Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Stringing Us Along: Mike Ruymen, a.k.a. Pasta Mike, noodles around with a batch of fettucine.
The Man Behind Pasta Mike's
Christina Waters peers beyond the packaging and finds a story of quiet triumph.
By Christina Waters
In her wildest dreams my mother couldn't have imagined being able to simply reach into a refrigerator case and grab any one of a dozen varieties of fresh, handmade raviolis, take them home, pop them into boiling water for three minutes and set them on the table. That's what Pasta Mike has done for us. I'm always looking for quick, smart dinner ideas. And since I refuse to settle for fat-laden, generic fast food of questionable provenance, I've relied on Pasta Mike's raviolis for years. Especially the eggplant parmesan variety, brilliant with his Old World marinara and its figs, tomatoes and anise. Just who is Pasta Mike, and how does he crank out such consistently delicious pasta? I had to find out.The answer—in the form of down-to-earth, 40ish Michael Ruymen—was located behind the cakes, muffins and vats of chocolate in the Black China Bakery kitchens. In a back room, Pasta Mike was planted in front of his stainless steel accomplice, a sleek Italian-made combination pasta and ravioli machine, and he was itching to show off what it could do. "I've been waiting to show you how I make this stuff," he said. In baseball cap, T-shirt and well-worn trousers, Ruymen is every inch a Santa Cruzan. His story has a familiar beginning. A native of Long Island, Ruyman came out west at the age of 17 and moved in with his sister in Los Angeles. After a little of this and a little of that and few months at a "trade tech cooking school," Ruymen came to Santa Cruz and never looked back.
"I always loved to cook, and I figured I could just sell vegetarian burritos out of my van," he laughs. Measuring out yellow semolina from a huge red tub and throwing in some water and a half-dozen eggs, Ruymen fires up his pasta machine and returns to his story.After a slew of food-related gigs, he started cooking for Phil Said at the old Zanzibar on Mission Street. Gradually a life took shape. "I started fooling around and making pasta for my wife, and she said, 'Hey, this stuff is so good you should market it.'" What was part joke and part serious suggestion caught fire. Ruymen feels the dough and throws in a handful more of semolina. The machine makes soothing mixing sounds. "In those days the pasta was hand-cranked," he says with a big smile. He takes out the huge yellow ball of dough and begins feeding it into the rollers.
With loans from both their sets of parents, the couple launched Positive Pasta and delivered the goods from Sacramento to Monterey. Business grew. After getting a bank loan and hiring extra employees, Positive Pasta joined the cluster of concessions at the ill-fated "Taste of the World" food court on Pacific Avenue. "We got sucked in. And we went bankrupt." That was 10 years ago.
He feels the long scroll of yellow pasta. It isn't elastic enough to his liking, so he puts it through the rollers again. And again. The long stretch of dough is now about 12 inches across and ready to be cut. How about pappardelle and angel hair? He sets the dials and reinserts the dough.
After the bankruptcy, Ruymen resolved to start up again, only smaller and strictly local, with the name of Pasta Mike, after what his friends call him. The ravioli fillings are all his own.
"Patty would hand-fill all the raviolis in the beginning. She was a big part of it. A lot of the business, the success, came from our relationship."
Ruymen is an amateur children's book writer and illustrator. I flip through a colorful book about pasta-making, filled with drawings and photos of Mike and Patty and their two children making pasta. His family is the center of his life. Two days a week Mike makes pasta. Two days a week he delivers to his accounts—"nine stores and two restaurants—and the rest of the time is for biking, frisbee golf and family.Why does it all work? "Because I never change the recipes," he says, gathering up ribbons of papperdelle, weighing them and gently packing them into plastic boxes. "It's done Old Grandma-style." Other than two helpers who label and pack, Ruymen does it all.
"I enjoy it—that's the funny thing. It's like a sport," he says. "It's very physical." Mike Ruymen is a rare individual. He followed his own path, worked hard, lost everything, and rebuilt it again. Right now the big thing is a bike trip he's planning to Big Sur with his teenage son. "I'm where I want to be," he says.Not many of us can say that.
PASTA MIKE'S pasta is available at New Leaf, Shopper's Corner and Staff of Life.
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