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This gift, from immigrant parents, is priceless

Sherrill Ciccarelli, Jean Diehl and Cindy Murray crew the stuffing line while David Diehl delivers more pasta during Ravioli Weekend.
Sherrill Ciccarelli, Jean Diehl and Cindy Murray crew the stuffing line while David Diehl delivers more pasta during Ravioli Weekend. Modesto Bee

It's Ravioli Weekend at the Pardina house.

Carlene Pardina and her dearest friends sit at a folding table in the kitchen of her Oakdale home, laughing hysterically at a joke. Their flour-coated hands flash as they quickly fill pockets of dough with every filling you can think of -- freshly ground sausage, artichoke hearts mixed with Parmesan cheese, crab mashed with goat cheese and basil.

Flour is flying. Eighties rock is playing. Wine is flowing. It's more like a party than a daylong pasta-making marathon.

"It's how we kick off our holiday season," Carlene said.

The Pardinas and three other couples get together each year -- always on the Saturday after Thanksgiving -- to make ravioli, a tradition Mike Pardina picked up from his Italian parents. The elder Pardinas rolled the dough by hand. They spent the day making several dozen ravioli, a delicacy that later turned up on the family's Christmas table.

To say Mike and Carlene have kicked it up a notch would be an understatement. The couple and their old friends -- Jean and David Diehl, Sherrill and Tom Ciccarelli, Cindy and Steve Murray -- turn out about 400 dozen ravioli each year.

They like to have ravioli on hand for holiday entertaining, as well as for gifts. (You come to a party bearing a plate of cookies; the Pardinas come with a tray of frozen ravioli). They also like being

able to give ravioli to those in need of a wholesome, homemade meal. The group donates 100 dozen to the Redwood Family Center, a home for women recovering from addictions.

When the Pardinas and pals started making ravioli together some 15 years ago, they were lucky to crank out 12 dozen in a 10-hour day. They mixed the dough in Carlene's KitchenAid and rolled it with a hand-cranked pasta machine.

Production stepped up three years ago when they added a motor to the machine. Later, they splurged and bought Italian pasta forms and mini rolling pins online.

Sure, these foodies think the gadgets are cool. But the real draw of Ravioli Weekend is friendship. Most of the ravioli-makers met years ago at a Bible study and use the annual gathering to catch up on one another's lives. The talk moves in the blink of an eye from work to aging parents to side-splitting stories about teenage children.

"It's always a day we look forward to," said Jean Diehl, her fingers flying while stuffing ravioli. "They make me laugh, and I like that."

The group also talks about its annual progressive dinner. The four couples travel from house to house, consuming a different course at each. Ravioli always turns up at least once during the night.

Making so many ravioli takes organization. Each couple prepare fillings the day before (this means the event spans Friday-Saturday, hence the name Ravioli Weekend).

Mike's speciality is Italian sausage. Two kinds of sausage are grilled, then ground. Others bring everything from a basic filling of ground beef and spinach to a concoction of pumpkin and pine nuts.

When it comes to mass ravioli production, organization matters. The men, wearing aprons embroidered with the words "Wholey Rollers," are in charge of the dough. They mix, they roll, they stretch. The women -- their aprons read "The Ooh-la-la Girls," for reasons we'll explain -- fill and seal.

What's the secret to good ravioli? Good dough, of course. It should be thin, but not too thin. Stretchy, but not prone to tears. The women consider themselves experts. When a Wholey Roller delivers a sheet of dough they approve of, they shout "Oh-la-la."

The noise level increases as the group increases momentum. Every few minutes, someone calls out, "What's the count?" referring to the number of ravioli made so far. When each dozen is completed and wrapped for freezing, Mike rings a bell.

The friends play loud music -- they say it helps them work faster. And, of course, there's always the sound of laughter, especially when they talk about past Ravioli Weekends.

Take the time they tried to make the largest ravioli ever (they boiled it and it sunk) or the time one of the Wholey Rollers tried to hand one of the Oh-la-la Girls a 9-foot ribbon of dough.

"We can get a little carried away," Cindy Murray said. "It's a wonderful tradition."

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