August 8, 1994, was a big day for Denis Krdzalic — he still remembers the date. That's the day for him: the day he came to America.
Krdzalic is from Bosnia, like many who now call St. Louis home. He was studying at the University of Zagreb in Croatia as a war that killed an estimated 100,000 people ripped through his country.
Declared an alien of Bosnia, Krdzalic, 23 at the time, was referred to American refugee services and moved to St. Louis. He couldn't even find the city on a map.
"And I'm really good at geography," Krdzalic says.
Knowing nothing about the city, Krdzalic found a forklift gig in shipping and receiving at Louisa Foods about 40 days after he arrived.
The pasta company was a fairly small operation back then. Krdzalic says about 60 workers operated a factory floor now run by a diverse workforce of roughly 250 immigrants and St. Louis natives. They push out one of the city's most recognizable dishes to far reaches of the country.
The toasted ravioli you are probably thinking about right now most likely came from Louisa. Whether it's the Super Bowl party t-ravs grabbed hot out of the oven at kickoff or the sober-you-up fried pasta you got at the bar last week, it all starts at the 1918 Switzer Avenue factory in Jennings.
Louisa Foods didn't invent t-ravs — the company's management wants that to be clear — but they make the most iconic ones, even with the rise of national competitors.
"We've never tried to be the biggest ... that has never been our goal, to be the biggest," says Tom Baldetti, the third-generation owner of the company. "We've tried to make it as good as we can."
Fernando Baldetti, an Italian immigrant and Tom's grandfather, started Louisa by hand-making traditional ravioli in the basement of Garavelli's. The cafeteria-like Midtown restaurant, where he was a partner, shuttered in the '70s. Then John Baldetti, Fernando's son, bought a ravioli machine in New York and began making ravioli as the Louisa brand in a two-family flat in Baden.
Out of the residence, the Baldettis were delivering their ravioli to restaurants across the metro area. Back then, food distribution juggernauts like US Foods and Sysco were less dominant, so restaurants frequently ordered their ingredients through local suppliers such as Louisa.
Louisa's ravioli wasn't "toasted" by the Baldettis until about 50 years ago, according to Pete Baldetti, the plant manager at Louisa. Then, a customer asked for it to be breaded, and things changed.
"So, they bought like a little tiny thing," Pete Baldetti says. "It's like a little round tunnel that turned on wheels. It was like a chicken breader I guess."
Going from that tiny chicken breader to today's factory with Italian-made machines the size of trains, Louisa has grown its brand, and with it, the notoriety of the toasted ravioli. The company eventually moved to another Baden facility, and then it's current Jennings plant in 1989, attracting workers like Krdzalic with it.
Two days before Krdzalic started driving forklifts at Louisa, he was washing windows, trying to make some cash. He came to America single and found a place to live in south city.
After a successful interview with John Baldetti — the owner of Louisa Foods at the time — Krdzalic worked his first shift on September 19, 1994, another date locked in his mind.
In Krdzalic's early days there, he biked to work. All he had to navigate St. Louis at the time was a printed map someone had given him, and he followed a wandering bus route that zigzagged through the south side.
"I would ride, but I didn't know any shortcut because of how the bus [ran]," he says. "So, it took me about 50 minutes."
Over time, Krdzalic figured out those shortcuts and began to settle into his new city. He was doing basic, entry-level work at Louisa when he began, but he felt challenged at work as he struggled with an unfamiliar language, culture and people. That's what made him stick with the company.
"I stay long because I start moving really, relatively fast to the different kinds of jobs, the different responsibilities — every time more and more responsibility," Krdzalic says. "So it's [a] challenge for me, and I like that."