Pasta maker brings a community together over handmade noodles

I‘m throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. This age-old phrase references the trial-and-error method for testing ideas and problem-solving. If your spaghetti sticks to the wall, then you know it’s cooked. If it doesn’t stick, you need to cook it more. The phrase does have its limitations though, as overcooked pasta will also cling to the wall. Likewise, Ross Patterson professes that he started a pasta business in the middle of North America’s biggest gluten-free movement, but alas, here he is today.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Valley and, frankly, have had one too many a good time that have left me licking my wounds at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market on a Saturday morning. My two main go-to dishes there: the over-the-top bagel breakfast sandwich from Stephane Levac (who’s now a chef at Just Us!) and the quark ravioli from The Noodle Guy. The latter is where I first met Ross Patterson.

A name like Patterson isn’t synonymous with pasta, but Ross explains he comes by it all honestly. Originally hailing from Montréal, Ross’ family moved to North York, Ontario and a predominantly Roman Catholic neighbourhood, where he grew up surrounded by first-generation Italians. He laughs remembering roll call at school, which would include every Italian last name and…Patterson.

As a teenage boy, he recalls piling into a kitchen with a pack of friends to make pasta or press grapes with someone’s grandmother. He also remembers having to kill a rabbit for dinner to impress a girl he was smitten with and her father. Needless to say, he fell in love with cooking and started working in restaurants when he was just 18, moving his way through the back and front of house before becoming one of the youngest general managers in a large-scale restaurant group while earning his business degree at university. His own first kick at the can was opening Twisted Oliver’s, in London, Ontario. Close to a community college and featuring live music and entertainment, it never quite became a culinary destination, so he sold it when he and his wife Erin were looking for a change. They moved to Nova Scotia in 2001 after she secured a job at Acadia University. It’s not like there were a lot of culinary jobs at that time. He had stints working at Chez Lavigne and the Union Street in Berwick, before taking a nine-year hiatus to work at the Michelin plant.

It was a trip to Spain with his wife that reignited the culinary flame. He was inspired by the culture of tapas bars in Madrid, abuzz with locals and featuring inexpensive, plentiful good wines and, most importantly, the use of authentic, local ingredients.

“I’m not Italian, but I wanted to take the basic knowledge I had, work within some guidelines and create my own take on it,” he says. “Pasta is comfort food, and this is a university town.” So, with that in mind, he christened himself “The Noodle Guy” in 2010 and launched a stand at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market. His hope was that the name would make him somewhat approachable.

He started out stir-frying fresh tagliatelle with tomatoes, basil and garlic to encourage people to buy his fresh-made pasta and take it home with their own market ingredients to cook for themselves (he also gave them the recipes to do so). Business grew. In 2011, he opened his first storefront in Port Williams, and three years later he moved to where he is now, a nearby location in the same town. Making pasta and selling pasta remained his modus operandi, as he was highly resistant to the idea of operating a restaurant. 

The truth is, The Noodle Guy business is actually run mostly by women now, with the kitchen led by Nicole Petrie. Ross also brought in a living wage policy, a counter-service-only culture and no table service, meaning he can have less staff per shift. At 40 seats, they average about 120 covers a day.

There would be no Noodle Guy without his wife Erin. Married at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario and having travelled back there for over 17 years, they got a real taste for what our wine industry would eventually become. They feature Nova Scotia whites exclusively as part of the beverage program, and there’s a local rotating red, international fare, and beer and cider from just down the way. Erin has continued to work with Ross at the market, but make no mistake: that woman serving your pasta has two master’s degrees. He’s the ideas machine, she’s the filter.

In the days of yore, and sail mostly, the river down the road was once used to transport the Valley’s abundance (from apples to potatoes) to the world’s markets, earning Port Williams the tagline “the biggest little port.” And somehow that’s reflected in this homey space with its tables fashioned out of old apple crates and big front windows letting the light stream in. There are worn wooden floors, a few easy chairs by a propane fireplace, a large chalkboard menu, one standout barn-red wall amongst a sea of other colours and a long church pew for good measure (and large groups, of course).

As I sit here on this particular sunny afternoon, the screen door continues to swing open with an endless train of customers either grabbing a quick lunch to go or filling up the place. Ross knows everyone in here. I’m surprised myself, as I know people at at least three tables who have parked themselves here for lunch and a number of the people passing through. Clearly this is a community hub.

The menu is reasonably priced and the portions are generous. The first of two pastas I try is a hearty tagliatelle with sautéed sundried tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, basil, garlic, feta, local sausage, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and fresh chives. Two tables over, organic farmers Josh and Trish from TapRoot are enjoying a few bowls of pasta at a business meeting. Winemaker Gina Haverstock from Gaspereau Vineyards and her husband Sean Myles, founder of Annapolis Cider Company, are enjoying a lingering lunch date. 

Erin and Ross Patterson

I then hearken back to my old standard, the quark ravioli. Ross explains that he was aiming to create a signature Nova Scotia dish with his hand-cut ravioli stuffed with a sharp garlic quark cheese from Fox Hill Cheese. The dish is topped with onions caramelized in maple syrup and butter and Parmigiano Reggiano, and it’s served with a generous wedge of freshly baked focaccia. It’s even better than I remember, but perhaps because I’m not hungover and standing up while eating it.

Another standard dish on the menu is the Japanese soba noodles with sautéed green onions, fresh ginger, homemade garlic black bean paste, toasted sesame oil, tamari and sambal oelek. There’s a ravioli of the day, a spaghetti with a tomato-based meat sauce, shells in a white wine and Asiago cream sauce, and a classic Noodle Guy stir-fry with rice noodles, mixed vegetables and egg. Alongside the fresh, daily handmade pasta (ranging from soba noodles to tagliatelle) and sauces for sale, they have a curated selection of goods that include whole-bean coffee, olive oils, vinegars, jams, jellies, maple syrup and more.

Ross struck out to create a place where he and his wife would want to hang out, where a Valley family could feed themselves cheaply and well, where the community could pile in for burger night or a Saturday afternoon post-market jam, and where the staff would feel good coming into work every day. The community has certainly embraced them. “This place is the whole of the sum of its parts,” he says. “I’m never disappointed in the way the place feels when people are in it. It’s just a place you want to be in.”