Rich Cersosimo and Lou Castanho (CT Examiner/Werth)

With Stores Opening in Darien and South Windsor, Pasta Vita Feeds Families, Fosters Community

OLD SAYBROOK — In 1992, Rich Cersosimo, a new IBM retiree, and Lou Castanho , a chef just four years out of culinary school decided to work together to make and sell wholesale ravioli. They named their venture Pasta Vita. Four years later, they began catering to the retail market and Cersosimo and Castanho haven’t looked back.

“We were producing all this pasta in Old Saybrook and yet loading it on trucks, shipping it away and we couldn’t feed any of the people here,” Castanho said. “We had people coming to the back door and asking for dishes to take home.”

Today, their Old Saybrook location serves more than 6,000 meals-to-go every week, more than anywhere else in Connecticut, Cersosimo said.

This spring, Pasta Vita is working with Mohegan Sun to open their fifth and sixth store locations in South Windsor and Darien. They already have stores in Uncasville, Wethersfield and Avon.

“My grandfather was a wonderful cook from Italy. He would cook all the meals on holidays and growing up it gave me a real appreciation for good food, especially handmade pasta,” Cersosimo said. “So, the idea of a pasta shop made sense to me.”

Despite this recent growth, Cersosimo said their vision for Pasta Vita remains the same.

“When we decided to expand we wanted to ensure that our restaurant-level quality would remain,” Cersosimo said. “Our mission is always to provide restaurant quality food at home for a reasonable price.”

For Castanho, being able to oversee just one other executive chef makes that quality control possible. That’s why all new hires train alongside him at the Old Saybrook location, and why food for the five additional locations is prepared at a central kitchen in Wethersfield. 

From the beginning

Cersosimo said his love of good food began as a child in his grandparents’ kitchen.

“My grandfather was a wonderful cook from Italy. He would cook all the meals on holidays and growing up it gave me a real appreciation for good food, especially handmade pasta,” Cersosimo said. “So, the idea of a pasta shop made sense to me.”

In 1996, when Cersosimo and Castanho decided to transition from wholesale to retail, they started with just six dishes: five chicken and one pasta dish. Today, those six meals remain their best sellers.

“We never expected to become this big, but we grew by word of mouth and more people just kept coming,” Cersosimo said.

After 25 years in sales at IBM, Cersosimo knew that good customer service was almost as important as good food. And because their first location had just four parking spots, getting customers in and out quickly became an essential feature of the business.

“We want as great customer service as possible, we want people to be comfortable and I always have a lot of people at the cash register to make sure things go quickly,” Cersosimo said. “No one waits here at Pasta Vita.”

As Pasta Vita’s popularity and offerings grew, Cersosimo said he wanted to make sure that the backbone of the company – customer service and quality food – remained undiminished.

When Cersosimo hires an employee he says he makes sure that they are a good person, a hard worker and a good fit for the job. And Cersosimo is right there with his employees, often behind the counter himself, and buzzing around the shop seven days a week.

“We encourage everyone to smile and say hello and thank you. I tell them, be courteous,” Cersosimo said. 

“I wanted to work five minutes from home, enjoy myself and be able to wear shorts and a T-shirt to work,” Cersosimo said. “It’s worked out better than I ever would have guessed.”

Giving back

Over the years Pasta Vita has grown to be part of the everyday fabric of the surrounding communities.

“When we opened, people thought we were for two working people that had to have a meal, but couldn’t cook or didn’t have time,” Cersosimo said. “But we see a very mixed audience of customers.”

Pasta Vita arrives for parents with new babies and for families grieving loss, is purchased by parents trying to feed their children away at school, and by children trying to feed aging parents.

“My favorite part is the customers. I have seen people grow up, have children, age, need help, find happiness,” Cersosimo said. “Older customers come in through the years and need something and we are happy to help…it’s the letters of thanks from loved ones of people we helped through the years that make all our work worth it.”

In addition to individual customers, Pasta Vita caters charity events, brings food to nearby soup kitchens and food pantries and summer meal sites for children in the area.

“We just want to be a good citizen,” Cersosimo said.

Pasta Vita notably sponsors several area events and institutions including the Shamrock Run for St. John’s School, the Tour de Lyme, an annual performance at Ivoryton Playhouse, Goodspeed Opera House, The Kate, and Musical Masterworks.

And they try not to leave anyone out.

As more and more dietary restrictions have surfaced through the years, Castanho has worked to develop recipes that would allow these customers to continue eating Pasta Vita. They have vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo and keto-diet friendly entrees available.

“I eat Pasta Vita every night and I have since we opened, I’m the main taste tester, and I still love it,” Cersosimo said. “I love the business, love the customers, love the employees, it’s a fun place to work.”

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