Until John Pauley traveled to Bologna, Italy a few years ago, he thought he knew how to make good pasta. A chef for more than 20 years who has worked in four-star restaurants in both San Francisco and Kansas City, all it took was one visit to make John feel like he actually knew nothing about pasta making.
“I thought I’d learned how to make pasta until I lived in Bologna and then I found out that what I’d learned was basically worthless,” he said.
But long before he discovered he had a love of pasta making, food had been in his blood. Having grown up on a farm in Kansas, John was exposed to everything from the Hereford cattle and wheat his family raised to his grandmother’s garden, which John describes as being “as big as a city block” and full of everything from green beans to strawberries, corn and potatoes. And, as is common on farms, his grandmother did a lot of cooking and canning and would serve up huge spreads for everyone when they came back to the house from working the farm.
“I kind of attribute that to how food really got inside of me,” he said.
According to John, school was not something he was ever very into, so an academic path was not going to be for him. After attending college at Kansas State for one year, he started working in restaurants and worked his way up to the one, four-star restaurant in Kansas City called The American. After four years, he was ready to move on.
“I always knew as a kid—I didn’t know where I was going to go or what I was going to do or how I was going to get there—but I wasn’t going to stay there,” he said.
Based on their food cultures, John was most interested in moving to either New Orleans or San Francisco despite never having been to either place. Then Bradley Ogden (of Lark Creek Inn and One Market fame), who had also worked at The American, came back to celebrate the restaurant’s 25th anniversary. So John asked to work next to him in the kitchen. As it turns out, they worked well together, so when John sent his resume to some restaurants in San Francisco, he got a call from one of Bradley’s chefs who said Bradley had given John a recommendation, so if he wanted a job, it was his. John had planned to give himself 10 days to find a job and a place to live when he came out to San Francisco, and luckily he’d already gotten hired before he’d even left Kansas.
“That was pretty naïve to think that I could find a job and a place to live in 10 days. Luckily I didn’t know what I was doing or I probably wouldn’t have done it,” he said.
John started his career as a chef in San Francisco at the Lark Creek Inn and eventually made his way to La Folie, where he worked for nine and a half years.
After leaving La Folie, John and his wife and partner, Anna Li, took their fateful trip to Bologna. The two travel to Italy every year, and that year it happened to be “Bologna’s turn,” John said. An avid researcher, Anna had found a pasta school called La Vecchia Scuola that offered one-day pasta making programs, so she signed them up to do the program on their trip.
Once they took the course, John discovered that making handmade pasta—at least the way that it’s done in Bologna—was actually quite difficult. As someone who had always been able to watch others make a dish and then recreate it, he said he wasn’t used to the kind of culinary test that making handmade pasta posed. Feeling both challenged and intrigued, John immediately began thinking about taking the time to come back to Italy to really learn how to make pasta. And Anna was all for it. He said she thought “it would be good for [him].” That night, they decided that he would come back to Italy to learn to make pasta.
Originally John had planned on taking a three-month course offered by the pasta school, but a few days later they were introduced to Franco and Grazia Macchiavelli, the pasta makers at Bologna’s Salumeria Bruno e Franco while on a tour of the city. Franco invited John to come apprentice at his shop and two months later, he found himself back in Bologna learning to roll dough by hand.
“I was 38, used to being the chef de cuisine at a four-start restaurant in San Francisco, in a foreign country starting something completely new,” he said.
Not only that, but in Italy much of the pasta is actually made by women, John says. But they immediately made him feel at home. “They were just as intrigued with me, as I was with them, I felt,” he said. “For a man to come all the way from San Francisco to learn what they know how to do…they’re actually now part of our family.”
According to John, what sets pasta made in Bologna apart is that the people of Bologna have very high expectations for how their pasta should be made—which, more often than not, means handmade pasta, not anything made by machine. He also says that the eggs in that region are “pretty special,” with yolks that are nearly crimson in color not yellow. As such, the pasta itself is a “beautiful golden color.”
“Once you get used to this beautiful yellow color this white anemic pasta that everyone else makes is just unacceptable,” he says.
Making pasta by hand can be a long, monotonous and repetitive process, John says. After rolling out the dough, it’s typically dried between pieces of linen overnight, then cut on a piece of plywood the next day. Because tortellini is a Bologna specialty, they would spend the first two hours of most days making just tortellini. The only machine used in the process was used to make the dough.
When hand-making pasta, all dough is rolled out using a mattarello, which is a long, thin rolling pin approximately 2 ½ feet long. One of the reasons the tool works so well for rolling out pasta dough is that the older the rolling pin, the more coarse the grain of the wood becomes, allowing it to catch the dough more easily. John says his mattarello is his most prized possession. The Matarello company logo is modeled after Bologna’s two famous towers, but represented using two mattarelli in the configuration of the towers.
For his own pasta, John continues to handroll some varieties, but uses a machine to roll out some of the others. He does, however, continue to cut all of his pasta by hand, much of which is cut using a Japanese soba knife (used to cut soba noodles). He also wraps his pasta sheets in linen and refrigerates them overnight (as they do in Bologna) to get it to the right consistency before cutting it. He prefers to hand cut because he feels it has a more rustic quality.
“Even if I can make it look perfect, I go out of my way not to. I cut it because that’s the way we did it in Bologna. I feel like I get more intimate with my pasta by hand cutting it, and it looks too perfect if you put it through a cutter. I go out of my way not to make my pasta look perfect because if you’re going to go to all that trouble that I do, I want to make sure people know it’s a lot more hands on than most people’s,” he said.
After returning from Bologna, the original plan was for John to use his newfound pasta making skills to open a pasta shop in North Beach with a partner he knew from the industry. But the job opportunity he thought was in the works never materialized. When that didn’t happen, he and Anna decided to start something on their own instead. First they started selling at a few farmer’s markets in places like Marin and Burlingame. Then John decided that doing pop-ups might be a good idea. Through friends who own different specialty shops, he was able to arrange for regular pop-up space at places throughout the city, including the Gourmet and More in Hayes Valley and Biondivino, a wine shop in Russian Hill.
“The pop-ups became so much more satisfying than the farmer’s markets, so we stopped doing the farmer’s markets entirely…now our following is enough that we’ll bring 30, 40, 50 people to their shops on a Saturday afternoon in a short amount of time, so it’s becoming mutual for both of us,” John said.
In addition to the pop-ups and special orders, John is also doing occasional catering for private parties and sometimes teaches private pasta making lessons in people’s homes for for small groups.
“Our goal was to do that and work on our following until we actually had a big enough following to justify opening our own shop. We know where we are, we know where the forks in the road lead to, what we don’t really know exactly what forks we want to take. Things are going well for us now,” he said.
According to John it’s the little things that set Mattarello pasta apart from other fresh pastas.
“Nobody really does the small things that we do—putting it in linens, even passing it through a machine, some sheets of dough need seven or eight passes, some of them need ten or eleven passes. The dough is done being passed through when it’s done and when the texture’s right. There’s more hands-on going on with the pasta—mainly the eggs and the hands on going on with the pasta. It’s great to have big production, but you have to make some shortcuts,” he said.
For instance, John travels to Sonoma to get his eggs because they are similar in freshness and weight to those used in Bologna. He also uses a flour that doesn’t oxidize so it gives the pasta a silky smooth texture, he says. Although he says he may try using an Italian flour from a specialty product distributor he knows, that actually would go against the Italian philosophy of food, which is very locally oriented.
“The Italian philosophy really is local, so the Italian approach to a salumeria would be getting local charcuterie from Iowa as opposed to Parma,” he said.
John says he typically offers a base of between 8-11 products at most pop-ups including a variety that ranges from four types of tagliatelle and papardelle (egg in the summer, sage in the fall/winter) to a Bolognese-style tortellini (mortadella, fresh pork shoulder, breadcrumbs, parmesan, egg and nutmeg), squid ink spaghetti, lasagna or ricotta cavatelli. He’s even made a lobster tagliatelle that turns from blue to red when cooked, just as lobsters do. He also makes and serves his own tomato sauce and usually makes a lasagna, such as spinach and tomato or asparagus gruyere, for the pop-ups as well.
Having been in the food industry for a long time and having gone from a prominent chef position to starting his own business has taken some getting used to, but the change of lifestyle has ultimately been worth it, John says.
“I used to measure my goals and what my success should be by the success of my friends. When you’re around people who have followings of thousands of people and trophies for second place or are selling at the Ferry Building like crazy and you compare yourself to that, or to cooks that you’ve worked with in the past that are becoming kind of big, that kind of drove me crazy until I realized I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs, so why should I be jealous of that? Finally, I came to the point where I feel like I have a really good, loyal customer base and I’m taking care of those people, and it keeps me busy,” he said.
What drew you to food?
Pretty much growing up on the farm. Growing up on the farm, sadly, I was too young to appreciate what I was exposed to—all the fresh vegetables. Everyone in our family had a deep freezer. Once a year, my grandfather would take two steers and have them broken down into four sides of beef. Once a year, a friend of the family’s had a complete butcher shop in his basement—the grinders, the saws, the big wooden tables—so we would all get together and break down the four sides of beef into ground meat, steaks, all that kind of stuff. And I was too young to appreciate it because if I were a little older, I would have been right there helping. So we had that, and twice a year my grandparents had chickens, so we would get together and do chickens and that was another family affair. So I was around all kinds of fresh food as a kid, and it was kind of funny because as a kid, I never had a TV dinner or frozen food. When I was a little older, we grew up in the middle of nowhere, and until I had a car, I was stuck, unless I wanted to walk five miles to my friends’ house on dirt roads in the summer heat, so I was usually stuck in the house and I would just play in my mom’s pantry. That’s what I would do for fun, was make stuff up. Then going to college for a year and not really getting into it, that’s when I started cooking for real.
When I started [cooking] it pretty much seemed like everyone needed to go to France, at one point in your career, you need to go to France. But now there’s Spanish cuisine, Italian cuisine, Japanese cuisine—people have some sort of area they want to go to. Me, for some reason, I always felt like Italy was that place that was calling to me somehow. Then when we finally went there, it was like ‘I get it now.’
I’d worked in restaurants for a long time, I’d always enjoyed making pasta, I thought I was good at it, until I went to Bologna for the first time and I had great pasta. That kind of did it for me, like ‘I really want to learn more about this.’ But there was always something about pasta. My mom made homemade noodles when I was a kid, I always liked them. For some reason, pasta, I always loved making, and, like I said, I thought I knew how to make it but until I lived in Bologna and then I realized I didn’t know anything about it.
And also, I think Americans—a lot of people in general—until you have great pasta, and I’m not saying my pasta’s great, but until you have great pasta, you don’t know it exists. I used to be happy with the fresh pastas at the grocery stores. I kind of use the analogy of, imagine everyone drives a Ford Taurus and all you see is a Ford Taurus and then all of a sudden someone pulls up in a Ferrari, and you’re like ‘I’ve never seen one of those, what’s that about?’ So some of our friends joined us in Bologna one year and we took them to some of our places and that was the first time they’d been exposed to great pasta. And not everywhere in Italy has great pasta. And not everywhere in Emilia Romagna has great pasta. That’s another misconception – everyone thinks that everywhere you go in Italy, there’s great pasta, there’s a lot of bad pasta there, too.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
In a very short sentence, I would say our travels.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in starting your business? What advice would you have for others?
I used to measure my goals and my success on what I see other people do and from time to time I’ll ask my friends who’ve been there, done that, advice, but I’ve pretty much learned over these years that I’m happy with what I’m doing and that’s a kind of success on it’s own. Once I stopped measuring my goals or my success with my friends’ goals and success, I got over it. That’s pretty much it. Measuring success by what makes you happy is what you should be concentrating on. That’s been the biggest thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years, and I don’t even give myself enough credit sometimes for all the things that I have.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
Deciding where we eventually want to go with this because I do kind of struggle with that a little bit. That’s what it is—deciding what I ultimately want to do with this. If I were older I could just be happy just cooking for Anna and friends and not do the business and music lessons, but I feel like I have a lot in me to offer people, and I want to give as much of what I have to offer as I can.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I love it. I think that’s what’s really good about what I do. I think that’s why our customers like what we do… I do it because I want to not because I have to. I think that when you’re cooking and you’re eating something that someone made because they want to, not because they have to, that’s the best meal.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
We have that asked from time to time, and, again, I make what I make just because I want to make it, and if I get tired of making it—like making spaghetti—I was in love with making it for months, then I got tired of it so I stopped making it. People ask us that, and I say, they’re all our children so it’s kind of hard to pick one thing. But I would say that one of our most unique things that we make are the tortellini because of the way they’re made. If you go to other places you see a machine spitting these things out, but that’s one of the most unique things we make. And that’s been one of the biggest challenges coming from Bologna to the United States is trying to make the same level of quality—we don’t have the same eggs, the mortadella, the prosciutto, the parmesan cheese, so that’s one of the biggest challenges is making the same level of quality that I learned. But I would say that after making our tortellini for two years, it’s pretty damn close.
One of the biggest compliments I got was one year—at the salumeria [in Bologna], the people who owned it were Franco and Grazia Machiavelli. Grazia, they follow us on our social media, and she told me—and it was a compliment I couldn’t accept—she said that my pasta was more beautiful than hers. I was like, oh, no I can’t accept that answer—I’m flattered but I can’t accept that.
What other local food artisans do you admire and why?
Michelle [Polzine] at 20th Century Café. I met her because I did a pop up across the street. I came in to get a cup of coffee, and she was just new and I asked if she’d met her neighbors across the street. I said, I want to make sure you do because they’re really special people, they have a beautiful shop, I sell pasta there from time to time. And she goes, ‘Are you the pasta guy?’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ and she said, ‘A lot of people have come in and talked about you, some guy selling pasta in the back.’ From then we’ve gotten familiar with each other, and we’ve known each other for almost a year, we’ve graduated to having each other’s cell phones a few months ago, but I really admire her and everything she does here, you can tell there’s love and care going in. It’s kind of cheesy, but on our list of ingredients I put ‘love’ as the last ingredient because there’s so much care that goes into it, and I really admire her because of all the products she does here, you can just tell and she’s enthusiastic about what’s she’s doing.
Josianne and Laurent [of Gourmet and More]. Even as a wholesaler, he loves these ingredients. He was a wholesale rep back in the day, and he supplied us some of our big ingredients over at La Folie, so I knew him back in those days, and now he has his own company called Gourmet and More and he’s supplying places now like La Folie and places like that. But to hear him talk about his products, you’d think he made them himself. That’s how excited he gets about his cheeses and products in there.
And not just because you talked to Dandelion before, but those guys—I’m not big on chocolate—but their chocolate kind of changes your mind. Anna put it really well, she said, it’s like having a glass of wine and a cigar, the complexities of some of their chocolates.
And I definitely have to put a word in for my friends at Three Babes, they make pies. There used to be three of them, and now there’s only two babes. They are one of those people where I drove myself crazy measuring my successes based on their successes. They started off as a pop up, they were selling out of a shipping container over by Stable Café—they sell through Good Eggs, they do all kinds of things. Lenore and Anna – they work so hard, and they got into Gourmet or Bon Appetit for Thanksgiving, before they even started production, all on her marketing ability and they make amazing pies. They currently sell at the Ferry Building every Saturday but again with their mailing business and Good Eggs and that kind of stuff, it’s amazing how hard those two girls work. Then Wise Sons Jewish Deli—that’s another [business] I measure my success on. Those guys they work so hard.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
You know when you see travel shows or movies where they’re in Tuscany or Provence and it’s somewhere with the lavish table with the wine flowing and amazing people and amazing food? I got to experience that in Bologna several times. I don’t know what my last meal would be exactly, but it would be with my Italian friends, somewhere, with the Lambrusco and the Sangiovese and the Grappa and the prosciutto and pasta. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to one of those meals and I was like, ‘Am I really doing this? Is this happening to me?’
Favorite Bay Area resto/food/chef?
No brainer. My favorite chef in the entire Bay Area is Stuart [Brioza] over at State Bird Provisions. I think his food is real, it’s innovative. A lot of our cooks when they left La Folie went to work for him at Rubicon. To explain an example of how amazing Stuart’s food is—growing up in Kansas, it’s meat and potatoes. One of my nieces came to visit me—18 years old, never been exposed to food like Stuart’s—and she said the flavors are very bright. For a young girl from Kansas to get that says a lot about Stuart’s abilities. Oddly enough, that was an easy question for me to answer.
Mattarello’s next pop-up will be on Saturday, July 19 from 1-4 pm at Gourmet and More, 141 Gough St., in Hayes Valley, San Francisco.
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Photos and video courtesy of John Pauley, Mattarello.