As her first trip to Italy was ending, Shirley Dunavant was in tears. She walked the streets of Valenza where her father had grown up before he moved to Memphis. She met relatives for the first time. She was amazed by the lush, green countryside.
Back in Memphis, she suggested an idea to her daughter, Kathey Cianciola. What if they started their own business -- one that celebrated the foods of their ancestral country? They could call it "Valenza."
"It was such a beautiful town, there was only one thing to name it," Dunavant says.
For the last five years, the two have been partners in Valenza Pasta, currently located on Madison in a space they share with a wedding-cake decorator.
It's Cianciola's first business. She had been working as a typesetter. "The biggest challenge is paying the rent," Cianciola says. "It's scary, but it's been fun. We've met a lot of nice chefs. You mostly think of snobby chefs, but we haven't run into any."
Dunavant's been a music teacher, a decorator, and an artist, so she was a bit more familiar with the pros and cons of signing her own paycheck. They both look to Dunavant's father, Louis Ronza, as an example. He was 16 when he came to Memphis from Italy. In a few years, he owned a grocery store at Walker and Greenwood, which he ran from 1932 to 1965. The family lived next door.
"He got up at 4 a.m. and would get home at 7 p.m.," says Dunavant. "He liked to work." Mother and daugther inherited Ronza's work ethic. When creating the pasta for Valenza, the two decided they wouldn't offer any ordinary noodle.
Their fettuccine, linguine, and angel-hair pastas come in 33 flavors and colors -- so far. The two are often trying new varieties, including lemon chive, spicy pumpkin, raspberry, wheat germ, and orange sage. Some pastas -- the green beer one for St. Patrick's Day, for example -- are seasonal.
The eight-ounce packages of the dry pasta are $2.50 each. The pasta flavored with squid ink is more. Ravioli dishes range in price from $7.50 to $9 per pound. They also sell entrées, including the orange pasta with orange sauce, pork barbecue ravioli, and vegetarian meals. None of the dishes contains preservatives.
"That is why our food costs a little more. We put quality in them," Dunavant says.
Their best sellers are the meat ravioli and toasted ravioli, and they make about 60 pounds of each per week. Currently, Valenza's pasta is sold at their retail location in Midtown and at Miss Cordelia's grocery on Mud Island. Restaurants such as Bluefin, Theresa's Italian Café, Robilio's Side Car, and Tucker's also purchase the pasta. Many courier services do not ship food, so, says Dunavant, "we close early on Friday to make the deliveries, then we go home to have a cocktail."
Because customers have complained that their location in the Madison/Cleveland area is hard to find (the panhandlers and the prostitutes don't help much either), Dunavant and Cianciola have found a new location on McLean and are planning to move at the end of next month. They also want to start a Web site, so they can begin shipping the dried pasta to businesses and individuals.
One thing that is not in the cards, now or ever, is turning Valenza Pasta into a restaurant.
"I like to play a little," says Dunavant. "You are always working in a restaurant."