My Lunch with Beatrice: One of America’s Top Importers of Italian Food Tells It Like It Is

My Lunch with Beatrice: One of America’s Top Importers of Italian Food Tells It Like It Is 150 150 David Rosengarten

Beatrice Ughi, President of Gustiamo

The first thing you perceive about Naples-born Beatrice Ughi (that’s bay-a-TREE-chay OOO-ghee) is passion. Passion for people, passion for conversation…but, most important, passion for the food and products of her beloved country, Italy.

I have been a huge fan of Beatrice’s ever since the founding of her Italian import company Gustiamo in the Bronx 14 years ago. Sure, there are many American importers of tomatoes, olive oil, pasta, etc…but only a few bring an artisan’s eye to it, only a few base their choices on connoisseurship, only a few see their imports as part of a much larger pattern congruing towards a better food world for everyone.

Last week Beatrice invited me, along with members of my team, to a tour and lunch at her office/warehouse in the South Bronx, a humble urban brick pile in a now-improving neighborhood.


The approach to Gustiamo


Stacked pasta in the warehouse on its way to a great restaurant in Ann Arbor, MI (Zingerman’s Deli also buys a ton of Gustiamo products)


Our olive-oil-tasting at Gustiamo

“Is Italian food better in America today,” I asked her right away, “than it was when you first arrived in the U.S.?”

Her face lit up. “Of course it is!” she exploded, as I knew she would. But I wanted to know how bad she thought it was 30 years ago.

“I first tasted Italian food in America in Dallas, in 1980,” she told me. “At the most luxurious Italian restaurants in town. It was embarrassing to me, as an Italian. It was the era of gloppy Fettuccine Alfredo. It was truly horrible.”

In my opinion, Beatrice’s arrival was about 20 years too late for the first golden era of Italian food in the U.S…my era, the 1960s, when Italian immigrants were serving a delicious version of that wonderful hybrid called Italian-American food, with inspiration from Beatrice’s part of Italy, the South. But that soon faded away. The pretension hit us a few years after that, in the 1970s, when “restaurants” changed to “ristoranti,” and “northern” Italian food was all the rage. Bad Italian food. Like gloppy Fettuccine Alfredo. It was the dark ages…and the southern food declined too, due to neglect! That’s the era of Beatrice’s arrival in the U.S.

Fast-forward twenty years. At the end of Beatrice’s first working decade in the U.S., the 1990s, things took a radical turn for the better. Thanks to importers like Gustiamo, “real” Italian products started to arrive in great quantity and variety. American chefs learned to do light, authentic things with these products, their eyes always on true Italian regional food. Italian food hit on TV, along with star Italian chefs. Things looked like they were on a steady, immutable track of improvement. Right through our current times.

Are they, in fact?

As we sat down to lunch, I started probing Beatrice with this question…

But first things first…mangiamo! Since there’s no kitchen at the Gustiamo warehouse, we were served an assortment of Italy-bright room temperature dishes that Beatrice put together at home for us, built from her marvelous imports. I wanted you to see the deliciousness that dwelled underneath our conversation…


Martelli penne with penniolo tomatoes; Faella fusilli with Gustiamo’s refrigerated Ligurian pesto; barley salad with capers, black cerignola olives, carrots and parsley


The merry lunch progresses with Beatrice holding court

“Well, of course things got a lot better in the 1990s,” Beatrice began. “What we have today is generally at a higher level of authenticity…and, at its best, America’s Italian food has never been better.”

“But, ” Beatrice continued, “…this is not the case everywhere.” I assumed she was talking about smaller, more central places…but she was also talking about New York City!

“There are places in America,” she said, “where Italian has become inauthentically high-end. I live in Manhattan,” she went on, “but I don’t like eating Italian food there. I hate it when an Italian restaurant is ‘a scene.’ I hate it when an Italian restaurant gets pompous.”

So no going out when she’s home?

“Oh, I go out,” she said. “I love going to Brooklyn to eat Italian food.” Two of her favorites, intriguingly, are not sticklers for authenticity: Roman’s, in Fort Greene, and Roberta’s in Bushwick. The former is a little more traditional, and the latter is a little more creative—but both have a down-to-earth, non-pretentious, freewheeling style that evokes Italy for Beatrice. She agrees that we’ll never have restaurant food in the U.S. exactly like restaurant food in Italy—but the goal now that we’ve come so far is to get the feeling right.

Of course, that does not mean that restaurateurs should ever abandon the best Italian ingredients! “One of my problems with the big-deal restaurants in America today,” Beatrice told me, “is that some of our most famous chefs, really prestigious guys, will often choose the cheap, non-Italian olive oil over the Italian olive oil that’s a little pricier. Even when the cheap stuff doesn’t taste Italian! These chefs should be defending the purity of real Italian products, as I am!”

In fact, Beatrice’s battle on this front goes beyond the borders of the U.S…and all the way back to Italy. “This is one of our biggest problems in the global growth of Italian food,” she says. “There is shocking fraud today in food production in Italy. If producers start turning towards fake products—not to mention products that are not made in a responsible, sustainable way—we will soon sacrifice our precious Italian food culture.”

Can’t the government help, I asked, when it comes to regulation?

“The Italian government?” she leapt. “The Italian government can’t go to the bathroom.”

“Well, surely, “I asked, “here in America, the growth of Italian food on television has helped us to be more vigilant about what’s real from Italy and what’s not?”

Extreme skepticism. “I am completely contrary to the whole TV explosion,” Beatrice said. “It’s ridiculous. A waste of time. These kinds of reality shows could have any subject as a background. It doesn’t have to be food. The way it is, the amount of cooking at home in America has not increased because of this TV-watching. It would be much, much better if people, instead of taking the time to watch this nonsense…took the time instead to cook at home!”

Finally, I asked, when people do cook at home in America…why is it the case that Italian food is clearly the #1 ethnic choice, the clear all-time champ when Americans look beyond their own borders?

Beatrice didn’t hesitate a moment.

“Because Italians are cool,” she shot back.

Beatrice certainly is!

I look forward greatly to working with her again when we select America’s greatest importers of Italian food, coming up in issue #1 of the re-born ROSENGARTEN REPORT, to be released on Dec. 15, 2014.

Related Posts