STORY and PHOTOS by BRETT LEIGH DICKS
(This is a reprint of May 1, 2014)
THE PASTA SHOPPE
It’s not just customers hovering around the case of freshly made pasta at The Pasta Shoppe who are casting a discerning eye across the multi-colored trays being laid out for display. The eatery’s chef, Brian Dodero, also carefully peruses the daily offerings each morning.
At one end of The Pasta Shoppe is a fresh pasta counter where pasta of all shapes, sizes and color is weighed, packaged and sold at an expeditious rate. At the other end is a sit-down counter that overlooks a bustling kitchen. The very same pasta that customers are taking home to cook also serves as a muse for Mr. Dodero’s constantly changing eat-in menu.
Once he gleans the day’s offering, Mr. Dodero then wanders the market, composing the menu as he ventures from shop to shop.
“Being based here in the market is really inspiring,” he told the News-Press as he recently wound down from a hectic lunch service. “Every morning, all the different vendors are getting their deliveries, so I’m always peering over the counter when the carts go by to see what’s coming in. Everything I need is here under the one roof — meat, seafood, bread, even olive oil. That’s very exciting for me and it’s also very exciting for our customers, too.”
The Pasta Shoppe is owned and operated by Diane Harding. Born and raised in a large Italian family on Long Island, N.Y., she said Italian food has long been a passion of hers. After coming to Santa Barbara in 1995 to study oceanography and marine biology at UCSB, a career turn saw Ms. Harding, 44, enter the restaurant business, opening Madison’s Sports Grill & Tavern in August of that year.
After adding another two locations to the Madison’s roster, the restaurant closed its doors in 2012. Soon after, Ms. Harding submitted a business plan for a pasta shop to Santa Barbara Public Market owner and developer, Marge Cafarelli, and before Ms. Harding knew it, she was auditioning a dish of fresh pasta and sauce for a spot in the market.
“Marge called me the very next day proclaiming it to be the best sauce and pasta she had ever had in her life,” recalled Ms. Harding. “I was very flattered and signed the lease two days later.”
“My goal with The Pasta Shoppe is to offer people a new spin on pasta and to show them how beautiful and tasty it can be. I want to wow them with all the different colors. And I also want to make it my personal goal to dispel the misnomer that pasta is fattening, because it’s really not.”
Pasta and gnocchi are made fresh at The Pasta Shoppe every morning and the variety is truly impressive. This week alone has seen the cases lined with both beet and blue potato gnocchi, spinach capellini, asparagus pappardelle and squid ink tagliatelle, not to mention various standard offerings of unflavored capellini, fettuccine and fusilli.
“The squid ink is a popular traditional Italian pasta that a lot of people are familiar with,” Mr. Dodero said. “But the rest are rustic pastas that people won’t know quite so well.
“They are pastas that are made in Italian villages and came about by people using what they had on hand. When someone had asparagus they wanted to use before it went bad, they would put it in their pasta. These are very traditional pastas, but ones you don’t usually find in stores.”
Prices range from $4 to $6.50 per half pound of the fresh pasta, and $11 to $16 for menu items.
When Ms. Harding set about searching for someone to helm the kitchen at The Pasta Shoppe, she reached out to the executive chef at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, Alessandro Cartumini, who immediately recommended Mr. Dodero.
Prior to spending three years working in the kitchen at The Biltmore, between 2006 and 2007, Mr. Dodero, 31, spent two years in Florence, Italy, training at the Apicius culinary school. He then worked in a succession of Italian restaurants in New York City before coming to Santa Barbara to work with Mr. Cartumini.
One of the facets Mr. Dodero enjoys most about his new position is the opportunity to interact with customers.
“As you can see, the seating here looks straight into the kitchen,” he said. “It’s great to have that interaction with the customers because usually we’re hidden away out in the back of a restaurant, and in those situations when someone has a comment about a dish, it goes through the waitstaff. Here it comes directly to me.”
It is also a great way for the chef to dispel a few other misnomers, like not adding oil to your boiling pasta.
“You should never do that,” Ms. Harding quickly agreed. “Just add a little salt to bring out the flavor.”
The Pasta Shoppe: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m daily; 770-3668 orwww.thepastashoppellc.com
The first thing customers notice about Enjoy Cupcakes when they walk up to the store’s rustically chic stand at the Santa Barbara Public Market is the immaculate presentation of its gourmet cupcakes.
Elegantly displayed on glass pedestals, the cakes have been tenderly shaped and molded into colorful works of art. And just like any artist, their creator, Amber Vander Vliet , draws much of the inspiration for her cakes from her surrounds.
Which is the next thing that comes to the attention of customers.
Having launched the business in April 2009, Mrs. Vander Vliet first started selling her cupcakes at the Saarloos and Sons tasting room in Los Olivos. Santa Ynez Valley’s wine culture was quick to infuse itself into Mrs. Vander Vliet’s creations and, over the years, Enjoy Cupcakes’ ever-changing menu has included Valley-inspired flavors like Citrus Sauvignon Blanc, Cherry Vanilla Merlot, Caramel Pinot and Chocolate Blackberry Syrah.
“The wine element in the cupcakes came from living here in the Valley,” Mrs. Vander Vliet, 36, told the News-Press from Los Olivos. “The wine industry has such an influence on everything up here. And since we started out selling at the tasting room, wine flavors seemed like a natural thing to try. People really loved them, so I kept experimenting and coming up with different flavors.”
Each week, Mrs. Vander Vliet whips up five different flavors to accompany the one constant, her signature Chocolate Blackberry Syrah. The six cupcakes are then imaginatively packaged within a cardboard egg carton and sold as a “flight.” Over the past five years, the flights have featured approximately 580 different flavors.
“At the beginning, we were doing flavors that everybody was used to,” said Kevin Vander Vliet, 43, the creator’s husband who oversees the Santa Barbara Public Market store. “But then we started looking at different ice creams, desserts and cocktails for flavors. After that, we looked at other countries and then our customers started chiming in with ideas.”
As diverse as the flavors are, what unites each of them, and tempts customers back for more, is the burst of creamy filling that lurks inside each one.
“The cupcakes are frosted on top, but the centers are hollowed out and filled with different mousses,” Mr. Vander Vliet said.
This past week has featured flavors like Chocolate Cardamom Mousse, which consists of a chocolate frosting sprinkled with cardamom sugar over a chocolate cake filled with chocolate mousse and laced with cardamom, along with a Cinnamon Dulce de Leche, with vanilla bean frosting and cinnamon dulce de leche sauce sitting on top of a cinnamon sugar cake filled with cinnamon dulce de leche mousse.
Price is $2 each, or $10 for a flight. Embracing the premise of never having enough of a good thing, Enjoy Cupcakes now also sells Mousse Cups, featuring the mousse used to fill the center of the cakes, and uses the cores from the hollowed-out cakes to make Cake Puddings. Price for each starts at $3.
Mrs. Vander Vliet’s baking prowess initially came as something of a surprise to her husband. After graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in business, she spent seven years managing Flavia Co.’s Santa Barbara design studio and eight years working alongside her husband organizing corporate events. Prior to college, though, Mrs. Vander Vliet worked as a pastry chef intern at a five-star hotel in the Bay Area.
“Baking was always my first love,” said Mrs. Vander Vliet, who met her husband about 14 years ago in Santa Barbara and then moved to Ventura. “I don’t think Kevin even knew I could bake until we started the business.”
When the couple relocated from Ventura to Los Olivos at the end of 2008, Mrs. Vander Vliet wanted to start her own business. Inspired by a classic travel trailer she had seen in Kansas selling snow cones, the business she wanted to start was selling cupcakes out of a vintage trailer of her own. She bought a trailer, but shortly thereafter the couple crossed paths with the Saarloos family.
“Before we knew it, we had set up inside their wine tasting lounge and customers started pairing the cupcakes with the wine,” Mr. Vander Vliet said. “We noticed that and that’s how the flight, as it’s called now, was born.”
Since the couple ended up opening a retail space in the tasting room, which they still operate out of, and the baking is done in a commercial kitchen in Buellton, the vintage trailer now sits on the Saarloos and Sons property and is used when catering weddings and other special events.
“Catering is a big part of what we do,” Mr. Vander Vliet said. “We did 178 weddings in Santa Barbara County last year and because the new shop is right in the middle of downtown Santa Barbara, it is very convenient for people to stop by and pick up orders for weddings, birthdays, company parties and corporate events and things like that. People can call in orders and collect them from the shop.”
Enjoy Cupcakes: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; 451-0284 or www.enjoycupcakes.com
IL FUSTINO OILS & VINEGARS
There is no mistaking Il Fustino Oils & Vinegars’ brand-new retail outlet in the Santa Barbara Public Market. Rows of gleaming stainless steel tanks are filled with a variety of California-grown-and-milled olive oil; herb-, fruit- and mushroom-infused flavored oils; and a selection of traditional and balsamic vinegars.
“In Italian, a fustino is a specialized, stainless steel container used to dispense oils, vinegars and wines,” explained Jim Kirkley, who owns and operates the business with his wife, Laura. “Il Fustino literally means ‘the tank,’ which is where the name of the store comes from.”
Impressive as the array of sparkling tanks is, what is found inside is even more so. On tap is a variety of different olive oils and vinegars for which Mr. Kirkley is quick to hand out tasting cups. Once a customer strikes upon an oil or vinegar that perks interest, the selection is bottled directly from the vat and then capped and sealed for purchase.
There is an Old World charm to the concept. In many Mediterranean countries, purveyors of oils and vinegars have sampled and bottled directly from bulk containers for centuries.
“Selecting the right olive oil or vinegar is a very personal and sensory thing,” Mr. Kirkley said. “So we want people to taste the oils and vinegars directly from the tank. There’s a whole new world of freshness and flavor out there and we want to help people discover that.”
The market is the second Il Fustino location; the first opened on upper State Street in 2009.
“Prior to opening that store, we knew nothing about retail or olive oil except that my wife and I were enthusiastic amateur cooks,” Mr. Kirkley said. “We were always interested in food, and we traveled a lot and ran into the concept of an oilery in Europe where they serve and bottle oil from these fustis.”
The Kirkleys source their olive oils from throughout California. Il Fustino’s extra-virgin, cold-pressed oils are produced solely by mechanical means without the use of any solvents, under temperatures that will not degrade the oil, and are ultimately free from additives.
“There are three characteristics that are very important in olive oil,” Mr. Kirkley explained as he drizzled oil from one of the vats onto a plate. “Aroma is the first … There is also bitterness, which is felt on the tongue, and finally pungency, which is a tingling sensation felt at the back of the throat.
“The bitterness and pungency indicate the presence of all the good stuff like antioxidants, and even though they might be a little unpleasant when tasting an oil, they are considered very positive characteristics because they mean the olive oil is very fresh.”
Color also plays a role. A green tinge to the oil indicates the olives were picked earlier in the ripening cycle, while a yellow hue means they were picked later to yield a sweeter flavor. The type of olive also influences the flavor. Some varietals produce a strong flavor while others are mild and mellow, and there is everything in between.
The flavored olive oils are made by crushing the fruit or herbs right along with the olives, a process that produces natural and intense flavors. From the delicate taste of fresh herbs, truffle and citrus to the more robust flavors of garlic and jalapeño, they offer a range of sensations.
“The flavored olive oils have become very popular,” Mr. Kirkley said. “People love the basil olive oil, garlic olive oil and jalapeño olive oil. In fact, the basil olive oil is our best-selling oil.”
Il Fustino also carries seasonal California vinegars made from the juice of ripe aromatic fruits, and balsamic vinegars made using the aged must or pulp of crushed grapes. The vinegars make the perfect pairing with olive oil for salads or dipping some fresh crusty bread.
Price for 12.7-ounce bottles of the olive oil are about $18 to $20, while the same size vinegar bottles go for about $20 to $28.
Mr. Kirkley said he loves seeing customers’ reactions when they are introduced to the flavor possibilities of olive oil.
“It’s really fun to see people try the plain olive oils and be able to differentiate one oil to the next and see how much variation there actually is,” he said.
“People haven’t really had the opportunity to do that and it is quite surprising to them that there is that much difference.”