True pasta fans know that when it comes to taste and quality, nothing is better than the fresh, handmade variety. Since 2009, Lexington Pasta owner Lesme Romero has been delivering delicious fresh pastas to Lexington’s restaurants, groceries and farmer’s markets. Last year, Romero teamed up with Chef Jake Gaunce to open Pasta Garage Italian Café on Delaware Avenue.
While the location is slightly hidden away, it is absolutely worth it to experience the exciting flavors and textures of each carefully crafted dish. If classic spaghetti and marinara is your thing, you’ll find it here. But you’ll also find bruschetta with local heirloom tomatoes, olive oil and a drizzle of 18 year old balsamic vinaigrette, stuffed gnocchi, fried lasagna, savory smoked gouda & prosciutto mac & cheese, and spinach fettuccine with pancetta, fresh veggies, and sage butter.
According to Romero, a time-honored process and top quality ingredients are they keys to their fabulous product. “Lexington Pasta supplies fresh pasta to many fine restaurants in Lexington and surrounding cities,” he explained. “We import a special flour from Italy and take great care with the other ingredients; to strike just the right balance.”
Originally from Venezuela, Romero came to the United States in 1998 to attend West Center University in Cleveland, Ohio. There, he met another young man from Venezuela, and the two became roommates. They rented a house in Cleveland’s Little Italy, and began working at a local Italian restaurant, where they learned the art of making fresh pasta. Romero immediately noticed the restaurant’s huge demand. “The place was always packed with lines out the door at dinner time, even in the winter. I realized that their secret was the fresh pasta. It was homemade, infused with natural flavors, and never used after seven days. It was the only place in the area that was making pasta from scratch,” he remembers.
After graduation, Romero worked in the finance industry for several years, but cooking remained one of his biggest passions. Then the economic recession of 2008 led him to reevaluate his career and priorities. He decided to reconnect with his old college roommate. “I called him up and said, ‘Let’s get together and make pasta like the old days’”. His former roommate was living in Lexington, and introduced Romero to the Lexington Farmer’s Market and other local attractions. Later that night, over plates of their handmade pasta and a bottle of wine, the idea for Lexington Pasta was born.
The company was founded in 2009 in a one-car garage on North Limestone Avenue. Unlike many new businesses, success seemed to come overnight. The pair made their first batch of pasta for the Lexington Farmer’s Market. Romero recalls, “At that time, we only had a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, a rolling pin, and a pasta cutter. We worked all night making forty pounds of fresh pasta. They next day, we sold out in two hours.”
Soon thereafter, they purchased a commercial pasta machine and began expanding their business to restaurant and grocery distribution. Their very first client was Bellini’s, and from there, they continued to acquire accounts and build their reputation. Today, Lexington Pasta is sold at the Lexington Farmer’s Market, Kroger, Whole Foods Market, Good Foods Co-Op, Liquor Barn, and Pasta Garage Italian Café. Customers can purchase frozen pasta to boil at their convenience, or place a custom order online and have fresh pasta delivered the next day. The Lexington Pasta tent can be found at special events around town, such as the Night Market, Thursday Night Live, and Taste of the Bluegrass.
Romero said that the idea to open a restaurant came from conversations with customers at the Farmer’s Market. He was often asked if he knew of any high-quality Italian restaurants in Lexington that were also quick and casual. Seeing that no restaurant fit the bill, he decided to open his own. Through a Kickstarter campaign, Pasta Garage raised $26,000 in just one month. “The community helped us so much,” Romero said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
Lexington native Jake Gaunce first met Romero in 2010 through their mutual friend Jeremy Ashby (of AZUR), and repeatedly ran into Romero while he was delivering his fresh pasta around town. The two developed a rapport, and as it happened, in 2012 Romero found himself in need of an executive chef and business partner for his new restaurant. He called on Gaunce, and the two set to work developing the concept. “It really worked out perfectly, because Lesme is all about the pasta, and I’m a saucier at heart.”
Gaunce has always worked in the food industry in one way or another. Like many chefs, he started his career in the fast food industry, and later managed a full-service casual restaurant chain. Eventually he moved on to local, fine dining establishments like Rossi’s, Murray’s, and Nick Ryan’s. “I quickly fell in love with sautéing and more upscale cuisine,” he said.
Romero and Gaunce developed the menu for Pasta Garage, as well as the unique self-service concept. Customers are welcome to order dishes directly off the menu, or instead they can create customized pasta bowls by selecting type of pasta, toppings of meat or veggies and house-made sauce. The dishes are prepared to order in an exhibition-style kitchen. While the menu changes frequently as seasonal ingredients become available, customer favorites like linguini, fettuccini, and surprisingly, their number one seller – a gluten free fusilli made from rice, potato, and tapioca flours that Romero spent a year developing – will always be offered.
While it was not invented in this country, pasta is one of America’s top comfort foods, and Romero, Gaunce, and their team have elevated this humble pantry staple to something truly remarkable. If you’re a fan of savory Italian comfort food, warm service, and fresh, convenient meals, Pasta Garage Italian Café does not disappoint.
Q&A with Lesme Romero & Jake Gaunce
How long does it take to make pasta?
It takes about an hour to make about 1 pound or four servings of pasta. This is for a home cook with a standard machine. Since we use a commercial machine, we are able to make about 2,000 pounds a week to satisfy all of our orders.
Any tips for at-home pasta makers?
All you need to make pasta at home is a Kitchen Aid stand mixer with a pasta attachment. You mix the dough, pass it through the rollers, and once you have the right thickness, you pass it though the pasta cutter. It’s important to use 100% semolina flour, which you can buy at specialty markets or at Lexington Pasta.
Do you need different attachments for different shapes of pasta?
Yes, but they’re mostly easy to find online or at cooking stores.
What is your favorite pasta shape and sauce?
It changes every week. I eat a lot of pasta! But my favorite shape right now is our custom-made Kentucky shaped pasta. I like to pair it with marinara and a little parmesan cheese.
What trends in the pasta world are you most excited about?
I recently went to Italy for a pasta conference, and learned about stuffed gnocchi. We are the one of very few restaurants in the United States to offer this dish. We have a tomato, basil and mozzarella version as well as spinach and parmesan. Our customers call them “little pillows of goodness”.
What sauces do your customers love?
Our Alfredo Diablo, which is infused with Sriracha, our pesto, and our vodka sauce are probably the top three.
What was the last thing cooked for yourself at home?
I made Andouille sausage pigs in a blanket and a big pot of chili.
Do you have kids?
I have two daughters, ages 13 and 11.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
If I wasn’t working at Pasta Garage, I’d like to be a head pro at a golf club.
What is your favorite style of cooking?
I’m really interested in fusion cooking and composed dishes. Sweet and savory.
Can you give us an example?
One of my signature dishes from Nick Ryan’s was Bourbon citrus brined pork chop over smoked gouda Andouille cheese grits with rosemary honey butter and granny smith apple and cranberry chutney.
What is your favorite cut of meat and way to prepare it?
An end cut of prime rib off the fat end (and only the fat end!), coated in salt, pepper and garlic and slow roasted.
Parmesan Crusted Chicken Breast
2 cups fine panko crumbs
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 thinly sliced boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
4 ounces fresh mozzarella
2 cups marinara sauce
All purpose flour for dusting
Preheat oven to 450 degrees
Lightly dust chicken breast in flour, dip in egg mixture and coat in parmesan crust.
Pan fry until golden brown, transfer to baking dish and and top with mozzarella.
Bake until cheese is melted and serve with your favorite buttered pasta topped with marinara sauce and more parmesan cheese.