Lesme Romero and Reinaldo Gonzalez became good friends as college students in Cleveland. They had grown up in South America with Spanish fathers and Italian mothers, and both loved good food.
They shared an apartment in the Little Italy neighborhood and worked four years as cooks in some of Cleveland's best Italian restaurants, where they learned to make fresh pasta.
Romero, 33, earned business degrees and eventually moved to Florida to work in finance. Gonzalez, 37, became an industrial engineer and took a corporate job in Lexington.
During a visit several years ago, Gonzalez took Romero to the Lexington Farmers Market to buy fresh produce. They went back to Gonzalez's home, made fresh pasta and cooked a delicious meal.
"I remember saying to him, 'I wish I could do this for a living,' " Romero said after making the pasta. "And his wife, Heather, said, 'Well, why not?' "
So, in 2009, they started Lexington Pasta. Using a countertop pasta machine, they made samples and took them to restaurants. Bellini's gave them their first order, for 20 pounds. "It took us 20 hours to make on that little machine," Romero said. "But we were just excited to have an order."
Now, the company has more than $50,000 worth of pasta equipment and makes 600 pounds a week. Some of it goes to the best restaurants in Central Kentucky. The rest is sold in specialty stores, at farmers markets and at Lexington Pasta's tiny downtown shop in a converted two-car garage for $2 for a 4-ounce serving.
Romero manages the company, which has three employees. He makes daily deliveries downtown on a bright red scooter, and he has become a fixture at the farmers market at Cheapside on Saturdays and Southland on Sundays. "I used to have a name," he said with a laugh. "Now I'm 'The Pasta Guy.' "
Why eat fresh pasta instead of cheaper stuff that comes dried in a box? Because it tastes better, Romero said.
"It's the subtle part of the dish that makes the difference," said Debbie Long, owner of Dudley's on Short, which uses Lexington Pasta in several dishes. "They have a wonderful product. They are very customer-oriented, and they are easy to work with. I think they're a great addition to our food community."
Lexington Pasta is made with semolina flour, eggs and flavorings from fresh ingredients, many of which are locally grown, Romero said. The pasta, which keeps in a refrigerator for about 10 days, comes in 10 cuts and 10 flavors, including spinach, cilantro, portobello and chipotle. Fresh egg ravioli comes stuffed with spinach or Parmesan, ricotta and mozzarella cheese.
The company takes orders for gluten-free, whole grain, spicy diablo, lobster and Spanish saffron pasta. Some restaurant chefs have worked with Romero to create specialty pastas for signature dishes.
One way Romero cultivates customers is by offering "Pasta 101" classes for six to eight people once a week. At the two-hour class, which costs $45, students learn to make pasta and then use it to fix a gourmet dinner. The evening includes Kentucky wines, cheeses and an Italian dessert. The classes are booked up through early September, said Romero, who plans to add a ravioli-making "Pasta 102" class.
Because of his business education and background, Romero said he is always thinking about ways to grow the company. He has his eye on a pasta machine that would produce 70 pounds an hour, up from his current machine's 40 pounds.
But Romero said he doesn't want Lexington Pasta to grow too fast or too big. He likes the feel of his tiny downtown shop, where he knows many of his customers.
"I have felt so welcomed by this neighborhood," Romero said. "I love what I do. When people come back in the shop and say, 'That's the best pasta I've had in my life,' that's the best reward for me."