By Alexander Dworkowitz
It took Gustavo Umpierrez some time to find the Astoria pasta shop known as Pasta Mat.
For two years, the Spanish immigrant with a love of food worked at odd jobs in the city, living out of an apartment in Jackson Heights.
But once he wandered into Pasta Mat, he never left.
Now seven years later, Umpierrez, 31, finds himself the proud owner of one of Astoria’s premier family businesses, a gourmet shop that has produced dozens of varieties of homemade pasta since it was founded in 1958.
“What they sell in the supermarket is not the same quality,” said Umpierrez as he surveyed the boxes of tortellini and ravioli in his refrigerator. “I love pasta.”
Umpierrez’s passion for the food, which literally means “dough” in Italian, stems from Barcelona, Spain, where he grew up. Although native to Italy, pasta has spread to all over Europe.
“Now pasta is all over,” said Umpierrez. “My mother used to make gnocchi by hand,” he said, speaking of the potato pasta, a traditionally southern Italian dish.
In his early 20s, Umpierrez was infected with a desire to travel. Leaving what is considered one of the most livable cities in the world, Umpierrez headed to New York in 1993.
Umpierrez, who moved to Astoria four years ago after he began to work at Pasta Mat, said he has grown to like the city more than Barcelona, having a strong appreciation of the worldliness of New York.
“You have a taste for everything, every culture, with all the people,” he said.
Five years ago a young woman named Lina Lopez came to the shop. He soon asked her out to dinner, and within half a year the two were engaged. Lina Umpierrez, 25, is now expecting her first child.
“Of course, she likes pasta,” joked Umpierrez. “She has no choice.”
Two years after his marriage, Umpierrez bought the business.
Pasta Mat at 22-03 Astoria Blvd. offers a wide variety of homemade pasta. They range from squid ink egg noodles to lobster ravioli to mushroom tortellini.
“Some people are afraid to make something different,” Umpierrez said.
The shop also sells a variety of sauces as well as cookies. Umpierrez prepares the food along with his staff of three. The store’s employees hail from around the world, with Lina Umpierrez from Colombia and the others from Uruguay and Italy.
The authenticity of the food at Pasta Mat has become known throughout the region.
Umpierrez estimated that about 60 restaurants throughout the city buy his pasta to cook in their kitchens. But the business is not limited to restaurant orders. Umpierrez spoke of one customer who periodically drives in from the Poconos in Pennsylvania to spend hundreds of dollars on pasta.
“He puts it in the trunk and says it will last him five, six months,” said Umpierrez. “So many tortellini!”
Umpierrez said the decline in the restaurant sector after Sept. 11 has hurt his business, but he added that recently he has received more orders. Umpierrez, the third owner of the business, said he is thinking about opening up another shop in the future.
The Spanish immigrant explained that he was simply following a long tradition of quality at the shop.
“This opened in 1958,” he said. “If it was no good, we’d have closed a long time ago.”
Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.