Busiati. Spizzulus. Corzetti.
Those are just some of the handmade Italian pastas that Petra Orlowski will sell at Semolina, a new shop slated to open soon at 2474 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. But that’s not all. Customers can expect pasta classes, weekly pasta specials and a curated selection of specialty food items to purchase and prepare at home.
The shop, which is expected to open sometime in September, will feature a large retail space showcasing counters made by Mike Brylow of The Magnet Factory from reclaimed bowling alley lanes.
The walls, painted in rustic orange and marigold will be set off by rustic elements and welcoming decor. For example, one wall in the front of the shop will be hung with a collection of Orlowski’s family photos (dating back to the early 1900s) displayed on a backdrop of Venetian plaster hand applied by Chimenti Studios.
Orlowski grew up in an Italian family. Well, in a matter of speaking.
“My mother is Sicilian and my father is Mexican,” says Orlowski. “But my husband always jokes that I’m 50% Mexican, but 90% Italian.”
That’s because Orlowski’s fondest childhood memories centered around food enjoyed at her grandparents table in Bay View.
“Growing up, I stayed at my grandparents’ house on weekends,” Orlowski says. “I’d wake up to the smell of her frying meatballs. She’d set a couple aside, and that’s what we’d have for breakfast. She had an apple tree in her backyard, and she’d always make pies. My grandfather didn’t cook much, but he made veal steaks that would just melt in your mouth.”
Those memories also include weekly Sunday dinners with the family during which her grandmother prepared dishes like pasta and roasted chicken, hearty meals that filled the house with delectable savory odors and formed indelible memories which continued even after her grandmother passed away 15 years ago.
“Nothing was fancy,” says Orlowski, “But everything was simple and really delicious.”
Orlowski says her grandmother’s kitchen was where she gleaned her appreciation for food and her love for cooking.
“We were always in the kitchen,” she says. “And I learned by osmosis. As we sat and talked, I helped her cook. It was all about the hand movements, the motions ... There were no recipes, but even to this day, whenever I – or my my sister or my cousins – make sugo, it all tastes the same.”
A passion for pasta
For years, Orlowski earned her living working as a dental hygienist; it’s a career path she credits with the dexterity she’d later use to hand-form individual pieces of fresh pasta. But after her kids went off to school, she says she shifted gears. For nearly 15 years, she worked at Sanford as a host and operations manager. She worked for a time as the pastry chef at Sheridan’s. More recently, she worked as front of house manager for Blue’s Egg in Shorewood.
But when Blue’s Egg in Shorewood closed, Orlowski says she found herself with lots of time on her hands.
“I made sourdough,” she says, “And I started watching ‘Pasta Grannies’ on YouTube. Pasta came so naturally for me that I began doing more and more. Even shapes that people said were super difficult came easily for me with a bit of practice. I found the repetition of it all so relaxing. I’d put on podcasts and make pasta until there were trays and trays of it.”
Along the way, she says, she amassed a variety of tools to assist in the process, from a pasta board her husband made for her, to various cutters and stamps.
“I was making so much of it that it was literally all over my house,” she says. “And people began asking if they could buy it from me. Eventually the notion of opening a shop began to feel like a legitimate business idea.”
Orlowski says Semolina will stock a wide assortment of pastas, including extruded pastas, hand-shaped varieties and filled pasta. Shelves will also be stocked with accompaniments like salamis, mortadella, cheese, olives and pantry staples like olive oil, canned tomatoes and tuna preserved in oil.
She’ll also offer a small selection of housemade sauces including a basic tomato sauce and caponata, one of her grandmother’s favorites.
As for the pasta, some will be available dried and others fresh. But all will be made in-house with high quality ingredients. That includes very finely milled organic durum wheat flour from Central Milling in Utah and locally grown stone ground flour from Meadowlark Organics in Ridge, Wisconsin.
The difference, she says, can be found in both the flavor and texture.
“I love the nutty flavor and body of the flours,” she says. “And I love the fact that I can support a local farmer. We’d like to keep our footprint as small as possible by purchasing local ingredients and using compostable packaging for our products.”
Among the pastas she’ll carry, four will be shaped by an imported Italian pasta extruder. The machine is equipped with traditional bronze dies which produce pasta with a slightly rougher surface, an element which allows pasta sauce to cling more efficiently. Those will include bucatini (thick, hollow long pasta); mafaldine (long flat noodles with ruffled edges); lumache (shell shaped pasta); and trottole (a tightly formed twist of pasta the name of which means ‘spinning top’).
Hand-shaped pasta will include orecchiette (little ears), busiate (hand twisted corkskrews), cavatelli (short pasta with edges that roll inward) and spizzulus (a decorative ring-shaped pasta). Some pastas will be decorated with ceramic cavarola boards made by Bay View ceramics artist Beth Eaton.
Thanks to custom stamps made by master corzetti carver Felippo Romagnoli of Romagnoli Pasta Tools in Tuscany, Italy, Orlowski says she’ll also be able to make the classic round Ligurian pasta stamped with “Mangia” or imprinted with an octopus.
“I love the idea of bringing some of these more rustic Sicilian pastas into the spotlight,” says Orlowski. “They’re not things that people will find in stores, but they’re items that people have been making in their homes for over a century. And these days – even in Italy – there aren’t many people who do these things by hand anymore.”
Orlowski says that, if all goes well, she’ll also offer pasta classes in the shop for small groups of up to 8 people. The classes will be hands-on, she says. “I want people to be able to get their hands dirty.”
Pending approval for her liquor licensure, Orlowski says she'll also carry beer and wine along with housemade Italian liqueurs like limoncello that could be enjoyed at the shop while folks are learning to make pasta.
Once Semolina opens, Orlowski says hours are likely to be Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.