Clockwise from left: Canestri alla vodka, cappelletti with lamb pancetta and fava cream, sorpresine with burro e oro and mozzarella di Bufala Credit: Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader

Tony Quartaro has an impeccable pasta pedigree going all the way back to all-day suppers at his Grandma Joyce’s house in upstate New York, where he learned to shape gnocchi for the Sunday gravy. 

“She showed me the difference between sinkers and swimmers, as she called them,” says the 37-year-old chef behind the Beverly-born fresh pasta delivery start-up Gemma Foods. “And how you can make something transcendent from something as simple as potatoes.”

Quartaro has made fresh pasta in innumerable shapes and sizes in nearly every restaurant he’s worked at over the last 16 years, starting with his first kitchen job during his senior year at the University of Kansas. After graduation he headed straight for San Francisco and found work at the Chez Panisse-Zuni Café Cal-Med torchbearer Nopa, and later A16, where he came in on his off hours to learn how the sous chefs hand-rolled cavatelli and the Campanian regional obscurity maccaronara. Not long after chef Nate Appleman won his James Beard Award, he brought Quartaro along with him to open Pulino’s in Manhattan.

A few years later he found a new mentor in Chris Pandel at the Bristol. “We had about three to four pastas on the menu there,” he says. “Everything made by hand in the basement. That place was a juggernaut as far as production and manpower was concerned.” 

Quartaro stepped up at the Bristol as Pandel stepped away to open Balena, which became its own pasta powerhouse, and where he moved over a year later to work under Joe Frillman, now of Daisies (another juggernaut). The pasta program was “98 percent” his when he opened Formento’s as executive chef, but for the last seven years pasta took a back seat, first when he turned south and helped open Dixie, and then a year later when he left to join a school lunch delivery start-up. 

He created a fresh pasta program at Limelight Catering when he was hired as its executive chef three summers ago, but that all ended last spring when he and his staff of 90 chefs were furloughed. “I remember hearing in early April, ‘Oh, we could be back by June,’” he says. “Laughable now, but I reached the stage where creatively I was like ‘I’ve done all the yard work I could do.’”

Tony Quartaro’s pasta-delivery mailing list quickly grew from 30 Beverly neighbors to 500.Credit: Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader

By then Quartaro was an established Beverly transplant. “My wife is from here,” he says. “Which is what a lot of the guys around here say.” And he was itching to make pasta again. “I reached out to 12 people in my neighborhood just to see. ‘Hey, I’m gonna make some pasta if you’re interested. I’ll take whatever you feel it’s worth, and send me any feedback.’” That week he made 20 orders of rigatoni Bolognese and bucatini cacio e pepe with a KitchenAid extruder attachment near the beginning of the Great Bucatini Shortage of 2020.

Quartaro started a mailing list that jumped from 30 neighbors to 500 within the span of eight months. He made menu changes with the season, and while there was usually something hearty, rib-sticking, and family friendly, other pasta-sauce pairings grew more refined; from ricotta gnocchi with vodka sauce and pasta amatriciana; to saffron fusilli with creamy Lombardian Luganega sausage sauce and squid ink tortellini, stuffed with “summer sofrito of corn, zucchini, tomato, and tropea onions with Sungold tomato sugo.”

“When I realized there was a demand for it and people were literally craving that restaurant experience in the comfort of their own homes, that was when I was like ‘I know I can deliver that.’” Sauces, pastas, and garnishes were packaged separately, each pairing designed to be table-ready in 15 minutes.

As he bumped up production, first in the idle Limelight kitchen, then at Kitchen Chicago, he’s upgraded extruders twice, and his shapes have become more colorful and esoteric: emerald green broccoli leaf rigatoni; saffron fusilli; green and white pleated teardrop-shaped culurgiones stuffed with fried sunchokes, ricotta, and mint; candy-wrapper caramelle stuffed with shrimp mousseline in lobster sauce.

Until recently, deliveries from Gemma Foods (named for Quartaro’s young daughter—“the best eater I know”) were only available to Beverly residents. But recently he’s been popping up for Friday afternoon pickups at Kimski (Chef Won Kim is a Beverlian). It was there that I picked up two generous orders of wide, ribbony pappardelle with a duck ragu, fragrant with cinnamon; and two-tone spinach-basil sorpresine—delicate “little surprises,” with a bright buttery San Marzano sauce and a side of mozzarella di bufala meant to melt into the matrix when sauce meets pasta. Quartaro followed the next week with burrata and Tempesta n’duja paprika-striped ravioli with a butter green garlic sauce, and cappelletti (“little hats”) with lamb pancetta and fava cream.

Sorpresine with burro e oro and mozzarella di BufalaCredit: Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader
Canestri alla vodkaCredit: Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader

These pickup pop-ups will spread to different neighborhoods over the summer, part of a larger expansion that’s well under way. Quartaro is close to inking a lease on an undisclosed storefront that can meet the ballooning demand, with a pickup point and window display.“If you look into the window you’re going to be seeing multiple hands making shapes,” he says. “Our machine will be running. I want it to be this spectacle of production and energy so people walk by and say, ‘What is going on in that place?’”

Delivery was key to Gemma’s success, and Quartaro’s planning to keep that option alive, along with shipping.

“This was not in the plan whatsoever,” he says. “But everything I’ve done has kind of primed me for this next step. Just looking back on the years as a whole it’s all just surreal. Even the school lunches, like, ‘What’s this guy doing working for a kids’ food company?’ I wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve done without that, just in terms of order fulfillment and how we’re making sure our production numbers are accurate.” 

Chicago’s been through a fresh pasta renaissance since the Bristol opened in 2008, one that’s expanded and persisted in the retail market with outfits like Tortello and Flour Power. But until there’s a fresh pastificio in every neighborhood, it isn’t complete.

“It was instilled in me at a really young age the importance of how a full day could be centered around a meal,” says Quartaro. “That sounds crazy in this day and age, but that’s still a way of life for so many families. And I think it’s really important to continue it. It’s not realistic to do it daily anymore but my grandma would do it. We’re doing the heavy lifting for you.”  v