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Meet Dallas' wrangler of ravioli: Before there was Tex-Mex there was raviolisimo

Phil Civello, the wrangler of ravioli.

Eggplant. Lobster. Smoked chicken. Veal.

Laid edge-to-edge, the ravioli made at Raviolismo in East Dallas each year would stretch more than 23 miles, long enough to travel six times from Peak and Bryan, where the shop is located, to Campisi's on Mockingbird, where most of the Italian dumplings will end up.

In ravioli terms, that's not really much, considering Chef Boyardee cranks out the product by the ton from a factory in Pennsylvania that's big enough to have a smokestack. But Chef Boyardee, Raviolismo is not. The pasta pockets that emerge from here are handmade works of art overseen by Phil Civello, who as the current representative of a family that's now been 'ravioling' for six decades, has the demeanor of a kindly jefe rather than a chef.

When Civello's Italian Grocery opened its doors on Oak Lawn in 1954, it promised “Delicacies for the hostess who is looking for something different.” The address is now a strip mall, and the store eventually closed. The fresh ravioli sold there came from Phil's two aunts, who crafted it in their own kitchen, while his sister Chena helped out.

Chena gathered the recipes, permits and people to make Raviolismo a business. Now it sends about three quarters of its products to restaurants around Dallas.

Gladys Bermudez rolls pasta that will soon be ravioli.

Three veteran women, all hispanic, are the core of the operation. Civello couldn't survive without them. “Zoila started the year my first son was born, and he's 28 now,” Civello says. “Oralia started the same year as my second was born....he's 25.”

They've been making ravioli since before the word “artisanal” made it into the lexicon, starting at 8 every weekday morning by mixing thirty pounds of pasta dough. Their secret is in their touch. “Great ravioli has to have pasta that's not too thick,” Civello says. “They know when it's just right, six or seven trips through the roller. They have a feel for it.”

The finished product.

In the simple kitchen that also serves as a retail store, Civello's crew turns out pasta sauces, manicotti, italian sausage, lasagna, soups and meatballs, along with the ravioli, for sale to the public. On one shelf is a stack of framed accolades Civello has gathered over the years, but never bothered to hang up. On a wall is a 1996 article from the New York Times.

Raviolismo's retail trade amounts to a cult following since there is just writing on the glass front door, accompanied by two signs on the side of the one-story building it shares with other businesses. The only way one would know what's going on inside is by spotting a white board listing the day's offerings through the front window. The place closes at two in the afternoon.

Zoila Munoz and Oralia Olquin work on lasagna.

Still, they come. One day I met a father and son who'd driven all the way from Fort Worth, stocking up on a hundred dozen different varieties of frozen ravioli and four pounds of Italian sausage. Turns out it was an annual trek. “See you next year,” they told Civello, waddling out with a carton full of goodies.

Byron Harris, a 40-year reporter for WFAA-TV, writes Byron's Lens.