Interview #20: John Welch's Ravioli Molds
Eye-catching (and sauce-catching) filled pasta starts with these hand-made wooden masterpieces.
The depths of pasta Instagram are a fun place to lurk around. People get pretty wild: There are ravioli that look like elegant floppy hats, designer-inspired Gucci and Burberry ravioli, filled pastas shaped like dinosaurs or legos—you name it, it’s there.
Meryl Feinstein—the pasta whiz behind Pasta Social Club, a virtual hub of recipes and classes that I highly recommend to anyone looking to learn or level up their pasta skills—creates pastas that are less avant garde but no less visually appealing (see: vivid fuschia cappelletti flowers, each petal holding a pool of butter sauce; foglie d’ulivo colored to resemble autumn leaves).
And it’s on her Instagram that I first spotted these stunning celestial ravioli, complete with plump filled crescent moons.
The molds responsible for this distinctive look are the handiwork of Lowell, Massachusetts-based woodworker John Welch of John Francis Designs, and this celestial variety is just one of many that he creates. (BTW: They’d make an excellent gift for the pasta fan in your life.)
John has been selling food-friendly carved wood pieces (including spoons, cheese boards, and more) since 2014, after a home-renovation project sparked a passion for woodworking. In 2020, when COVID hit, inspiration struck during unanticipated downtime. “I liked making pasta, and was like, I wonder if I carved a pattern, if it would transfer to the pasta,” he says. It worked.
He surrendered his work to the Instagram pasta gods, and they responded. “I wasn't looking to sell them, it was just like here's something cool I made. And it had way more interaction than anything I had posted in a while,” he says. “I was like, huh, maybe there's something here.” He started selling them in November of 2020; once enthusiastic pasta makers started photographing the edible art they created with John’s tools—which he carves from maple, walnut, cherry, and richlite—and sharing them online, they took off.
One of these pasta makers was none other than, of course, Meryl—who recently launched her own Substack,, where you can not only gaze at her beautifully photographed dishes, but gain access to her excellent pasta recipes. Her latest, which dropped today, was designed specifically around John’s newest ravioletti (i.e. tiny ravioli) mold. “If you really want ravioli that are beautiful, where everything looks pristine, that's where a mold is really helpful,” Meryl told me. “It really gives you these uniform, beautiful-looking pieces of pasta in a way that is much more difficult to achieve free-hand, or even with cookie cutters.”
Meryl’s recipe is a Tuscan-inspired pear and pecorino ravioletti with a rich cheese sauce that was carefully designed to adequately dress the pasta generously without concealing its looks. “When using a mold like John's, my biggest goal with a dish is to ensure you can see that design,” she says. “Any sauce or condiment that obscures his carving is not worth it to me—why make these beautiful ravioli if you can't see them?”
Stay tuned for a full-fledged pasta interview with Meryl in the future—for now, learn all about John’s creative process, how he designs his stunning molds, and how he cooks with his ravioletti mold below.
Why do you think that the ravioli molds took off the way they did?
So part of my philosophy around all the things I've made—whether it's spoons, serving boards, or carved mirrors—is that people tend to be too precious with the luxuries of life: the fine silverware comes out once a year at the holidays. I always wanted to make nice heirloom quality things that you would want to use all the time. If you're just making a weeknight dinner for your family, why can’t you use a nice hand-carved spoon?
For a lot of people, making fresh pasta is a special occasion. When you add that pattern visually, it gives you a little extra something. Most of the patterns also really help hold the sauce, especially if you're doing a brown-butter sauce or something like that—you have all the little wells where the butter's going to pool.
Do you see similarities with the process of making pasta from scratch and making wooden tools from scratch? In this day and age, both can be easily automated—so it’s a deliberate choice to take a handcrafted approach.
There is. I guess I don't really consider myself a "spiritual" person, but a lot of the tools I have are pre-used: they're carving tools that I bought at estate sales or that have been handmade by a small company. And I feel like each of these tools has a different—for a lack of a better word—soul, and that when I carve something with it, I'm putting a little bit of myself into what I'm making. Then you take it one step further when myself or somebody else is making dinner, that soul you’re putting into the food, I think there's a cumulative effect of all these things coming together.
At this point though with the molds, I’m not sitting there with a chisel hand-carving the whole thing. I’m using a lot of routers and jigs and power tools. It's not realistic to hand-carve every single one from start to finish, but they're all still handmade by me. It’s like how with dried pasta, there's a difference between versions made with a big corporate machine versus from a small-scale local dried pasta place that is still using machinery. There’s still small-scale care and thought.
You’ve done molds that have celestial patterns, and ones with side-by-side fillings. When designing a new mold, where do you start? What’s your typical point of origin?
Sometimes it's triggered by a design I have in mind, sometimes it’s dictated by a meal that I think would work out well, and sometimes it’s the pattern. I love art deco anything, so some of the patterns are designs that have been inspired by a whole stack of art deco books. Part of why I like that whole period is the amount of detail they would put on things that don't need detail, which really feeds into what I'm doing with these ravioli molds—at the end of the day, the pasta doesn't taste different from one without a pattern.
If I have a pattern or design in mind, I'll try to figure out a way to translate that into wood, that then will translate into pasta—I have a bulls-eye style, for example, that was a shot-in-the-dark idea that wound up working out.
Another example is that I wanted to make a corn-filled ravioli using a mold that looked like a corn cob with a corn pattern on it. So that one kind of worked backwards from the meal I wanted to make [ed note: see the finished product above].
I always have a notebook on me. I keep one in my car, I keep one in my bag, I keep one in my desk. If I have an idea, I jot it down because otherwise I forget.
Has making these molds changed the way that you engage with and cook filled pastas at home?
Well, I'd say there's two sides of the coin. I never put a new design out without testing it first, and I like to have photos. So sometimes it’s a crap, I have to find time this weekend to make ravioli and the recipe is just quick and dirty with a ricotta filling because I need to test the mold out. And then on the flip side, there are times where the flavors really inspire me, and I take all day to make a really in-depth filling and just enjoy the process. I do have a packed freezer, because I always make more than I can eat in one sitting.
Is there one that turned out especially well that you are proud of?
I made a little ravioletti mold: they’re about an inch by an inch, like a bite-sized ravioli. I made them that size because it was coming up on the fall and I love soup season, and I really wanted to make ravioli en brodo. Recently I finally had the chance to do that, and I wanted to make my version a pantry meal.
The filling was just mortadella, ham, and prosciutto, and the broth was boxed chicken broth with a parmesan rind. It was so delicious and so simple, compared to some recipes that have 50 ingredients and take all day. For the amount of time involved, that’s one I’m proud of.
Then there are other times where I get really involved—I made lobster ravioli, and made stock from the lobster carcasses and then turned that into a beurre blanc. It was an all-day process and it’s very delicious, but it was almost like should I have just gone out to eat?
What does a mold have to accomplish in order for you to know that you've gotten it right and that it's successful? What are the things that it needs to be able to do?
There's a few things: On the pasta end of it, the mold needs to have a deep enough carving that it'll transfer the impression to the pasta without you having to really put a lot of pressure on it. I want it to very easily transfer and hold that pattern.
And then the pattern has to be repeatable over time. If you used plastic, you can make whatever pattern you want and it will hold. But because wood is wood and it’s organic, every piece is a little different. I'll have three boards of cherry, and one of them for whatever reason just tends to be a little drier or more fragile. So I wind up scrapping, I don't know, 30% of the molds I make because I'm just not happy with the detail that got transferred.
Can I make it repeatedly without chipping the wood? And then on the other end, will the mold reliably transfer that pattern to the pasta over and over again? Those are the two ends of it.
A lot of time and a lot of TLC goes into making these molds. Why is it worth doing to you?
It comes back to that whole philosophy of not saving the precious for special occasions only. Same thing with the molds. I feel like for the most part, if people are taking the time to make a meal like this, I assume they're sharing it with other people and it's not just a party of one sitting there and eating their fancy ravioli.
And the fact that I can be somehow involved in bringing people together for anything, whether it's a celebratory meal or not, is very powerful, and I really enjoy that.
Above the Fold was created by Leah Mennies. Logo + dumpling icons by Claudia Mak.
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.
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