On a quiet residential block in Harrisburg’s Olde Uptown neighborhood, there is a restored corner townhouse with a sign advertising Alvaro Bread & Pastry Shoppe.
What many savvy Harrisburgers have learned is that, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, Alvaro’s is transformed into a tiny Italian trattoria. Their wonderful Italian bread is still there, along with cookies, cakes and gelato. But the emphasis is on pasta, especially filled pastas like ravioli with mushrooms, spinach or lobster. The atmosphere is lively with conversation and laughter. Bottles of “bring your own wine” abound on the dining tables. And, often, customers are lined up outside waiting for a table in the small space.
Alvaro’s is a family business in the truest sense of the word. Sal and Lena, the elder Alvaros from Calabria, Italy, began the business as a neighborhood bakery in 2005. They began serving lunch in 2009 and dinner in 2011. Sal was always the bread-maker and Lena the pasta, sauce and meatball chef. But, today, the Alvaro children are hands-on participants in this labor of love. Everyone cooks!
The Alvaro children, Vincent, Valentina and Domenico, are all skilled at making the wonderful food that makes this little restaurant unique. They say they have watched their parents over many years, knowing, almost with an extra sense, when a sauce or pasta is just right. Vincent has taken over a lot of the bread making, too, a task that requires being “on duty” very early in the morning.
On a cool and lovely early April day, the Alvaros were kind enough to welcome me and Megan Caruso, creative director for TheBurg, into their warm and inviting kitchen. We had requested a look into their pasta making and got something a little unexpected.
Alvaro’s is currently trying something different—rustic, whole-wheat pasta that is shaped by hand. With a number of people today tending to limit their intake of white flour and, in some cases, eggs (almost always found in “fresh” pastas), this pasta is made with an equal mix of high gluten pasta flour and whole-wheat flour. I was skeptical. How could there be no egg?
Lena showed us a large pasta bowl (from Italy, of course) with two cups each of white flour and whole-wheat flour. She added (very slowly) one cup of water, poured into a little well in the center of the flour. Using her hands, she created smooth, elastic dough that was definitely whole wheat in appearance. She advised us that “hands work best” and that “goes for meatballs, too!” We touched the smooth mound of dough that was perfect—just the right proportion of ingredients to keep it from being sticky.
Lena and daughter Valentina separated the dough into small pieces and then shaped each into a rope about 10 inches long. This was a rustic version of pasta known as bucatini. They cooked it for us in a pot of boiling, salted water until it was “al dente” (firm to the bite) and then covered it with their piping hot marinara sauce. It was delicious and unlike any pasta I had tasted before.
Lena gave us each a portion of dough to take home with us and showed us how to roll it and cut it into flat shapes and wide strips with a sharp pizza cutter.
The Alvaro family will still make fettucine, spaghetti, filled ravioli, pork and veal osso bucco, arugula salad and my favorite, stacked eggplant. They are testing the waters with their new, rustic, whole-wheat pasta and will see how it goes.
Our cozy afternoon in the Alvaro kitchen drifted into a lively discussion of how many eggs should go into meatballs, what is the best meat to cook with spaghetti sauce and whether olive oil should be added to the boiling pasta water. All we needed was a bottle of pinot grigio!
The rays of the late afternoon spring sun shone on the little bakery and restaurant. Sal, Lena, Vincent, Valentina and Domenico Alvaro stood on the small front stoop, their arms around each other, and posed for final pictures. The stacked tables outside promised al fresco dinners on warm summer nights. I hoped I would be there for my favorite ravioli and eggplant.
But, mostly, I was thinking about how special this family is, how very hard they work, what being Italian means, and how their endeavors are one of the many things that make our little city special.