Love and Olive Oil at Pasta Amore

“I started this business with one skillet, one piece-of-junk car and $50,” says Leo Fascianella of Pasta Amore, the restaurant in Omaha’s Rockbrook Village that he has owned for more than 30 years.

Today, Pasta Amore is one of Omaha’s most beloved restaurants, and Chef Leo says life gets better every day. “I’m happy as hell when I come here every morning.”

He says the secret to his success is a combination of his love of simple, delicious food, learning more with each passing year, and being able to work with his family — from his wife and children, who work at the restaurant, to his relatives and neighbors in his native San Cataldo, Sicily who help him bring the sun-baked flavors of the volcanic island to landlocked Omaha — even in the dead of winter.

Chef Leo Fascianella of Omaha’s Pasta Amore restaurant. His magic power is bringing sun-baked Sicilian flavors to landlocked Omaha — even in the dead of winter.

Chef Leo Fascianella of Omaha’s Pasta Amore restaurant. His magic power is bringing sun-baked Sicilian flavors to landlocked Omaha — even in the dead of winter.

I recently experienced this firsthand when I was invited to sample several olive oils and wines from the region, as well as Chef Leo’s artful cuisine, in one of Pasta Amore’s party rooms, which is decorated with large wooden antique sideboards like the dining rooms of family homes I’ve visited in Italy.

The first olive oil was a private reserve that was produced by Chef Leo’s family — in fact, he believes he may have picked some of the olives and crushed them himself. “We make cold-pressed oil, which we crush by hand with stones,” Leo told the group.

Cold-pressed means that no boiling water, harsh chemicals or machinery is used to extract the oil from the olives. The oil yield is smaller, of course, but the product is noticeably richer and more flavorful, as heat can damage the subtle notes and aromas of the olives. It’s also a more sustainable method of producing oil, and, many believe, better for you because the polyphenols that make olive oil so healthy aren’t damaged in the process.

Next, we tried an oil that was produced from Chef Leo’s region, but not exclusively by his family. This oil is also cold-pressed, and the one he likes to use at the restaurant. “They are my neighbors, my paesani,” he says, explaining that oil from different parts of Sicily taste totally different due to changes in the terroir.

Chef Leo next brought out an organic extra-virgin, but he didn’t have much to say about it. I got the sense he prefers the millennia-old traditions in which he’s participated all his life to trendy marketing labels.

Lastly, there was a bog-standard supermarket olive oil, which gave no indication where the olives came from or were pressed. Some could be from Italy, some from Spain, some from Greece and some from Turkey. In any case, all their subtle flavors and distinct qualities are lost in the mix. “Maybe you could use it for frying,” Chef Leo concedes. “Or put it in your car.”

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A blood orange and fennel salad, lightly dressed in cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil from San Cataldo, Sicily at Pasta Amore in Omaha.

A blood orange and fennel salad, lightly dressed in cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil from San Cataldo, Sicily at Pasta Amore in Omaha.

The Lombardo family wines hail from an estate that neighbors Chef Leo’s home in San Cataldo, Sicily, with grapes grown in the same volcanic soil as the olives used in Pasta Amore’s olive oil. “Because of the artisanal way in which this wine is made, and the altitude at which the grapes are grown, it’s not as heavy as many Nero d’Avolas,” says Jerry Clemens of Chieftain Distribution. “It’s really the perfect complement to Leo’s food.”

The Lombardo family wines hail from an estate that neighbors Chef Leo’s home in San Cataldo, Sicily, with grapes grown in the same volcanic soil as the olives used in Pasta Amore’s olive oil. “Because of the artisanal way in which this wine is made, and the altitude at which the grapes are grown, it’s not as heavy as many Nero d’Avolas,” says Jerry Clemens of Chieftain Distribution. “It’s really the perfect complement to Leo’s food.”

At Pasta Amore, bringing authentic Sicilian cuisine to Omaha is a family affair. Chef Leo’s son J.J. is known for his light touch — and patience, according to Chef Leo — with handmade gnocchi.

At Pasta Amore, bringing authentic Sicilian cuisine to Omaha is a family affair. Chef Leo’s son J.J. is known for his light touch — and patience, according to Chef Leo — with handmade gnocchi.