Jim Vinciguerra, one of thousands of Italian Americans raised in the rolling hills of Amador County, never got over his grandmother Teresa’s ravioli.
“It’s the best I’ve ever tasted,” said Vinciguerra, 63. He so craved the plump little pasta pillows stuffed with savory meats, mushrooms, spinach, cheeses, spices and other secret fillings that he decided to take dough into his own hands. In 1999, he retired from a long career as a counselor for the California Youth Authority to start his own ravioli company in his hometown of Jackson.
He said he searched all over for an old-fashioned commercial ravioli press and dough roller, writing letters to more than 50 Italian restaurants and delis throughout the West before locating one in storage that belonged to a retired Italian deli owner in Stockton, Tony Pezzi.
“He called out to his nephew, ‘There’s this nut in Jackson that wants to buy the equipment,’ then asked me, ‘Can you take it all?’ ” recalled Vinciguerra, who drove out to Stockton, looked over the ancient press and asked, “ ‘Tony, can you actually make money from this?’
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“He said, ‘Jim, you’d be surprised ...’ ”
So Vinciguerra paid Pezzi $10,000 for the equipment and turned an abandoned drive-in diner into Vinciguerra Ravioli Co., where he cranks out giant boards of four-cheese, spinach, wild mushroom, pumpkin and meat ravioli. You get 54 to a box that serves two for $8.50 – $9 for meat ravioli. He’ll throw in one of his homemade sauces for $4.55 a pint.
“My marinara, pesto and meat sauces are from a 100-year-old recipe,” Vinciguerra says. One culinary secret he’ll reveal is, when it comes to meat fillings and sauces, “Italian sausage is the only way to go.”
When he hung out his sign, “My wife, Kim, said I was out of my head, why would I want to do this,” Vinciguerra said with a grin. “I said it’s in the blood, and it sounds fun. It keeps me out of trouble.”
People who peer into a blocky white building at the corner of Sutter Street and Highway 49 in downtown Jackson often see Jim and his daughter Teresa, 25, cranking steel machinery that looks like a throwback to the Industrial Revolution. Several times a week, they drape 10-foot sheets of fresh pasta on a long wooden board, slather on fillings, cover it all with a second sheet, and send it through a ravioli press.
After crimping and boxing more than 2,000 fresh ravioli, they break open a bottle of local wine, often from original Italian vines planted by Italian immigrants in the Mother Lode more than a century ago. “We’ve done over 7 million ravioli since 1998,” said Vinciguerra, who’s in the middle of his busiest season – around Christmas and New Year’s, with Easter down the road. He has no website, and the only advertising he does is on local radio, to the Godfather theme. Vinciguerra said he draws ravioli devotees from as far away as the Bay Area and Nevada.
And he serves a local customer base that includes many Italian Americans. Throughout Amador and Calavaras counties there are still large Italian ranches, olive orchards and vineyards dating to the Gold Rush, when Italian miners became merchants, farmers, stone masons and ironworkers after the gold disappeared, said Carolyn Fregulia, author of “Italians of the Gold Country,” whose ancestors arrived from Genoa in 1852.
By the 1870s, Italians were working in hard-rock mines, blasting quartz that contained gold, Fregulia said. Many died in mining accidents or from diseases such as tuberculosis and silicosis, their lungs filling with quartz crystals and dust from the mines, but there was little work in Italy, which was caught in a bloody war of independence.
In the early 1900s, Vinciguerra’s grandmother Teresa Bassignani arrived as a teenage bride brought over by Benedetto Vinciguerra, who worked in both the Argonaut and Kennedy mines. “She came from a little village north of Massa-Carrara, Tuscany, and didn’t know how to read or write – they were all peasants,” Vinciguerra said.
Teresa’s marriage didn‘t last, and she supported herself by cooking and doing laundry, then opened a boardinghouse for miners on Jackson’s Gate Road that still exists today as Teresa’s Place restaurant. “She cooked three meals a day for 60 hungry miners, family-style – you put all the food out and anybody can eat what they want,” Vinciguerra said.
Fregulia, the local historian, said Amador County’s culinary legacy really started with Teresa. “She had a very difficult life, and she did the best she could,” Fregulia said. Today, there are 3,340 Italian Americans in Amador County, 7 percent of the population and twice the state average, according to U.S. census data. Many, including Fregulia, still make their own ravioli.
For generations, Italian Americans have whipped out ravioli for holidays. “It’s a special dish,” said Vinciguerra, who remembers Grandma Teresa rolling out giant sheets of dough by hand, “draping it all over the dining room chairs. I could never understand how she got it so thin.” Legend had it the secret of her meat ravioli was a dash of calf brains.
The passionate, salty-tongued Teresa had four marriages. Her great-granddaughter Teresa Vinciguerra is getting her master’s in marriage and family therapy at Sacramento State. She’s been helping out at the ravioli factory since she was 9. Now, she comes down several times a month to make ravioli, pesto, lasagna and homemade biscotti for Christmas and throws ravioli parties a few times a year. “It’s a labor of love,” she said.
By noon on a recent Thursday, customers started rolling in. Jake Guidi, 20, bought two boxes of meat ravioli with meat sauce for a woman from Sacramento who was coming for dinner. Teresa suggested he pair it with a good Barbera from the Shenandoah Valley around Plymouth. “That’s how to do it,” she advised.
The ravioli should be kept frozen until dropped in boiling water, and when 25 to 30 ravioli float to the surface, they are done. Customers traveling from long distances are advised to bring coolers. Each sheet of ravioli includes 10 pounds of dough made from flour, egg, olive oil and water and 20 pounds of filling. Jim Vinciguerra uses rice flour for the dough because semolina doesn’t have the elasticity.
When they first opened, “We ate ravioli every day for a month,” said Vinciguerra, who still eats it once a week. “My mom said it was craziness.”
“But she eats the hell out of it,” he said. “She likes everything we do here but working.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Philip Reese and Pete Basofin contributed to this report.