On Saturdays, the line of shoppers forms early and extends throughout the morning at the Pasta La Fata booth in the Columbia Farmers Market. And for good reason. The delicious Italian cookies and handmade pastas that Shelly La Fata and her crew of five omen have prepared during the week have gained an appreciative and growing following. La Fata’s success relies on more than her culinary skills, her entrepreneur’s drive and her long days in the kitchen. Her business is built on a love of her Italian heritage and memories of her grandmother. If there were no Grandma Josie, there would be no Pasta La Fata cookies to eat.
Josephine La Fata, a second-generation Italian whose family emigrated from Sicily, was born in 1913 and grew up in St. Louis in an Italian neighborhood. Although Grandma Josie (as Shelly refers to her) is no longer alive, her cookie recipes have come to life at Pasta La Fata. Josephine’s cookies were always Shelly’s favorite treat, and by staying true to her grandmother’s recipes, they have become Shelly’s best-selling creations. Shelly’s memories of the cookies are as sweet as the cookies themselves. “We’d go over to Grandma Josie’s house every Sunday, and she had a gallon mason jar. She would start at the bottom and pack it with an assortment of her cookies. We would pass it around, and everybody would turn the jar and tilt it, shaking it to get to their favorite cookie before passing it on,” she says.
Shelly makes six different types of Italian cookies. There’s a chocolate dipped butter cookie, a strawberry thumbprint (which sometimes has apricot or triple berry), a butterscotch pecan shortbread, a luxordo cherry cookie and an amaretti. During the Christmas season, she’ll also have cannoli. She displays the cookies on her farmers market stall in a vintage wooden cabinet. The cookies sit on the cabinet shelves, tempting every shopper who walks by.
Just mentioning the cookies to one of her customers can bring an appreciative sigh. Helen Washburn is an unabashed fan. “I love them all,” she says. Her husband, George, notes that “She loves them so much, she starts eating them on her way home from the farmers market.” The cookies are direct descendants from Josephine’s stockpile of recipes, which is safely stored in St. Louis. The pastas and sauces are indirect descendants, also based on Italian culture, but developed by Shelly. “The cookie recipes are handwritten in a journal, and I’m not allowed to ever take it from my father’s house,” says Shelly. “I’ll call him and say I need a recipe, and he’ll flip through and take a picture.”
In addition to the love of cooking that goes into Shelly’s recipes, there is also a strong dash of support for mid-Missouri farmers and Missourians who are in need. Shelly does not buy ingredients from the giant restaurant supply companies. “We have a community of farmers to work with, and they’re my friends,” she says. For authentic Italian flours and other ethnic ingredients,
she makes a monthly trip to St. Louis to an Italian-American supplier. When the pandemic started she created her Pasta La Fata
Scrappy Meal program, which turns her scraps into free meals for anyone who needs one. The program has been nominated for a “2020 Kindness in Business Award.”
Although Pasta La Fata is a business, it’s also a way of continuing and celebrating Shelly’s Italian heritage. She regrets that so many past Italian recipes have disappeared over the years. “Some things are just lost, but I think we’re doing a good job of honoring Grandma Josie’s cookie making legacy,” she says. “There’s so much pride in Italian food being passed down generation to generation.”
Shelly makes and sells a wide variety of Italian food. Among her and her customers’ favorites are toasted raviolis, which, like all her menu items are not just handmade but scratch-made. All her pastas feature local, in-season ingredients combined with quality imports from Italy. Pastas, meatballs, lasagnas and soups are all frozen and ready to be heated up for tasty, authentic Italian meals. In addition to being available at the Columbia Farmers Market, her meals and cookies can be ordered online at www.PastaLaFata.net, for pickup or even delivery.
Grandma Josie would be surprised to know that her recipes are now being sampled throughout Columbia. “My aunt and mother tell me all the time how proud she’d be of me,” says Shelly. “I just wish I knew what she thinks of how everything tastes. It’s not that I want her approval — I want her opinion.”