Romana Raffetto, 85, matriarch of W. Houston St. pasta shop

Romana Raffetto was the mainstay of her eponymous W. Houston St. pasta shop. Photos courtesy Raffetto family

BY GABE HERMAN | Romana Raffetto, a Village mainstay as part of the Raffetto’s pasta shop family business, who was also an active community member, died May 25. She was 85.

The friendly and authentic atmosphere of Raffetto’s, with its handmade traditional pastas and sauces, has gained legions of loyal local fans for generations. The shop, on W. Houston St. near MacDougal St., was opened in 1906 by Romana’s father-in-law Marcello. 

Village resident Michael Dinwiddie has been shopping at Raffetto’s for 15 years and remembered Romana Raffetto fondly at a memorial service on June 4.

“She was a really wonderful presence in the neighborhood,” Dinwiddie said at Perazzo Funeral Home, at 199 Bleecker St., just a block from the store.

Dinwiddie always talked with Raffetto when he came to the shop. “I was a big patron,” he said. “I loved coming to Raffetto’s. My favorite thing was something called Genoa toast.” 

Romana Raffetto was born in Asolo, Italy, a small town outside of Venice. She came to New York in 1957 and for two decades was a homemaker while raising two sons.

Good press for Raffetto’s.

Then, in 1978, Romana joined her husband, Gino, in the shop, after Gino’s cousin Angelo died and he was left alone to run the operation.

It was in the late 1970s that Raffetto’s pasta gained in popularity and the shop started getting more write-ups in the media, according to her son Andrew.

Because of the growing success, “we all had to pitch in,” said Andrew. He and his brother, Richard, would cut school some days, telling the dean, “I gotta work today, help out.” Andrew added, “it became a true family effort between the four of us.”

In the early 1990s, Romana came out of semi-retirement to create six sauces for the shop, such as marinara and puttanesca, which took off and helped business skyrocket, according to Andrew. He said the quality was always crucial.

“You talk about home cooking,” Andrew said. “Everything we make is 12 or 14 little servings at a time. Just make it fresh.”

As business boomed in the early ’90s, brothers Andrew and Richard, fresh out of college, dreamed of expansion. But because of high rents in the city, the closest they came was a distribution deal with the original Fairway at W. 74th St. and Broadway.

Romana Raffetto on a trip to Italy.

According to Andrew, their father told them not to get overly focused on growth.

“My father would say, ‘Forget your size and all that crap. Just look in your pocket. If you’re doing well, don’t push it,’” he recalled.

Gino died in 2006.

At the wake, Andrew and his daughter, Sarah, and son, Marcus, recalled Romana’s personality.

“I’d say my mother was tough but fair,” said Andrew.

Granddaughter Sarah added Romana was “very opinionated, but warm and boundless amounts of love to give.”

Romana Raffetto in the pasta shop in earlier years.

Sarah lived with Romana in the W. Houston St. building, which the family owns, during her studies at Fordham University and afterward when she came to work in the shop. In her 20s, she is the oldest of the new generation of Raffettos, which includes eight siblings and cousins. 

Grandson Marcus, 13, also worked in the shop with Romana. “She would often help out as much as she can, cutting basil,” he said. “She was very friendly toward everyone.”

Loyal customer Dinwiddie is a New York University professor and every year he brings students in his Migration and American Culture class to Raffetto’s, “because they can see three generations of the family,” he said.

Above and below, Romana Raffetto in 1960 at age 27.

The Raffettos tell the class about the family’s history and give out food samples. For Dinwiddie, it is a way to show his students an example of “the different communities that have come here over the years.”

Along with running a Village food staple, Romana served as president of the local chapter of the American Committee on Italian Migration, helping with fundraising and providing education opportunities, Andrew said.

Raffetto’s is a culinary mainstay and neighborhood favorite on W. Houston St.

She was also president of the P.T.A. when Andrew went to Our Lady of Pompeii School, and always made a point to give to local school fundraisers.

“We’d be donating baskets or gift certificates, and people appreciated it,” Andrew said. “You still have to have a good heart. You can be stingy and not give anything, but we were giving stuff like crazy. It just helped our reputation, her reputation.”

The family said Romana died of colon cancer, which she had for a year and a half, though was in relatively good condition until just before her passing.

Andrew said she was “90 percent of what she’s always been until a week before,” when there was a quick deterioration. “Everything crumbled and we lost her. It was a short, bad week,” he said.

But the family said they were grateful because sometimes people can suffer for months with the disease.

Romana and Gino, together again.

“She was doing what she loved, was cognizant and happy, up until that week, which is great,” said granddaughter Sarah. “It was hard on us, but much better than it could have been.”

Sarah, as the oldest in the new generation of Raffettos, is already committed to the shop and keeping the family legacy going. She said her siblings and cousins are still growing up and figuring out what they want to do.

“I’m very invested,” she said at the memorial service. She added that she loves providing a special customer experience that includes customizable choices from more than a dozen pasta types, and then chopping up the pastas on a 102-year-old guillotine.

“It’s an entire experience, it’s not just about pasta and food,” Sarah said. “It’s a gem of the neighborhood. Truly, I say that with so much pride. I love being there every day. I feel so much love and appreciation from anyone that comes in the door and I love reeling in new people, too. They’re looking around skeptical like, ‘Oh it’s my first time,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh great, I’m going to get you hooked.’”

Sarah said she is grateful for the close relationship she had with her grandmother, Romana, including living with her for several years at the end of her life.

“I love my family, we all get along,” she said. As she grew up, she knew she wanted to to commit to the pasta shop.

“There was no true career that surpassed being a part of this and carrying out the legacy,” Sarah said.

At the wake, two buttons were handed out. One had a photo of Romana Raffetto. The other had a photo of Romana and Gino, who were married for 47 years. “Together again,” it read.

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