The Real Deal

Fresh Mozzarella and olive oil are often imported directly from Italy.
Fresh Mozzarella and olive oil are often imported directly from Italy. thinkstock

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. 


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