Bucatini, anchovy fillets in olive oil, cans of San Marzano tomatoes, Sicilian extra virgin oil olive — these are items we buy from grocery stores or consume at restaurants and don’t think much about where they came from. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Americans are learning not to take food for granted, especially food that comes from northern Italy’s Lombardia, Veneto and Emilia Romagna regions, which together account for 52% of the total production of Italy’s food sector.
“We’ve gotta give business to the good Italian people supporting their families and the people who work in Italy — that’s what we have to do.”
But is Italy’s crisis impeding shipments of our beloved pastas and balsamic vinegars? Not necessarily.
“The strangest thing is, production and shipping in Italy has not come to a halt,” said Rolando Beramendi, who owns the Oakland and New York-based Italian food import company Manicaretti. “People are still producing and shipping. Every day I’m in close communication with the 38 producers I work with in Italy. They’re fine. The trucks are able to get to the port.”
As an importer, Beramendi is one of many people based in the U.S. who helps stores and restaurants get their (clean) hands on Italy’s high-quality products. Though, these days, the news changes hourly. Last Wednesday, President Donald Trump said in his address to the nation that the U.S. was banning “all travel” from Europe to the U.S. — including cargo — but an hour later he clarified it didn’t include American travelers or cargo.
“When I heard the president saying that, my heart sank,” Beramendi said. “With a virus, it’s a completely different game. You don’t know where it is, where it’s going. It’s uncharted territory what we’re going into. I feel like somebody hit me with a pan on my head. We’re all sitting on the edge of the table right now not knowing what’s going to happen.”
For the first time in 30 years, Beramendi, who divides his time between New York and Florence, is unable to travel, which is an important part of his import business. “I sort of feel it’s the best way to handle all of this,” he said.
Beatrice Ughi, founder of the Bronx-based Italian food import company Gustiamo and a native of Naples, Italy, got one last trip to her homeland at the end of February, before the world changed. “I arrived in Italy like it was nothing. In a couple of hours, the whole world collapsed on us,” she said. After spending a whole week in the country, including visiting producers in Sardinia, she had no choice but to abridge her trip and return to New York City the first weekend of March — though she said no one at customs asked her questions nor took her temperature.
Alessandro Bellini of the Italian food import company Viola Imports, is based in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village. All three importers we spoke to corral products from Italy via plane and boat. But unlike Beramendi and Ughi, Bellini’s shipments include some perishable items, like mozzarella di bufala and burrata, though the cheeses are just a small portion of the business. Cargo is able to get to the U.S. for now, but a recent cheese order has been affected.
Jessica Flores, Viola’s general manager, said, “The cheese is not coming. A combination of surge pricing in the air cargo rates and a series of flight cancellations gave us no choice but to cancel the cheese shipment. We have canceled all imported cheese orders until things get better.”
“If Lufthansa has no passengers, they’re not sending the plane,” Bellini said.
The way importing works is that the company representatives spend time in Italy visiting established vendors and food shows, such as Florence’s Taste, which Beramendi was supposed to attend in early March. Bellini and Flores were supposed to visit Italy for food shows and meetings in March too.
“Everything started to get pushed to September,” Beramendi said. “That really hurt. It hurts because Italy depends so much on the relationship with the U.S. We can’t live without each other now.” (The U.S. is Italy’s third-largest trading partner.)
Each company works with 30 to 50 producers, mainly small, family-owned businesses, who cultivate things like San Marzano tomatoes, De Carlo olive oil (the best, according to Bellini) and Ligurian pine nuts. The importers sell between 300 and 400 goods to hundreds of accounts.
“I’m an ambassador or translator and try to get people to embrace sometimes obscure little products,” Beramendi said. He sells wholesale to big accounts like Whole Foods and Fresh Market, as well as restaurants.
For Gustiamo, a truck transfers goods from its warehouse in Milan to the port, and a boat ferries the food to a Bronx warehouse. Ughi and a staff of 10 people manage accounts that include 40 prominent restaurants in New York City and 40 more restaurants across the U.S. Gustiamo also distributes to grocery stores and sells the products on the company’s website so the public can fill their pandemic pantries.
Viola supplies 300 places across the country, including cruise ships, airlines and Chicago chefs. The company doesn’t have online ordering, but is planning to add it soon.
If the travel ban scare wasn’t enough, over the past week, governors announced restaurants and bars in a number of states, which include large cities like Chicago and New York, would either close down completely or allow only takeout and/or delivery. The mayor of Los Angeles also implemented a similar order there. And areas of Northern California were given a “shelter in place” order that began Monday night.
These mandates transformed a tough situation into something more nebulous. Ughi said she’s seen an increase in online sales, which will mitigate declining restaurant business, but she speculated sales were linked to unnecessary panic buying.
“I can’t tell you how many orders we received from customers who stocked their pantries for four months compared to what they usually buy,” she said. “We have to be calm.”
Beramendi has also seen a jump in sales, as much as 10 times the usual orders, from Whole Foods and Fresh Market. “We have started to ration our orders among all our clients in order not to leave anyone without product, and we are trying really hard to get more inventory here ASAP,” Beramendi said. (Viola said it has plenty of inventory.)
But without functioning restaurants in much of the U.S. and with a pending recession in Italy (and in the U.S.), the grim reality is Gustiamo and Viola might have to lay off or reduce hours for their employees. “One of our key philosophies at Viola is to always be diversified, but this is going to hit us regardless, as much as we want to be diversified,” Bellini said. “What we’re doing now is finding new opportunities and new customers, and that’s all we can do. At the end of the day, people have to eat.”
His employees can’t work for home — they have to deliver the food. Ughi, however, admits she’s worried but is also optimistic her restaurants will return in a month or so. “If it’s longer than two months, then we have some problems,” she said.
The future remains volatile for these importers — Italy and its producers aren’t anywhere near out of the woods. For now, Americans will still be able to enjoy their Bella di Cerignola olives and orecchiette. The main concern is how the importers’ businesses will be affected with COVID-19 spreading in the U.S., leading to restaurants closing, mandatory lockdowns and looming staff layoffs.
During our interview, Ughi lamented one of her restaurants was more than a month late paying for supplies, and that restaurant is now closed for the foreseeable future. She said she prepays her producers, so a lack of revenue flow to her company could be devastating. Despite what continues in Italy and what is happening now in the U.S., we can take refuge in knowing that great Italian food will weather the COVID-19 maelstrom, and so far there are no signs of San Marzano tomato shortages, thanks to the hardworking and passionate Italian producers and their American-based importers. “We’ve gotta give business to the good Italian people supporting their families and the people who work in Italy — that’s what we have to do,” Bellini said.
Ughi got reflective and said she thought the virus was revealing how short life is. “Your time is precious, therefore let’s spend it doing something with good food,” she said. “It’s showing me that when this is over, more people will have realized that food is important in the world — and they should take better care of themselves. We’ll get through this.”
“In this whole moment, I hope it passes really fast, because we need each other,” Beramendi said.