Food Matters: Free pasta as panacea for tough times at Francesca’s Pasta Market & Empanadas

Amanda Rae
Food Matters


Free Pasta Wednesday

Free Gnocchi Friday

Francesca’s Pasta Market & Empanadas

Open Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat 10 a.m-5 p.m.

300 AABC, Suite A


Whisking through his flour-dusted enclave in the Aspen Airport Business Center last week, Martin Meineri greets a visitor with the weary yet satisfied smile of a chef working overtime to feed his community.

Meineri, like many local artists, craftsmen and caterers, has spent the past month and a half hunkered down in serious production mode. Though calls and customers keep coming in for orders — meat or veggie lasagna in 10 to 40 (or single) servings, smoked bacon-chicken ravioli in red bell pepper dough, and nine types of empanadas being most popular on his menu of Argentinian and Italian specialties — Meineri has cut hours of two full-time staff dramatically, leaving him to pick up the slack.

Yet Francesca’s Pasta Market & Empanadas has always been a labor of love. Named for his daughter, Francesca, now 7 years old, the operation has grown from a small storefront that opened next to City Market in Aspen in December 2011 to a 2,000-square-foot production facility in the AABC. For a few years after moving the company here in 2015, Meineri focused exclusively on catering — his three-bite miniature empanadas (and full-size handheld versions) are a signature snack at events such as Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) festivals and Aspen Valley Polo Club summer tournaments, as well as private parties.

In 2018, Meineri added the storefront here, inviting customers inside to enjoy long, multicolored strands of fresh egg pasta (fettuccini, spaghetti and pappardelle, flavored with spinach, beet and carrot); seven kinds of ravioli; five handmade sauces; and those signature empanadas, each crust stamped with Francesca’s aspen-leaf logo. All are available for takeaway, of course.

On April 1, Meineri launched Free Pasta Wednesday, offering 1 pound of fresh pasta to the first 50 people who walk through the door. It’s his way of showing gratitude to the community, and a clever tactic to draw first-timers to the shop. Perhaps itching for an excuse to get out of the house on a food run during Aspen’s “stay at home” order, folks have been so responsive to Francesca’s Wednesday special that Meineri is expanding further.

On Friday, May 1, Meineri will give away 40 pounds of potato-ricotta gnocchi in similar fashion. One pound equals two to three servings.

“I’ve been making more fancy food, more vegan food: vegan pasta and gluten-free pasta,” Meineri says. “Everything is for order. Gluten-free spinach with basil. I mix flavors. Same with ravioli (and) vegan lasagna.”

Native to Argentina — where empanadas, or pastry turnovers stuffed with beef, chicken, or cheese and vegetables rule the country’s street food scene — Meineri learned the craft, as well as the art of Argentinian barbecue (which he prepares upon request), at a young age from his mother. Later he lived in Macerata, Italy, for four years, to attend culinary school, work in restaurants, and absorb time-honed techniques from his father and grandfather.

Today, Meineri pushes quality, using organic flour and sustainably sourced meats in his creations. (He shot and killed the lamb for spinach ravioli himself at a Carbondale ranch, for instance, and recently turned out more than 100 empanadas from a hunter’s wild boar.) An impressive coconut “ricotta” fills his vegan cheese ravioli; house pesto is made purely of fresh green herbs, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil.

“It’s different-tasting,” explains the chef, noting that he boosts slow-simmered Bolognese with bacon and pork and makes pizza, flan, tiramisu, carrot cake and custom birthday cakes, too. “This is my passion, cooking.”