Sitting on 75th Street and New Utrecht Avenue there is a store, Pastosa, that looks like a relic of the old Bensonhurst, when Italians dominated the neighborhood. But everything about this business bucks assumptions and trends. While the neighborhood’s Italian clientele has been diminished by demographic changes, their operations have expanded to a national level.
“What started as a real local corner store where the local Italians can get a traditional meal has evolved,” one of Pastosa’s owners, Joseph Ajello, said.
Not long ago, businesses like Pastosa, which sells anything and everything Italian from ravioli to mozzarella, catered to local Italians in Bensonhurst. But as the demographics of the neighborhood have changed over the years, Pastosa’s owners have had to find new sources of income as well as appealing to a new wave of diverse Bensonhurst residents. According to data from the American Community Survey from 2012, Asians accounted for 38 percent of the population in Bensonhurst – now the largest ethnic block in the neighborhood, supplanting Italian immigrants.
This flagship store produces all the dough necessary to make the 25 to 30 different ravioli varieties and the 50 different kinds of pasta the company cooks up. Once the dough has been fully mixed, a worker will cut a handful of it and put it into the mouth of Italian-made machines bearing the names Toresani and Italpast. The machine also has another mouth where the cheese filling necessary for ravioli is added. The ricotta cheese filling is one of the few ingredients that aren’t made on site. But it still goes through a rigorous process to meet Pastosa’s requirements.
“It’s made by an expert, old world cheese making company that manufactures this product by our specifications on a daily basis,” Ajello said. He didn’t want to share the name of the cheese manufacturer.
Once the cheese and dough go into two separate mouths, the machine intertwines the two and out comes a tray of ravioli. Once it has been dried enough, workers then put it into boxes.
A box of Ravioli’s final destination is a wild card. It can be kept in the flagship store, shipped off to one of the eight other locations or delivered to an independent buyer like DiCarlo, a food service distributor based in eastern Long Island. There was also a shipment being prepared that day for a restaurant in Hudson, Florida. That’s just one of several states the company regularly ships to.
Pastosa is quietly helping lead a borough trend that sees manufacturing revived, and turns the city’s largest borough into a global supplier of goods.
In a period where the rest of New York City – and much of the nation – has lost many manufacturing jobs, Brooklyn has actually added manufacturing jobs. According to the Center for an Urban Future, a NYC- based think-tank, manufacturing jobs in Brooklyn between 2010-2012 are up 0.2 percent. Which led them to ask, “Is Brooklyn in a new age of entrepreneurial manufacturing?” These numbers are often credited to Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, where entrepreneurs, according to the New York Times, are doing things like making “coffee tables with magnetized cubes, an artist was boxing up woodcuts that, when held to the ear, sounded like a forest.”
But in Southern Brooklyn Ajello is keeping it simple: make delicious food, and building on its artisanal legacy.
Ajello’s grandfather first opened Pastosa in 1967 on East 53rd Street and Avenue N. They moved to the 7425 New Utrecht Avenue location soon after, in 1971. Since then, the business has grown to include nine locations and an online shop where businesses across the state can order Pastosa’s products.
From the front of the store, the place looks deceptively small. But Ajello allowed Bensonhurst Bean to take a look in the back, revealing a labyrinth of pasta machines with more than 30 workers producing enough Italian food – mainly pasta – to feed a small Italian army. The effect is something like an old world version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
“We’ve got a little manufacturing center in the back and then the retail store in the front,” Ajello said.
But while it may now be an industrial hub, it’s also very much still a neighborhood store.
The day’s responsibilities kept Ajello constantly active, running to the back to monitor a shipment preparation and then scurrying back to answer a phone call. But throughout it all he would stop every few minutes to go to the front, where the tempo slows down and customers stroll through the aisles, looking for ingredients. There, Ajello would chat with customers and serve them smoked mozzarella – which is also made on-site – or ask them about their day.
This personal touch is part of the reason Ajello chose to make Pastosa a licensed company and not just a franchise that hands out the name of their company to anyone with enough money.
“This [retail]is where we started so I don’t mind stopping everything to help people in the front,” Ajello said.