‘It’s Pasta Friday, it’s Pasta Friday!’
By Allison Arevalo | Photos by Denise Woodward
It’s also 7am
But my boys don’t look at the clock. They jump on the bed, rousing me and Alejandro in the not-so-gentle way of three- and five-year-old boys. Friday is their favorite day of the week. They know tonight our house will be buzzing with a bunch of their friends, lots of pasta, and an endless supply of purple Popsicles.
It’s my favorite day, too. I also get to see my friends, eat lots of pasta, and indulge in the adult version of purple Popsicles—glasses of red wine.
Every Friday night our house is packed with around 50 people: friends, family, neighbors, and children. I cook a giant pot of pasta and assemble a seasonal salad. Guests bring the wine. It’s casual—you’ll catch people stealing small pieces of my just-made mozzarella off the counter. Kids run around with thick, buttered slices of my friend Ara’s homemade bread. But mostly you’ll find people connecting, unwinding after a long week, thankful they don’t have to cook dinner. Friends whom I normally wouldn’t see for months at a time are now gathering around my table every single week. New bonds, new support systems, a new way to share meals—new for this generation, at least. It’s Pasta Friday, and it really did change my life.
How Pasta Friday Became a Thing
Starting at the beginning involves a journey back to Hewlett, New York, in the early 1990s. I can smell it: the meatballs frying on the stove, the pigskin simmering in the sauce.
After church every week, my great-grandmother cooked Sunday supper, a pasta feast put together by a 92-year-old woman who needed to stand on a step stool to flip the meatballs.
This was how my family—and most Italian families on Long Island—spent their Sundays.
It was a glorious childhood made up of red sauce, plastic-covered couches, cousins, and cheek-pinching.
But I grew up and moved away, and traditions faded. What lingers in me is a love of food, community, family, and the importance of having all these things in one’s life on a consistent basis.
And so I opened a restaurant. A mac and cheese restaurant in Oakland. All of my dreams were coming true, and all at one time, at Homeroom. I suddenly had a restaurant, a community gathering place, and a way to pay homage to the family that taught me how to make the best pasta in the world (subjective, I know). And for six years, this restaurant was my life.
But things changed. The restaurant grew into a big business. My days were filled with strategy sessions, and workers’ comp, and three-year plans, and meetings and meetings and meetings.
I was miserable. I turned into an insomniac. I dreaded getting up in the morning to go to work. So I left. I sold my shares and walked away from the business that I’d built from an empty shell.
It was one of the toughest decisions of my life, and I was always second-guessing myself, wondering if leaving this successful business in exchange for my sanity was actually the right thing to do. This was a dark time for me. Besides my inner turmoil over the business, my young son needed a risky surgery, and my sister was battling cancer. I found the only times I stopped worrying and smiled freely were when I was cooking for my friends. And so I invited them over every Friday for pasta. I made it official the week after my grandmother died at the end of August 2017. It felt right to honor her memory by starting a tradition that promoted the values she instilled in me.
And it became a feast. Suddenly I had 90 names on my email list, and every week more and more people would show up, bottles of wine in hand, excited to forget their own troubles and connect with new friends over heaping plates of Bolognese or pesto or clam sauce. Parents of young children would tell me it felt like a night out, a chance to socialize again. We were all building a community, building a support system, where we suddenly had people to call when we needed a last-minute babysitter or a lead on a new job or someone to listen when we wanted to vent about our day. And we put our phones down. This was old-school interaction. Our fancy gadgets might as well have been Polaroids, because the only time we picked them up was to snap photos of the kids with sticky fingers or the mountains of pasta we were about to enjoy.
It’s now 5pm
Luca, my three-year-old, is taking the plastic wine glasses out of the bar and placing them on the counter for the guests. Nico, who is two years older, is getting the compostable plates and forks from the closet and putting them on the table. I’m rushing around the kitchen, mixing the crispy prosciutto with the chilies, washing pots, and keeping an eye on the red peppers that are roasting under the broiler. Alejandro is putting out the cans for recycling and compost. He has just finished the “shoes off, please” sign for the front door.
Stephanie and Ethan arrive first, still tense from their commute over the Bay Bridge with their daughter Lola. My boys follow Lola into the playroom. Stephanie pulls out a cutting board and helps me slice some bread. Next comes Trevor, a lawyer, who’s wearing a huge smile and his red “I want pasta” shirt. Behind him the crowd pours in: Bahareh and Mamad with little Hana, Daniel and Marielle with their twins, Marco and Emilia. Bryan and Aimee, who I know from back in my restaurant days. And of course Denise and Lenny: Denise with a camera in hand, Lenny with two bottles of wine. David arrives last, just as I’m pouring all five pounds of the cannolicchi into the salted, boiling water. He brings the good wine, so I keep it behind me as I’m cooking to refill my glass.
We feed the kids first, usually penne or cavatappi with butter and cheese (except for Holly and Fernando’s boys, who they somehow trained to eat “adult” food). When the kids finish, we send them off, Popsicles in hand, to watch a movie upstairs.
I give the creamy red pepper sauce a last stir and place the whole pot on the kitchen island next to the aluminum trays of little gem salad. I jump up onto the barstool to get everyone’s attention:
“Hey pasta people! It’s time to eat!” I hear so much laughter in the room it actually pains me to interrupt them. “So tonight, we’re having my childhood favorite: Dad’s famous roasted red pepper sauce with cannolicchi pasta from Rustichella D’Abruzzo. It has roasted garlic, red peppers, butter, and cream. Don’t forget to top it with some of the crispy, spicy prosciutto. The salad tonight is little gems and fresh herbs with ricotta salata and lemon vinaigrette. Grab a plate and enjoy. Cheers everyone!”
As the crowd gathers around the island, I take it all in and begin to relax. All these people: the friends who became family because I get to see them every single week in person, and not just on Facebook or Instagram.
Pasta Friday is the modern-day Sunday Supper. It’s messy, inexpensive, and casual. It’s kid-friendly, easy, and completely doable. Most of all, it’s life-changing.
Randy, a busy tech exec who comes almost every Friday with his family, walks up to me with a heaping plate in front of him. “I love this,” he says. “You gave me the Italian family I’ve always wanted!” ♦
HOW TO START YOUR OWN PASTA FRIDAY
- Setting expectations is the key! Send out a weekly email letting people know how to RSVP, what to bring (and what not to bring), and what time you’d like them to leave.
- Whether you want 50 people or 10, know your limit and cut off the RSVPs when you hit it. You can do this by using an online sign-up sheet or just emailing the group when all the spots are filled.
- Keep it casual. This is not the dinner for your good china or fancy tablecloth. Use compostable plates and forks to make cleanup easier. Or better yet, ask guests to bring their own. And you don’t need seats for everyone. Some guests don’t mind standing and chatting while they’re eating.
- Don’t stress about tidiness. The truth is no one is going to notice if you have some Legos thrown in the corner or a pile of laundry on the bed. But…
- Keep the bathroom clean! Make sure it’s stocked with toilet paper, wipes for babies, and hand towels.
- Spend some time right before the guests arrive cleaning up the kitchen: wash the pots, wipe down countertops. Guests would rather watch (and help) you cook than worry about your untidy kitchen.
- Set a weekly budget and stick to it! If you’re getting close to running over, ask guests to bring things like grated cheese, pasta for the kids, or bread.
- Use an online delivery service if you don’t have time to shop. That way, when you get home from work, your groceries are waiting for you.
- Don’t save the cleanup for the next day. Get people to help out, or just knock it out when everyone leaves. You’ll thank me Saturday morning.
- Get more details on starting your own Pasta Friday at Pastafriday.com, and follow Allison’s meals on the Pasta Friday Instagram: @pastafriday
Dad’s Famous Cannolicchi with Roasted Red Pepper Cream Sauce
My father, Richard Lanzilotta, was the chef of the house. He grew up on Long Island, right next to JFK airport, and learned to cook by watching his mother and grandmothers prepare meals for their big extended family. Every meal he made, even on weeknights, would have courses: the antipasti with anchovies and sausage, the pasta, the salad.
Dad’s red pepper sauce was one of his specialties. Creamy, sweet, and spicy all at the same time, it was everyone’s favorite. Our friends from the block all wanted to eat over when he was cooking it.
I tinker with his recipe a bit whenever I make it, but it never quite comes out like Dad’s. One difference is that I use Rustichella D’Abruzzo’s cannolicchi—a short, twisted tube pasta named after the razor clam, and there wasn’t anything quite like that at our market, so Dad used penne. In fact, any hollow tube that will hold the sauce can work.
Recently, both my parents flew out from New York for a visit. They were here for Pasta Friday, so I was able to show them how I’ve continued the traditions passed down through so many generations of our family.
1 pound cannolicchi
3 pounds red bell peppers, roasted, skins and seeds removed
1 pint heavy cream
1 stick butter
1 head garlic, roasted and squeezed into a bowl
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground Calabrian chili
Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Red pepper flakes
Purée roasted peppers with the heavy cream in a blender, working in batches if necessary.
Melt butter in a large pot (like a Dutch oven) on low heat. Whisk 1 tablespoon of the roasted garlic into the butter. (Use the leftover garlic to spread on some bread!) Add the puréed peppers to the butter and stir. Then add smoked paprika, ground chili, and 1 teaspoon salt.
Let the sauce simmer on low for about 10–15 minutes, stirring occasionally, and tasting for salt level.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and then the pasta. Cook until pasta is slightly harder than al dente, then drain.
Add the pasta into the pot with the sauce, and gently stir. Serve with freshly grated cheese and red chili flakes.
Little Gem Salad with Herbs and Lemon Vinaigrette
1 pound green or red little gems, torn into bite-size pieces
1 bunch mint, stemmed and roughly chopped
1 bunch cilantro, stemmed and roughly chopped
1 bunch parsley, stemmed and roughly chopped
1 avocado, cut into cubes
½ cup roasted, salted sunflower seeds
½ cup ricotta salata, grated
1 clove garlic
½ teaspoon salt
Extra virgin olive oil (about 1 cup)
Zest the lemon into a medium bowl; then juice it into the same bowl. (You should have about ½ cup juice.) With mortar and pestle, smash garlic clove with the salt into a paste; stir into the lemon juice. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until fully combined.
Gently combine all salad ingredients (with tongs or your hands) in a large bowl. Dress the salad just before serving.
Allison Arevalo is an entrepreneur, chef, and cookbook author. When she steps out of the kitchen, you’ll find her running on any trail she can find. Learn more about Pasta Friday and her upcoming businesses at pastafriday.com, and get in touch at pastafriday(at)gmail.com.
Photographer Denise Woodward specializes in food and travel. When not behind the camera, she can be found exploring the outdoors in her van or cooking up new recipes in her home kitchen. Read about her culinary capers in and out of the kitchen at chezus.com and get in touch at dwoodward20(at)gmail.com