The Pasta Makers
Celebrating Canada's 150th with heartwarming stories from our family of suppliers who chose to make Canada home.
“Where else in the world will you see an East Indian man making cabbage rolls and pasta?”
By Rita Feutl
The stories of our frozen pasta suppliers begin, as they do for so many other Canadians who have made their home here, in different countries and on distant shores. But a common theme infuses their tales: each family settled here at least a generation ago and transformed memories of home and a love of great meals into a thriving business.
“Everyone needs to eat and everyone enjoys eating good food,” says Hussein Kanji, operations manager of Troika Foods in Sherwood Park. “You share stories around a meal. It brings people together and they’re really focused on each other.”
On chilly January nights, steaming bowls of gnocchi or tortellini are comfort food that enriches the soul, says Barbara Tornifoglia from her Ontario Ravioli office in Hamilton, Ont. She describes pasta as “the staple of a healthy family meal, where family and friends gather at the table to eat, drink vino and be merry!”
After December’s elaborate and time-consuming holiday menus, a meal featuring frozen pasta is a treat because it’s so simple. Boil a pot of water or set the oven to heat while you toss together a salad, and you’re done, with time to spare for what’s important.
“Pasta sets the tone for the rest of the evening,” says Rocco Suriano, one of five family partners of Let’s Pasta in Lethbridge. “It’s the beginning…of dinner, conversation, family.”
It was undoubtedly around the Suriano family table that Rocco learned how his family left southern Italy in 1961. His grandmother, Gilda Suriano, arrived by ship in Halifax with five children in tow and a family member’s Lethbridge address tucked into her luggage.
“They took a train across this marvellous country in the middle of November,” Rocco says. “They were anxious to get started in a new life with new opportunities.” Grandfather arrived soon after.
By 1976, the family opened the door to Ristorante Trevi, where Gilda, her daughters, daughters-in-law and nieces made each gnocchi and filled each pasta by hand. “My grandmother was the overseer of it all,” says Rocco fondly.
Gilda Suriano, husband Rocco, daughter Antoinette Rose
& sons Franco & Andrea.
“She had a keen eye for quality and she could cook a potato and peel it and see right away if it was good for gnocchi. She wanted her gnocchi to taste like potatoes and not like a flour dumpling.”
The family lived in a modest two-bedroom bungalow on a large lot, which allowed them to grow their own food. “
My grandfather loved to garden, as did my grandmother,” Rocco remembers. “They maintained their Italian roots. And when it came to the supper table, they ate what they knew—lots of pasta, fresh vegetables, fresh sauces and legumes.”
The family quickly learned that its patrons wanted to recreate the Ristorante Trevi meals in their own homes. Soon the Surianos had a successful business selling ready-to-cook products on the side. In 1994, they opened Let’s Pasta, devoted solely to this fresh or fresh-frozen staple. Their frozen cannelloni, gnocchi, tortellini and manicotti have been a staple at our stores since the year 2000.
Our store freezers also boast Ontario Ravioli’s pastas and sauces, including their ever-popular jumbo cheese ravioli. “All of our products are based on my mother’s authentic, home-style, old-fashioned recipes, from the sauce to the pasta,” notes Barbara Tornifoglia.
The recipes are seasoned with the flavours of Salerno, where Barbara’s mother, Santina Rispoli, learned her cooking skills as a young bride. But the cliff-side town overlooking the Mediterranean had been severely damaged during the Second World War. Like so many immigrants before and since, Santina and Antonio Rispoli chose Canada because they hoped for a better future.
“My parents needed to be self-sufficient, independent and strong-willed to make a name for themselves. There was no room for failure. They had a family with three children to feed, clothe and keep a roof over our heads.”
Ontario Ravioli officially started full production in 1973. Her mum’s role? “Well, let’s just say everything, from production to packaging to sales to shipping and receiving. She was basically the heart, the foundation and the glue that kept us together as a family business.”
Her dad, she adds, did “pretty much all of the above, adding salesman and delivery man” to his duties.
These days Santina still visits the plant, but at 81, she’s happy to leave the details to Barbara and her two brothers, Ciro and Eugene.
The Kanji family story begins even further afield. It starts in East Africa and weaves its way through Ukrainian cabbage rolls and Italian tri-colori tortellini, adding yet another bright element to Canada’s multicultural mosaic.
“Where else in the world will you see an East Indian man making cabbage rolls and pasta?” Hussein asks wryly.
His dad, Alaudin, left Nairobi for Canada in 1979, eventually settling in Edmonton, where he worked as an accountant for the Alberta government for decades.
But as he approached his 50s, Alaudin cast about for something to spice up his retirement. In 2005 he took over Troika Foods, the go-to supplier of handmade cabbage rolls. Five years later, he bought Pasta Time, creating positions for two of his four children in the family
|Dad Alaudin Kanji with son Hussein
Hussein left, sitting in front of dad Alaudin at a family dinner out. Pancakes & pizza.
Pasta Time stays close to its Italian beginnings, with traditional recipes such as garlic gnocchi and cheese and wild mushroom tortellini. But at home, the family often reaches for the dishes that speak to them of their past.
“My mum’s samosas….” Hussein begins, then pauses to savour the memory of their taste and texture.
When the operations manager of a food company still swoons over his mother’s cooking, you know he’ll keep a keen eye on what goes into your pasta pot.