Consider the Pastabilities after 20

January 02, 2003

Dick Case

The anniversary party at 311 S. Franklin St. the other night had the feel of a family gathering. In many ways, it was.

Pastabilities restaurant (aka Pasta's) opened downtown 20 years ago last month. It's a certified landmark among the more than 100 places to eat in the central business district of our town.

"How many places last 20 years?" developer Bob Doucette asks.

He's one of the landlords at 311, which goes by the name Labor Temple. When he and his partner, George Curry, bought the 1887 building in 1983, they broke the image of the old warehouse district. Pasta's moved in two years later and busted a few more cliches about the death of downtown.

"Although we started in the SA&K Building (aka City Hall Commons), this is where we really wanted to go," says Karen Korteling, the restaurant's owner. "People told us it was too risky, but we were new and excited. I think it got Armory Square started."

Who'd argue that?

Certainly none of the partyers at Pasta's, including members of the founding family - the Heagertys - and their non-family kin from the neighborhood.

That would include other urban pioneers, such as the two Labor Temple owners and the folks from Eureka Crafts, who planted their flag in the new district back then, too.

Bob Doucette and George Curry's purchase of the Labor Temple, then a derelict building that wasn't paying taxes, was a statement of their belief that the city life they'd seen elsewhere could happen here. They looked to found an urban neighborhood of pedestrians; first-floor retail spaces with apartments above.

That's exactly what happened at No. 311, and later around the blocks west of Salina Street.

Bob and his wife were customers at the first Pasta's, at 200 E. Genesee, after it opened in 1982. He tells me he felt the restaurant was right to fill his empty storefront.

"I knew I needed something a little edgy to bring to ArmorySquare," Bob recalls. "They had a good restaurant and a sense of what an urban neighborhood was meant to be, a sense of what was happening. They were cool."

The original Pasta's partners were three young siblings, an in-law and the siblings' family: Patrick Heagerty and his wife, Karen Korteling; Patrick's brother, Michael, and his sister, Eileen. Their financial backers and restaurant helpers early on included the senior Heagertys - Alfreda "Freda" and Patrick - as well as Aunt Frances DiBello and Uncle Tom Cabasino.

Frances and her sister, Freda, own The Palace Theater building in Eastwood, among other properties. It was built in 1924 by their father, Alfred.

Michael Heagerty remembers those first weeks of the new restaurant whimsically: a "bunch of kids who didn't know what we were doing. We ran by the seat of our pants. We made a lot of noodles."

Karen says she and Patrick met as students at Syracuse University and learned the restaurant business waiting on tables and working the kitchens of Syracuse eating places. They got the original idea from a friend who wanted them to join him in starting a self-service pasta restaurant in New York City.

Twenty years ago, pasta waited to become a national food.

"That appealed to us, but not in New York," Karen continues. "We were naive, young spirits with a fairly low budget and a lot of hard work."

At first, Pasta's was cafeteria-style; five sauces, a salad and bread served five days a week, lunch only. Later on, the partners opened for Friday and Saturday night dinners.

"We had to wash the pots as we cooked," Michael recalls.

Uncle Tom Cabasino bused tables. Mom Freda made desserts and Aunt Frances donated a nifty pasta machine from Italy that's still in the kitchen.

"Our family has been amazingly supportive," according to Michael. "They thought we were a little crazy, but they were there for us."

"When they moved to Armory Square, Freda made me promise it would work," Bob Doucette says. "Awhile ago, I said to her, 'I told you it would work.' She said, 'The jury's still out.'"

Bob says he's fondly watched the restaurant grow, along with "the kids" and the neighborhood: "They were absolutely the right thing for Armory Square. They sent a message this was a neat place to be. It's more than just a place to eat; it brought interesting people together."

George Curry recalls showing the Heagertys how the space would look by marking the architect's plan on bare floors with masking tape. An earlier owner had wanted to open a club there.

Eileen Heagerty calls the original place "sweet and beautiful." She says she's pleased to have been part of "the unfolding of downtown."

I ask the pioneers why they think Pasta's is with us, and prospering, after all these years.

Eileen: "Half of it is luck, half is keeping a sense of integrity. I think also it's important to have a family member there most of the time. And Pasta's has had the most amazing staff, a real community of people who do things together."

Karen: "Yes, being there is important and listening to the creative contributions of the staff. We want to give people a sense of theater. From the beginning, we felt we could offer quality food without taking shortcuts."

George Curry: "It's a comfortable place to be."

Bob Doucette thinks Pasta's is "the Bob Dylan of restaurants" - it isn't afraid to reinvent itself, but the old, familiar voice remains.

Patrick Heagerty died of a brain tumor in 1995 at the age of 39. Everyone I talked to about Pasta's makes him the restaurant's founding father.

"Patrick was a comet," Bob says, adding "but Karen picked up the ball all by herself after he died." Karen's reinventions include opening a bakery in the restaurant in 1996 that eventually moved across the street. Some people think the bread's baked by angels.

Eileen and Michael moved across Franklin, too. In 1991, they opened the Zodiac Club, later Styleen's, which they eventually sold. Michael's a general contractor specializing in restaurant interiors, and Eileen's working up a few ideas that could bring her back downtown with "maybe a little cafe thing."

Karen's now the sole owner of Pasta's.

"Hey," Michael's saying at the party. "Twenty years, what a trip."

The line forms right over here...

2003 The Post-Standard.

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