Most Saturdays lately, you can find Linda Croley of Bare Naked Noodles in her tent at the Drive-Thru Market, happily loading pasta boxes, sauces and casseroles into the trunks of eager customers. She had another life, before she became the one and only fresh pasta producer and retailer in Alabama, and that experience explains why her dishes are so tasty and what drives her to keep making and innovating.
A native of Long Island in New York, Linda grew up in an Italian household with parents who loved to cook, although she didn’t really start cooking for herself until she was in her 30s. She was working as a stock broker in Chicago at the time, and had a crew of coworkers who loved to try out all the finest restaurants in the city. The more fine dining she experienced, the more she wanted to learn how to recreate the dishes herself. Weekends, she explored Chicago’s diverse farmers markets, talking to vendors and learning about different ingredients. She says now she should have quit finance right then and gone to culinary school, but “the money was too good.” So she kept her day job and dug into cooking in her spare time. Nights and weekends, she took classes at culinary schools in New York and Chicago. When she was on vacation she took classes at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, and in private kitchens in Italy. She started paying attention to her parents’ traditional Italian cooking too, and dreaming of a second career one day when she would retire. During this time, she moved to Birmingham to work for Protective Life.
Her retirement day finally did come in 2014. A year after she founded Bare Naked Noodles, she put on her apron full time. Seven years later, she works every day in the kitchen alongside Mike Brady, former executive chef at Gianmarco’s for 14 years, building the homemade pasta business, and making Bare Naked Noodles a known brand.
Here are a few pointers Linda shared. The typical “fresh pasta” you get in grocery stores is manufactured from standard ingredients, often includes preservatives, and is hardly what you call “fresh.” The fresh pasta Bare Naked Noodles sells at the Market on Saturday was made with premium ingredients, by the pasta team in the production kitchen the day before (the photo below is of fettuccine being made right now). In fact, the team makes pasta in the shop every day so even the dried pasta is as fresh as pasta gets. You can find BNN pastas in several locally owned grocery stores, on the menu in 6 different local restaurants (pre-COVID), and in the Goat Hill Museum in Montgomery. Bare Naked Noodles’ pasta-making classes will soon be available again and BNN will prepare most any custom pasta dish for events and parties. She gives back to the community too. She is an active member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, whose mission is providing support to women in the food industry. In the early days of the COVID shutdown, Linda and her team prepared and delivered dozens of trays of baked ziti, rolls and salad to front line medical professionals at St. Vincent’s.
Linda loves farmers markets, especially Pepper Place and says it’s has been a huge boost to the pasta business. She’s particularly enjoyed getting to know the farmers and food vendors at Pepper Place and is always looking for ways they can collaborate. Linda is constantly innovating, and thinking about how she become better. During her mornings at the Drive-Thru Market, when she’s not helping customers, you’ll see her with a notepad, brainstorming new recipes and new ways to get others as excited about pasta as she is.