When brothers Ryan and Danny Nicoletto lost their “Pops” in 2013, they felt compelled to shift one particular dream off the backburner--and together they started a business that tips a hat toward their Italian heritage. Their Nicoletto's Pasta Co., which they’ve been cooking up since the spring of last year but only recently debuted at the Nashville Farmers' Market, crafts small batches of pasta made from a variety of select grains from North America. The pasta is bronze cut, slowly dried, and packaged from their shop in Inglewood; the Nicoletto brothers also both live on the east side of the river.
Their father, Tony Nicoletto, was a drummer, and his sons had already followed somewhat in his footsteps. Both moved to Nashville to pursue careers in the music business. Danny guitar techs for Jimmy Eat World and Grace Potter, and Ryan works at BMI as its UIUX designer. Well beyond boyhood, Ryan, 33, and Danny, 31, have remained in cahoots, playing in bands together, touring and recording—and working in an Italian restaurant in Indiana, where they grew up.
The East Nashvillian: How did you go from playing in bands together to starting a pasta company together?
Danny Nicoletto: "I’m two years younger than Ryan, and he moved down here a couple of years after I did. I moved down here for music--for guitar teching and working for bands. He moved down for the music industry as well. The whole idea started because we really wanted to open up a restaurant—really, really wanted to."
Ryan Nicoletto: "And we had worked at an Italian restaurant [Cafe Paradiso, later renamed Zaza] for the better part of seven or eight years. While we were touring, the restaurant was the perfect place to come back to. I could cook; it was a small place; and the chef, Saverio Castellucci, became one of my best friends. We wanted to do something like that here in Nashville, but we decided pasta seemed like a better bet.
"We got a lease on a place near Kroger by Kirkland and spent five or six months building it out. We did everything ourselves. Bootstrapping the whole thing. Everything takes time when you’re doing it that way, which is a lot of learning, doing that—sourcing out machines and what cuts we’re going to use and what types of shapes."
Have you always had an appetite for pasta?
Ryan: "Yeah, we’ve always made pasta. When we're having people over, we'll say, 'Hey, we’ll make pasta,' or 'We’ll have a ravioli party.' We’d do it on such a small scale that it was all about that feeling of everyone getting together and having fun, and I think that's why, when we first turned on the machines at our shop, we felt like, 'Oh, we have so much pasta to give to people.'"
Danny: "It all became very real when we first fired up the machines: We finally had the right power for the machines, the right everything--because the machines are all from Italy and they’re all very temperamental and we had to rebuild them. We made fusilli the first batch, and we’re like, 'Woah, this is awesome.' I still have pictures from it: It was a big thing for us to have saved the money to get the right machine and to have gotten all the permits in place and to have done the first batch. We both have our other day jobs, our other things happening, and we had continually spent way too much at Home Depot building out the space that is now our facility. It was like, 'We’re really doing it.' For anyone who’s starting a business, the best feeling in the world is when you make that first batch or product."
What differentiates Nicoletto's pasta from other pasta?
Danny: "The shapes you see--the rigotini, the fusilli--they’re all extruded through a bronze die. It gives it a real rugged look. Depending on what you buy product-wise, we source for different mills and use different types of grains. We’re real excited about that."
Ryan: "We keep calling it small batch pasta because our capacity is pretty small for a dry product. There are a lot of people who make fresh pasta, but the majority of what we’re looking at is dried. We have a special dryer that’s from Italy, and it handles anywhere from 300 to 1,200 lbs. a cycle. A drying cycle for us is anywhere from 12 to 24 hours. The pasta goes in, and we basically say goodbye for a day. It’s almost like it keeps you up at night because you’re just like, 'I hope it turns out great.' And 12 hours later we’re both checking it, making sure…"
Danny: "The drying process is an art in itself because basically all the water you used in your mixture and batching you have to slowly take out. As you’re taking out that water and making it a shelf-life product, you have to maintain the integrity of the way you made the pasta. I compare pasta a lot to coffee, from sourcing the coffee to roasting it and preparing it, pulling the right espresso shot; there are a lot of similar processes involved in making pasta."
All of your pastas are vegan, right?
Ryan: "Yeah, we made a decision pretty early on not to use any eggs. There’s still a lot of smaller pasta companies that use eggs as binders, and it’s fine, but for us it’s a matter of taste because egg pasta can be really heavy. It’s also just a matter of taking something that’s supposed to be really simple and making it a little more complex. In our process of how we create and then dry everything out, it would add a layer of complexity that didn’t make a lot of sense. So we just use water and flour, and that's the whole technique. We're still getting it right."
Danny: "I think we’ll continue to get it right. Each batch depends on the moisture of the grain you get in, the flour, the type of water, the temperature of the water, so we’re always going to be trying out new grains and different flour mills from all around the country."
Are you not sick of pasta yet?
Ryan: Oh, yeah, we’re sick of it.
And have you gained weight through all your taste-testing?
Ryan: "Oh, yeah. And we’re starting to get used to the dried pasta taste. We cook it to taste it as well, but when it comes to checking the batches and tasting the pasta to make sure it’s dry, we have to eat the dry pasta. It’s the worst taste in the world."
Why start a pasta business now?
Ryan: "Our dad passed away two years ago. One of the things we always talked about was having a place of our own. Because he was in music, too. He was a drummer. He was always either doing music or hanging out—that’s what was important to him."
Danny: "Yeah, after he passed away it definitely kickstarted our iniative to do something with food. At that time we thought, 'Let’s open a little restaurant, a bistro/café.' And that’s still a big goal of ours, but we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are with the pasta now unless it was unfortunately for that."
Danny, will you keep guitar-teching?
Danny: Yeah, in between it all, as it fits. You definitely don’t give up that skill. It’s kept me busy in Nashville for six years, but I finished with Jimmy [Eat World] in November, and they’re off now and I’m off for awhile doing my thing and it’s perfect. Plus, touring has made it so that I've been able to go to a lot of different pasta factories across the U.S. It’s a really small industry that seems like a really big industry, but everyone’s very kind and happy to show you around. It’s been great to see everyone else’s setups and what they’re doing and get a little education that way and to have my vehicle be my job on the road."