Bloomfield has started to look a bit more heavenly, and it has nothing to do with the grand St. Joseph Church that has long loomed over the busy thoroughfare. Rather, new stained glass window accents and signage sporting little dumplings with halos have added celestial touches to the earthly storefront that previously housed the Claussen Cafehaus on Liberty Avenue.
The storefront is the new home of Saint Ravioli, a one-man operation started by Justin Avi. The former insurance salesman took up residence in the business after years of making and giving away homemade raviolis through an Instagram account that now has over 3,700 followers.
Pittsburgh City Paper found Avi standing at his work station in front of the store window, through which passersby can watch him feed long, wide strips of fresh pasta dough through an electric roller attached to a Kitchenaid mixer.
At the time, he was busy making 500 dozen raviolis in preparation for Bloomfield festival Little Italy Days, taking the flattened dough and hand-pressing it into a tray with 12 round molds. He squeezes dollops of his signature four-cheese mixture (or quattro formaggi in Italian) into each mold with a pastry bag, and then cuts and shapes them into little, scalloped dumplings.
“My goal today is to get 60-something dozen done,” he says, his Kitchenaid busily whirring.
After years of only operating online, he made his in-person debut at the 2021 Little Italy Days, where he says he sold every one of the 280-plus dozen raviolis made for the event. He worked with Connor Claussen, who had been running his now-closed store, Claussen Cafehaus, out of the building. Avi, who had been making and distributing raviolis out of his Bloomfield home, says Claussen invited him to sell his product on the sidewalk in front of the storefront.
As Avi explains, Claussen later realized he no longer wanted to run Cafehaus and transferred the lease over to him. In February, Avi says, he moved into the space, where he shares rent and kitchen resources with another business owner who also works with food.
Avi says he began making raviolis about five or six years ago after receiving a pasta roller as a gift. Over the years, he has experimented with different flavors, including “a few winters ago” when he used ducks he harvested from a successful hunting trip.
When the pandemic hit, he decided to put his ravioli-making skills to good use by distributing the popular pasta to friends and Instagram followers who missed dining out at restaurants. “I did it at the beginning of the pandemic to keep myself connected to people,” says Avi.
He added a philanthropic angle by requesting donations to help support his friends in the service industry who were struggling financially during the shutdown. (Avi says he previously managed Mercurio’s in Shadyside and worked at Iron Born in the Strip District.)
“I was, like, look, the restaurants are closed down, I know so many people in the restaurant industry,” he says, adding that many of his unemployed friends didn’t have worker benefits but had families to support. “I was, like, if anyone lost their job or needs a meal or something, hit me up. If you’d like some raviolis and have the means, feel free to donate.”
Customers responded with generosity, says Avi, giving the example that someone donated $100 for a few dozen ravioli.
He did his first ravioli “drop” for Thanksgiving 2020 with dumplings containing ingredients befitting the holiday (turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, gravy, and ricotta). Since then, his flavors have included Italian wedding soup, slow-cooked carnitas raviolis made for Cinco de Mayo, and Shepherd's pie for St. Patrick’s Day. He has also made vegan-friendly raviolis with butternut squash and zucchini.
He took the charity aspect of St. Ravioli to the next level by using it to support different causes. He says he previously raised $725 for Hearts of the Homeless and over $1,000 for the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.
He calls the approach “altruistic ravioli,” a quality that led to the business getting its name. He recalls that, during a poker game over Zoom, one of his friends called him “Saint Ravioli,” and it stuck.
As Saint Ravioli grew in popularity, he decided to quit his job selling insurance and make pasta full time. Still, he says the stress of COVID-19 made him realize that, while he wanted to own his own business, he didn’t want to run a restaurant. Instead, people can order raviolis and pick them up at the storefront, and then prepare them at home.
Moving forward, Avi says he wants to hire a small staff to keep up with demand. He also wants to add other items to his menu, including agnolotti, another filled pasta akin to a smaller ravioli.
“The structure of it, it creates a little pocket that holds sauce, it’s like a genius pasta design,” raves Avi, adding, “Ravioli is great, it’s the king of the stuffed pastas. If it’s the king, agnolotti is the queen.”
Saint Ravioli. 4615 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. instagram.com/saint.ravioli