Thirty-something Allison Arevalo was one of the co-founders of popular Oakland mac ‘n cheese restaurant, Homeroom. The business grew fast, received loads of positive press and inspired Arevalo to co-author The Mac + Cheese Cookbook: 50 Simple Recipes from Homeroom, America’s Favorite Mac and Cheese Restaurant (Ten Speed Press). The growth was exciting, but strategic planning and meetings were not, so after seven years in the business, Arevalo sold her stake in Homeroom to focus on cooking for friends and family.
Arevalo’s casual cooking for friends evolved into a more regular gathering, which eventually formalized into her latest project, Pasta Friday. Over what will be a total of 52 weeks, Arevalo hosts dinners for up to 55 people at her home in Rockridge, serving a pasta dish each Friday, without repeating a pasta shape or recipe.
On Wednesday, Arevalo sends out an email to almost 100 friends to let them know the Pasta Friday menu for the week and to gather RSVPs (She cuts off acceptances at between 25 to 40 adults and 15 kids). She spends Thursday shopping and Friday prepping and cooking giant pots of pasta with a sauce and tossing together a big, hearty salad. Guests bring wine. People come to connect and make new friends, but clearly, a primary draw is the food.
Arevalo believes that spending more time together over food can strengthen bonds and build community, but understands that our busy lives can make it hard to find time to cook and entertain. She hopes her experience with Pasta Friday will show how it’s possible and inspire others to start their own traditions of sharing a meal with friends and family.
I attended a recent Pasta Friday, when I got to ask Arevalo some questions about her latest project.
Where do you shop for Pasta Friday food supplies?
It depends on the meal, but mainly at Monterey Market for produce, Berkeley Bowl West for bulk items and Ver Brugge Foods for meat. I get specialty items, like anchovies or guanciale (Italian cured pork cheek), at Market Hall. (As for pasta, Pasta Friday is supported by a partnership with the Rustichella d’Abruzzo, which supplies Arevalo with its pastas, which come in 125 different shapes.)
Go-to spices, seasonings, extras that you particularly like?
I’m a firm believer in high-quality chili flakes. Most of the stuff you get at supermarkets tastes flat and barely spicy. Market Hall has the best chili flakes — super spicy! I also love the crushed Calabrian peppers from Tutto Calabria (all of their products are great). One of my favorite “extras” that I make is crispy, spicy prosciutto. I mix together olive oil, chili flakes and prosciutto that I crisped up in the oven, and crushed (I like spicy, as you can tell!). I am a little obsessed with olive oils, and always have at least four different kinds on hand. I think everyone though needs three: One for cooking (I get the large 365 brand can at Whole Foods. It’s seriously the BEST deal in the store at around $22). I also use the Arbequina from California Olive Ranch for sauces like pesto or my prosciutto sauce. And then you need a high-end olive oil for drizzling and for salad dressings. I don’t use too many dried spices, other than flaky salt, black pepper and some smoked paprika. But I love fresh herbs, and I use a ton of them in all sorts of ways. I’m especially big on celery leaves lately, they add a great salty kick.
Where do you get your recipes?
My recipes are all original, usually based on dishes I remember from my childhood (I grew up in New York in an Italian family), but with a seasonal twist. Sometimes my dad sends me some of his recipes, he’s an amazing cook. One of my all-time favorite recipes is my dad’s roasted red pepper sauce. I could eat it every day! I made it for Pasta Friday #3 and it’s still a crowd favorite.
The two staples in my kitchen are Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan and The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. I know that sounds boring, but they really are the best! I also really like Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond by Sara Jenkins. As far as new cookbooks, I’m really enjoying Rolando Beramendi’s Autentico.
Very roughly what does it cost to feed the group you get on Friday nights?
It’s a range; I try to keep it around $150. My family of four would always go out to dinner on Friday nights. So with not going out for dinner, having leftovers for later in the week and having some bottles of wine left over, it actually evens out. At least that’s what I tell myself.
Any romances started at Pasta Fridays or other synergistic happenings fueled by good food and good company?
There has been a romance (and a break-up, though they wouldn’t want me mentioning their names!). I’ve heard a bunch of business ideas thrown around, and even lunch dates to talk business, but I don’t think anything has officially developed. Mainly there have been friendships formed. My husband Alejandro and I have watched our friends from all different aspects of our lives — pre-school parents, co-workers, friends from college, neighbors, our lawyer, even our real estate agent — all form relationships that moved beyond Pasta Friday.
Favorite places for meals out around town?
For fancy Italian, I love Belotti and A16 (both in Rockridge). I also love the Ramen Shop, Cosecha, Cheese Board and I’m so excited about Italian Homemade Company in Elmwood. Definitely my favorite new lunch spot!
All that delicious pasta . . . do you have a favorite workout routine?
Yes! I’m almost as passionate about running as I am about pasta! I love running trails, and I often go to the endless trails of Redwood Regional (or to Tilden or Strawberry Canyon). I’ve done some trail running in Moab and Yosemite too. I run about four to five times per week (some trail, some road) usually with one longer run that’s around eight to 10 miles.
Any new developments or plans in the works?
I’m playing with a few ways to expand the Pasta Friday concept. I’m in talks with a few different publishers about a cookbook, and I’m starting to do pop-up dinners, where people hire me to cook and create the Pasta Friday experience at their house, for all their friends. I’m also thinking about a food truck, and possibly bottling my sauces.