In downtown Dartmouth, Maria’s Pasta Bar & Pantry is focused on handmade everything, from dough to filling to sauce. “We make everything we serve,” says Michael Dolente, chef and owner of the restaurant.
Dolente, whose family moved to Canada from Italy in 1960, says his business is influenced and dedicated to his late Nonna Maria. “I grew up with Italian food and her cooking my whole life.”
He says it was his grandmother who taught him how to make pasta. “She showed me how to, at a very young age, we would always make it together.”
Dolente’s business started with selling tomato-based pesto at the Halifax Forum Farmers' Market. Two weeks ago, he expanded to the restaurant space in downtown Dartmouth (17 Prince Street).
The menu's handmade pasta includes egg-based options as well as some made from just semolina wheat, catering for vegan and vegetarian needs. Dolente and his two team members currently produce a range of shapes, including mafaldini (frilly ribbons), tortiglioni (textured tubes), farfalle (bowties), and fettuccine and linguine (flat, skinny noodles). They also make lasagna, and filled pasta like ravioli.
The chef says his favourite type of pasta to make is capellini, which is somewhere in thickness between spaghetti and angel hair. “I like the loose, fine texture.”
Dolente says the beauty of his business is that people who come in for lunch can also buy some food items to take home, and make for themselves later. “So there’s like a retail aspect to it,” he says.
Apart from pasta, Maria’s also produces flavoured oil, vinegar, chicken stock and tomato sauce. These are sold a few local shops and Maria's online store.
Although the pasta is handmade, Dolente says the cost of equipment is one of the biggest challenges he’s faced as a business owner. “I don’t think anybody in the city is doing everything by hand,” he says.
He also says maintaining a consistent temperature in the kitchen is key. “We work on some techniques to really develop the texture of the pasta, and our drying techniques as well.”
Dolente says all these things makes their pasta unique. “It takes a lot of practicing to get everything right.”
Because his ingredients have a short shelf life, Dolente makes pasta on an as-needed basis. “You have to determine your business needs and prep small batches frequently,” he says.
Maria's opens at 11am Wednesday through Saturday, serving lunch until 1pm, and selling supplies for taking home to 6pm.