Ernie Oliviero started at Deer Park Ravioli when he was only 10 years old, working the counter and greeting customers on the weekends with his father, John.
“I was a little kid, too, really short, just peeking over the counter,” Oliviero said. “My father would teach me how to make change, and I would ask the customers if they needed any help.
Deer Park Ravioli, which has maintained the same storefront at 1880 Deer Park Ave. for 65 years, has been in the Oliviero family since John Olivero purchased the store from its original owner, Tom Messina, in 1973.
“My father was the one who taught me how to make the ravioli, how the business worked,” Ernie Oliviero said. “It was a big part of life growing up.”
Oliviero, now 51, took over in 1990 upon his father’s death, and Tom McDonald came on board as vice president in charge of sales in 1991.
The store is known for its homemade ravioli, which is made using a giant rotating mixer — “the gramela,” as Oliviero calls it — that dates to 1911. The mixer produces a unique texture in the dough that gives the ravioli its signature flavor and a sturdier body, he said.
“Making it this way is closer to actually pressing the pasta by hand,” Oliviero said. “It’s an artisan process and there’s nothing quite like it.”
The store sells more than 50 different types of specialty ravioli, with lobster, wild mushroom and butternut squash varieties among the favorites. The addition of specialty pastas was an idea Oliviero had in the early '90s after receiving special requests from local restaurants that often bought his products.
“I would have restaurants like Cirella’s in Melville call me up, asking ‘Hey, can you do a wild mushroom ravioli for us?’ and I would do it for them,” Oliviero said, noting that revenue has nearly doubled since incorporating the specialty items. “All of a sudden, we had a niche.”
While Deer Park Ravioli has a large local base of 1,800 customers and can be found locally in major supermarkets like King Kullen, Stop & Shop and ShopRite, expanding its distribution reach is Oliviero's main goal. Right now, the product is sold in 13 states in the eastern United States, reaching as far as Maryland. On average, the store produces around 200 boxes of ravioli a week, Oliviero said.
“When my father ran the store, it was always very local — everything was bought and sold out of the store,” he said. “When I took over, I wanted to change that and expand.”
In 1994, Oliviero began attending trade shows regularly across the country to promote his products and build a repertoire with distributors on a more national scale.
“When selling ravioli, you have to do it from the inside out,” Oliviero said. “People need to try the product first to taste it for themselves and see.”
That was exactly the case for Eric Weiss, executive chef of Francesco’s in Babylon Village. Weiss is a regular customer of Deer Park Ravioli, incorporating its pastas into dishes at the Italian-style restaurant.
“As soon as I tried it, I knew it was better than the stuff I was using in the kitchen then,” said Weiss, who became a regular customer three years ago. “It’s sturdier, and doesn’t fall apart like weaker pastas do when you’re boiling it.”
While national distribution is key in Oliviero's plans for expanding his business, there are still some items that you can only purchase in-store, like homemade pasta sauces and balls of fresh mozzarella cheese, made by Oliviero himself.
“We’ve been here for so long, it’s a good business; it’s a family business,” Oliviero said. “Carrying on my father’s legacy is important to me, too.”