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T-Rav Nation: How the St. Louis Favorite Gets Made 

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click to enlarge Once made in the Baldetti family’s flat, Louisa’s t-ravs are now produced in Jennings and shipped around the country. - ANDY PAULISSEN
  • ANDY PAULISSEN
  • Once made in the Baldetti family’s flat, Louisa’s t-ravs are now produced in Jennings and shipped around the country.

Krdzalic worked eighteen months before getting a first promotion, and that's about the time he ate his first t-rav. And he liked it.

"It's so specific for Midwest and everything," Krdzalic says. "I think it has some kind of appeal ... it's a great product."

But in his early months at Louisa, he took home the company's lasagna, not toasted ravioli, because it was easy to make.

"I came here as a single guy, you know, just me," he says. "We are coming from parts of the world [where it's] not too custom for males to be really good and familiar with the kitchen. ... Just, I need to put it in the oven. It's like big deal for me, I can go all week."

Climbing his way up, Krdzalic became a living Wikipedia of Louisa — it seems like he knows everything about the company. He also took on the role of an unofficial interpreter.

"When I first got here — I retired from the Air Force in 2003 — Denis was a second-shift supervisor," Pete Baldetti says. "And that shift had probably 75 or 80 percent Bosnian people, so it really made it so he could be very effective in the communication and everything."

On a recent morning on the windowless, timeless factory floor of Louisa, Krdzalic points his finger at workers huddled over a production line.

"Mexico, Bosnia, Jennings, Jennings, Venezuela ... Nigeria and Myanmar," he says, describing the varied nationalities of those shifting boxes of ravioli into bigger boxes.

Krdzalic, 50, is now the production manager at Louisa. Every shift, he finds a way to communicate with production-floor workers from about 30 countries, whether it be through pushing a thin vocabulary to its limit or using hand signals. In that process, he has stretched his own international dictionary.

"Every time somebody calls with a foreign language, they transfer it to me, like I know 50 languages," Krdzalic says.

And just about everyone else at Louisa has grown their vocabulary, out of necessity.

"I have a guy in the freezer, Korean, who knows at least twenty Bosnian words," Krdzalic says, shouting over the constant hum of big machines. "He knows probably 50 with the bad ones."

From ravioli being stamped out, to boxes of oven-ready ravioli rolling off the line, all the steps involved in making a Louisa toasted raviolo occur on one uninterrupted line.

"Nobody knows who invented toasted ravioli," says Tom Baldetti. "I think I do know that we're the first ones to make a continuous process."

All the pieces — and workers, with how they communicate — need to be synchronized for things to work. The first pieces, including raw ingredients such as diced vegetables, shredded parmesan cheese and ground beef, start off in vegetable, cheese and meat rooms steeped in the aromas of their ingredients.

Krdzalic reminisces back to when workers would set up shop in the vegetable room, hand-peeling onions for the next day's production. Although onions come to the factory pre-peeled now, Louisa products start with the fundamentals. Mushrooms are inspected by hand when they arrive, vegetables are cut fresh, and 15,000 pounds of cheese per shift gets grated through a two-step process, he says.

Many of these ingredients converge in a production kitchen. Unlike your kitchen, there aren't any stovetops, toasters or Whirlpool ovens, but rather 500-gallon tanks that can cook off up to 3,000 pounds of filling each batch, according to Krdzalic, who moves aside for workers carting heavy tubs of the ingredients through the room. Walking out of the kitchen, you see the lines.

A handful of production lines snake through the busy factory. The scene feels a little like a Willy Wonka factory. Walking around, you come inches from machines heated to hundreds of degrees and occasionally have to step over pipes. The company pushes out 40,000 pounds of breaded ravioli per shift.

Conveyor belts and rotors push the pasta from one end of a line to another, through Italian-crafted machines that cook an array of products, including gnocchi and tortellini.

T-ravs start as dough. Flour flows from a ceiling duct into automated mixers set on a platform that rises above the production floor. The combination then gets "mixed, mixed, mixed," as Krdzalic says, and sent to each line.

The dough lands in extruders that squeeze out uniform sheets. For the t-ravs, it takes two sheets of dough to encase the filling, which is inserted by pistons. That's how Krdzalic says it should be.

"Some companies, they cheat," he says. "They make one single pasta. They flip it over and they call [it] ravioli. ... That's a different kind of pasta."

Custom-made Italian dies then pop out uniform ravioli. Louisa has shelves of these antique dies ready to go. Along with other parts, they get tweaked to custom specifications by the company's mechanics, Krdzalic says.

"We will buy some stuff and we will modify it," he says. "That's nice, to be part of something that it's, no, it's just not like blasting ravioli."

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