The Real Deal
U.S. chefs and operators are turning to imported foods to ensure an authentic Italian experience. Here’s how to navigate the importing business.
It’s become a popular trend for U.S. chefs to source ingredients from specific regions and farms, and many chefs and owners even meet the farmers who raise produce and animals before buying goods from them.
It’s a little tougher, however, when that farmer is in Italy. It takes considerable time and money to get to know a particular farmer or product from Campania, Lombardy, or Parma. But Italian restaurants are still turning to imported Italian foods to ensure their menus are as authentic as possible.
“We found you need to do your due diligence and know where your ingredients are coming from,” says Michael Grant, co-owner of New York’s Antico Noe, the American outpost of Florence, Italy’s legendary panini shop. Most of his ingredients are imported. “If you can source from a quality distributor and have a good rapport with that distributor, they are able to import most of what you want, and it’s not that difficult.”
It’s critical that Antico Noe uses many of the same ingredients as the Florence location—Prosciutto di Parma, prosciutto cotto, calabrese, and mortadella among them—since the shop “has a huge cult following and people know it very well,” Grant says.
While some operators work specifically with a distributor to get the items they want, others rely on the trusted foodservice division of specialty retailers.
“We’ve been very, very fortunate to use a local company that specializes in importing ingredients like cheese, pasta, and olive oil, all of which we use regularly,” says Rich Friedrich, chef at PJW Restaurant Group, which has about 20 Philadelphia-area eateries. “We know that some products, including seasonal ones, will not be available all the time, so we run them as limited-time offers.”
The exploding demand for local, authentic cuisine has been fueled by Millennials, who demand food that is real and less processed, says John Stephano, director of marketing at Atalanta, a food importer based in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Those attributes fit Italian food perfectly, he adds. “If there’s ever been a true farm-to-fork or true artisan story, it’s the food made in Italy—not just for a generation, but for centuries,” he says.
Take Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Stephano points to the fact that it’s been made the same way for 700 years, using the same equipment and recipe. “It has the story and that authenticity,” he says. “It’s something restaurants can shout out.”
Importing is much easier than it was more than a century ago, when Di Palo’s Fine Foods in New York first began importing items from Italy. Back then, there wasn’t even refrigeration for products shipped across the Atlantic, says Lou Di Palo, leader of the family store’s third generation.
“It was a minimum 14 days in the hold,” he says. “In the summer months, some products would be fermenting.” That’s one reason the company began making its own Mozzarella, which continues today.
Now, with refrigeration, faster boats, and air shipments, importing authentic Italian goods is much easier and quicker. Still, for highly perishable products, even taking three or four days to deliver will mean the product is over the hill. For those, Di Palo’s leaves the importing to others.
“With something like buffalo Mozzarella, there can be a problem if it’s left on the tarmac too long and not packed right,” Di Palo says. “It can go bad too fast. So I pay a little more to let another company take the headaches.”
As Di Palo explains in his book, Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy, many Italian foods have centuries of history behind them, and knowing who is producing the items—a knowledge that is sometimes built on relationships spanning generations—is key to making sure of their authenticity.
Atalanta does this with its numerous business development managers, who build direct relationships with farmers and producers overseas.
“You have to spend the money to get in front of them,” Stephano says. “Anyone who thinks you can ensure the quality and authenticity of a product by having someone else be the middle man is sadly mistaken.”
Some products don’t need as much analysis and study, he adds, “but if there is enhancement involved, from cheese to olive oil to charcuterie, you need to be fully engaged.” That includes plant inspections and spot testing for quality, Stephano says.
Although importing is quicker than ever and the quality control is better, doing so still requires expertise due to federal food-safety rules, restrictions on some products, and even Homeland Security issues. And of course, fraud is always lurking. Just last year, thousands of tons of extra virgin olive oil headed to the U.S. were found to be bogus. Consumers and even professionals who were not thoroughly trained might not know the difference between authentic and fraudulent products.
“There’s always been fraud in olive oil,” Di Palo says. He mentions a situation his grandmother experienced during World War II, when Italian olive oil was hard to get in New York. A peddler nearby was selling gallons of it for a low price.
“People tasted it and it was good,” he says. “It turns out it was 15 percent olive oil and 85 percent water. The oil rose to the top, so that’s what they tasted.” υ