When it comes to making fresh pasta, how local can you go? Just ask brothers Mario and Richard Zeck, whose nascent business, LoRe Pasta, sources flours from Hunterdon and Bucks counties, eggs from Hillsborough, and herbs and vegetables from the farmers who sell at the West Windsor and Montgomery farmers markets where LoRe Pasta has tables each Saturday. Recent offerings, for example, included bright green rotini using Terhune Orchards spinach and a carrot pasta so colorful the brothers dubbed it “24-carrot gold.”
The business recently launched from a small, light-filled, newly renovated facility on Major Road in Monmouth Junction, all pristine white and stainless steel surfaces. But the enterprise was more than two years in the making. “The idea started after I got out of culinary school,” says Mario Zeck, 30, who attended Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas and who is LoRe’s chief pasta maker. “Towards the end I started working for an Italian chef who had a small pasta shop and was the only guy in the area making all his own pastas fresh every day. That’s where I got really passionate about pasta.”
The Zeck brothers had also grown up, in South Brunswick, in a pasta-loving family that’s half Italian-American. “Our grandmother is Sicilian; our grandfather, Italian. My grandmother made every meal an occasion and sparked my love of everything that revolves around family and big dinners,” Mario says. “Every single holiday. It didn’t matter which one — she’s like two percent Irish so there she is on St. Paddy’s Day, making corned beef with all the trimmings! So we’re always eating these great meals and having this great time with family.”
The business is, in fact, named for that grandmother, Emily, who lives in New Brunswick and whose maiden name is Lore (pronounced Low-Ray, as is the LLC). Through research, the brothers discovered that her original family surname was Lo Re, complete with an accent over the e, which their company name and logo had already been sporting. “She helps out with the pasta,” Mario says.
Her husband — the brothers’ grandfather — owns the property it stands on, which is also home to a construction company. The brothers’ parents, Richard and Donna, help out, too.
Richard Zeck, 27, is the self-proclaimed “sales guy.” Both brothers grew up working alongside their father at Ski Barn in Lawrenceville, which is owned by an uncle. (Managing the shop is still their “day job.”) It was when Mario was getting ready to move back home from Vegas that the two Richards — father and son — began to hatch the pasta plot.
“When Mario was out in Vegas, he was covering some of the markets out there for the pasta chef and he got to know the business side of selling just pasta,” Richard says. “So my father and I did some research.” They discovered that the premier supplier of commercial pasta machines, Arcobaleno, is located in western Pennsylvania. “My dad came up with an idea for us to do a cross-country trip, during which we’d hatch ideas for starting a business together. He and I flew out to Vegas, rented the biggest SUV we could find, picked up Mario and his cat, and together we drove across America.” That was almost three years ago.
On the way back they picked up the pasta extruding machine that now reigns in the LoRe kitchen. It uses bronze dies — the traditional method for attaining the optimal pasta texture for sauce to cling to.
“From the beginning we knew we wanted to work with local ingredients,” says Richard, who undertook the search, starting with the all-important grains. “We figured we’d call around to the local farmers markets because we wanted to eventually sell at farmers markets, and asked if there was anyone around here growing grains that could be made into pasta.”
They hit pay dirt with Chris Cirkus, manager of the West Windsor Farmers Market. “She was on the phone with me for over an hour,” Richard relates, “and we are so grateful.” Cirkus put them on to two highly regarded area granaries: Castle Valley Mill of Doylestown, PA, whose stone-ground spelt is the linchpin of LoRe’s fresh ricotta cavatelli, and Oak Grove Plantation & Mill in Pittstown, Hunterdon County, whose hard wheat goes into the seasonal vegetable-flavored pasta of the week. The flours, which are sifted at LoRe, are kept in a refrigerator, says Mario: “Because they still have all those good nutrients, which are easily perishable.”
He cycles through the flours within a week. “Normally, Castle Valley doesn’t sell in the small amounts we need, but they do for us!” he says with pride.
As to her role in getting LoRe Pasta off to the right start, Chris Cirkus says, “I simply encouraged them to do their due diligence and not become the type of farmers market vendor that many markets allow: without any homage to agriculture. I liked that Mario was a trained chef and that, as brothers, they were setting out to make a good product.”
Mario Zeck’s experience includes working at the two-Michelin-star restaurant Picasso at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, under chef Julian Serrano. “He was great!” Zeck says of Serrano, who has two James Beard Awards to his name. “Here he was: a Spanish chef in a French restaurant with an Italian-sounding name.” Zeck went on to work in DC at Equinox, another award-winning restaurant. “I still love DC, but I want to stay in the Garden State,” he says. “I want to represent! You get some good quality ingredients here!”
Cirkus says she simply “gave Mario and Richard the tools to source locally. and they ran with it.” Says Mario, “We go and pick up all our ingredients ourselves, and we get to interact with the farmers. We get to know the people who are making this stuff!” That extends to eggs from Polnasek Poultry Farm in Hillsborough, which are used in LoRe’s hand-formed pastas, such as the cavatelli, and cheese from Fulper Farms of Flemington.
Mario Zeck can spend as many as 12 hours on a Friday making that cavatelli for the Saturday markets. “The Fulper ricotta impastata is exactly what I need for my ricotta spelt cavatelli,” Mario says. That traditional ricotta — higher fat, ultra smooth, and low moisture — is one reason the cavatelli sells out each week, its $10 per pound price tag notwithstanding. In fact, all LoRe pasta sells out early every Saturday and has already accumulated return customers.
“I have my wife to thank for finding Fulper Farms,” says Mario of his bride, Marina. The couple was married last October and lives in New Hope. “Her family, not from this area, are cheese farmers,” Mario says. “So when they were coming to visit, we tried to find a cheese farm close by to take them to. We went and talked with Gina [Davio, the sales and marketing manager] and found their cheeses amazing.”
LoRe pastas are mixed in batches of about 10 pounds, using a commercial mixer that can handle up to 25 pounds. The kitchen is kept at a low temperature. “We pour the flour in and mix it slowly with very cold filtered water until it’s the right texture,” explains Mario. “Usually, that’s about 30 percent water, but it depends on the humidity. A lot of things affect it. The moisture content of the flours can vary between batches, too. It’s all trial and error.”
The extruded pastas, which include linguine, spaghetti, rigatoni, tagliatelle, and fusilli, contain nothing more than flour and water. But hand-formed pastas such as cavatelli and ravioli can include not only cheese but also salt and olive oil. Even those ingredients are carefully curated. The salt is from Jacobsen Salt Company of Portland, Oregon, harvested from a pristine bay off the Oregon Coast. “They have a new way of making salt so it doesn’t have as much of a bitter aftertaste,” says Mario Zeck, who uses their kosher salt. “It’s the cleanest salt I’ve ever had.”
His research led him to olive oil from Georgia, of all places. “I was trying to find the closest olive grove in the area that tasted good and these guys turn out to be amazing,” he says of Georgia Olive Farms, based in Lakeland, GA. “So pretty much it’s an all-American pasta we’re producing,” he says.
The Zeck brothers’ first foray into selling fresh pasta was aimed at local restaurants. But it quickly became apparent that they would have to build their reputation before the area’s top chefs would give them a go. Except for one local restaurant where the Zeck family has been regulars for years: Joe’s Italian Deli Pork Store & Catering on Route 27 in Franklin Park, which became their first customer. “Joe acknowledged that our product was a little high-end and expensive for them,” Mario recalls. “But he said, ‘The quality is there. We’re buying it!’” Recently, they’ve had a chef or two reach out to them, including the folks at Hightstown’s 12 Farms.
LoRe Pasta’s other employee is David Hegedus, a longtime friend who works at Ski Barn as well. “He’s another top pasta maker,” Richard says. “Dave is very particular,” says Mario. “He was hesitant because he’d never worked in a kitchen before. But I told him that’s exactly what I want, to train you from the bottom up.”
Richard Zeck lives in Skillman with his wife of two years, Maria. Neither Zeck brother has children. “We both got heavily involved in the business just as we got married. So right now this is our baby.” Richard says. In that regard, he admits, “We’re seeing how much business we can do while meeting Mario’s quality expectations, which are very high. We’re starting slow and are not focused on making a ton of money. Right now everything is being plowed back into the business.”
LoRe Pasta, 9 Major Road, Monmouth Junction. www.lorepasta.com.