. Combine the mashed potatoes with ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt to taste. (Mitchell and Angelina recommend starting with half the lemon juice, then adding more as desired.) Transfer filling to a piping bag and refrigerate until ready to fill ravioli.
To make and fill the ravioli, cut dough ball in half and flatten with a rolling pin until thin enough to fit through the widest setting of a pasta sheeter (typically about ¼ inch thick). Begin to run the dough through the widest setting of the sheeter, gradually going through each setting until you reach the second to finest, and flouring the dough in between each setting to prevent pasta from sticking. Final product should be about 2 millimeters thick and 6-8 inches wide; Mitchell and Angelina recommend cutting the single long sheet into 18-inch lengths. (Repeat steps with second half of the dough ball.)
Lightly dust pasta sheet with flour and lay flat. Starting at one end, pipe filling down the center of the length of one pasta sheet , leaving about 2 inches between fillings; dollops should be about 1 inch wide and ½ inch tall. Then fold the bottom of the sheet over the piped filling, working down the length of the sheet, so that all filling is covered with dough. Try to make sure edges line up and there are
Using your thumb and index finger on both hands, press down along the three sides of each dollop of filling, pushing out any air. Using a fluted rolling cutter (or pizza cutter), cut out each square ravioli , discarding pasta scraps. Place ravioli on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and dust with flour.
To make the sauce and finish the ravioli, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Swirl butter occasionally to ensure even melting. Add sage. As butter melts, it will start to foam; when the color changes from a light golden to a deep, nutty brown (usually after 5-7 minutes), remove from heat immediately. Remove sage leaves, add pasta water, and swirl to form sauce. Meanwhile, place ravioli in boiling water, then drop the heat to medium-high. Ravioli are cooked through when they begin to float (usually 2-3 minutes).
Gently remove ravioli once fully cooked and add to brown butter sauce. Toss or stir to coat evenly, then add Parmigiano-Reggiano and continue to combine. Add more pasta water if sauce becomes too thick. Plate and garnish with grated more Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve immediately.
Use your Noodles
Zelli currently sells 14 dried pasta shapes, each boxed in bright yellow packaging designed by Angelina. In addition to their Springdale storefront and farmers markets around the region, Zelli can also be found at almost 30 retailers across the state. Angelina and Mitchell also offer a small batch of fresh, filled pastas—such as lasagna, ravioli, and tortellini—available for pre-order and walk-ins. Visit zellipasta.com to shop and find out more about their offerings.