Clemente Cittoni is again making malfatti, ravioli and other Italian comfort foods, but please bring your pot to carry them home in.
Once the owner of the Depot restaurant, Cittoni is a walking library of pasta recipes that have charmed generations of Napans. He was the Depot’s malfatti man for nearly a half century. He was taught by Teresa Tamburelli, the matriarch of malfatti, whose rolling pin he wields today.
Since 2004, however, Cittoni has been a cook without a kitchen. Eventually the word went out. Clemente wanted to get back in the game.
When Steve Rodrigues, owner of Val’s convenience store on Third Street, heard the word, he jumped. He gutted part of his store, installed a commercial kitchen and brought Cittoni aboard.
“I needed something that I could rely on to be a hit,” Rodrigues said. Being able to offer wholesome Italian take-out would also help to rehabilitate Val’s reputation, he said.
His liquor store gets blamed for downtown’s homeless problem, Rodrigues said. “The problems that happen in the neighborhood are not because of the liquor store, but everybody blames the liquor store. How do I take the stigma away?”
In a word, malfatti, the humble Italian dumplings slathered in meat sauce and sprinkled with parmesan.
Cittoni, assisted daily by his daughter Joanne Gonzalez, has been cranking out homemade favorites since Feb. 28, gradually increasing production to keep up with word-of-mouth demand.
When a reporter walked into Val’s on Friday, Cittoni waved him away.
“We’re afraid we’ll be hit by a ton of customers and we won’t be able to keep up,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t want to disappoint people.”
Up to the counter walked Jeff Guiremand. “Good to see you working again,” he shouted to Cittoni, who was cutting hundreds of ravioli squares.
“My grandmother used to take me to get malfatti when I was 6-7 years old. I’ve been coming for Clemente’s malfatti for 40 years,” he said.
“He’s got the sauce down just about perfect,” Guiremand said. “He adds love to the sauce.”
Like in the old days at the Depot, Guiremand had brought a pot for five dozen malfatti, his night’s dinner.
Those without their own pot can pay 35 or 45 cents extra for a store container, but why should they? Gonzalez said.
Cittoni, a spry fellow with an impish smile, recently turned 70, but he isn’t cut out for retirement. “I enjoy what I do,” he said.
“People come in and say, ‘We’re so happy to have you back,’” his daughter said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Cittoni’s wife Maria supports the operation. She is his taxi driver and chopper of vegetables for the minestrone soup.
Father and daughter are making Italian soul food seven days a week, increasing production daily. Spin-off business for the non-food side of the store is going up as well. “I doubled my soda order this week,” Rodrigues said.
Cittoni is planning to take off Easter Sunday. When he gets a better sense of business, he may reduce his work load to six days a week.
“It’s better than Nation’s,” said John Diaz, a 23-year-old Old Town neighbor who was picking up a pint of spaghetti and a half loaf of bread. “I’ll be back for dinner to pick up some malfatti,” he said.
Martha Christensen was buying malfatti for her son’s lunch. Cittoni and his daughter were like family, she said. “I know the generations.”
While Cittoni and his family make the food, the Rodrigues clan operates the liquor-and-cigaret side of the store. Steve’s mother Mary and wife Jill were behind the counter Friday afternoon.
“I went from a person not so proud of his business,” Rodrigues said. “Now I’m real proud. We have more of a family mix.”