Meet the Woman Who Brings You the Best Food Italy Has to Offer
How Beatrice Ughi became America's most influential importer of the rarest, purest foods in Italy.
I first came to know the Italian specialty food importer Beatrice Ughi while fishing for anchovies under a dome of stars somewhere off Italy’s Amalfi Coast. I’d come on Beatrice’s invitation to meet the manufacturers of a Mediterranean sauce called colatura. She’d wanted to investigate how her producer rendered the stuff, drip by drip, over the course of two years from the flesh of fish that range annually from Sicily up to Salerno. We’d spent the morning interrogating the owner of the Nettuno company in the village of Cetara and tasted his colatura’s use in a range of different dishes prepared by Pasquale Torrente in his restaurant Al Convento. But this wasn’t enough for Beatrice. Come evening, she convinced a burly, unibrowed fisherman, who did the actual fishing for Nettuno, to bring us aboard his boat, the Sacro Cuore, for nine long hours on rough water. At sea, we watched as the captain set out ancient men in lampara dinghies, their lights shining down into the sea, acting as a false moon to draw in the anchovies. We’d waited hour by hour as the fish slowly accumulated. It was just a little before dawn when the fishermen aboard the mother ship at last drew a net around the lighted dinghies and pulled in their catch. Seasick, exhausted, but jubilant that she’d finally seen “the whole process,” Beatrice turned to me with her characteristically wry smile and declared, “Now this is really slow food!”
If anyone has the right to look at an Italian culinary product and announce that it is truly artisan; natural; and, in the best way, slow, it is Beatrice Ughi. For the past 20 years, her Bronx-based company, Gustiamo, has accumulated a library, product by product, of the rarest and purest foods Italy has to offer. By building careful and respectful relationships with farmers, distillers, bakers, and confectioners, she has preserved in the amber of her catalog the endangered elegance that made Italian food world-famous in the first place—an elegance that compelled the writer Mark Bittman in his Christmas shopping newsletter last year to recommend “any products from Gustiamo.” Indeed, it is more than a happy coincidence that Beatrice shares a name with one of the guides in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Her goal is to lead Americans out of the inferno of red sauce chicanery, past the purgatorio of Batali-style bluster, and up to the paradiso that flows from local Italian artisan producers’ true passion for real food.
Curiously, Beatrice’s pathway to what is now her life’s true calling was anything but paradisiacal. Growing up in Naples during the Elena Ferrante era, she watched as her mother prepared elaborate, complicated meals and served them to everyone—except her family. “My mother would make the most beautiful dinners for sophisticated guests,” Beatrice recalls now, “and she would lock me and my brother in our room and feed us crap.” By the time she immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s as an accountant for the firm of Ernst & Young, she was living on a diet of SlimFast. But in the late 1990s, as the internet was growing, fate intervened. A small Italian start-up invited her to join their 1.0 food venture. When the internet experienced its first bust a year later, the Italians fled home and left Beatrice with the business. At that point, she could have closed up shop and thrown in the asciugamano. But as she came to know the small clutch of producers who’d started selling with Gustiamo, something strange happened. She fell in love, at last, with food.
That love was on passionate display when, on another occasion, I traveled to the Taste specialty food show in Florence with Beatrice to meet with her favorites. We stopped by the booth of the Cilento company Santomiele, which produces a fantastically flavorful fagottino for Beatrice—a mélange of white figs, almonds, and candied orange peel, encased in fig leaves and packaged neatly in a map of where the fruit is grown. Elsewhere we ran into the elegant chocolatier Marco Colzani, who makes a fluorescent-green pistachio spread composed of only four ingredients: pistachios, olive oil, sugar, and sea salt. This, along with a Colzani hazelnut spread that makes Nutella seem like a cruel joke, is sold at gustiamo.com for what at first appears to be a small fortune. The price, however, melts away the moment the pistachios hit your palate, taking you on a journey to the Sicilian orchards where they’re grown.
It is these transportations, these transcendent moments of culture and flavor that led Beatrice and Danielle Aquino Roithmayr, Beatrice’s Italian-American number-two, to stage Gustiamo pop-up food events at their Bronx warehouse and in locations throughout New York. On one occasion I played Ping-Pong in a Gustiamo-sponsored tournament against the Italian consul in New York and then later chatted with him over thin-crust pizza sauced with their flavor-bursting Gustarosso San Marzano tomatoes and bright-punch capers from the island of Pantelleria. “Beatrice is really a national treasure,” the consul told me after dispatching me in the tournament. The consul, it turns out, has a mean backhand.
Another time, we gathered in the Bronx to celebrate the first harvest of Il Tratturello olive oil and to discuss the way this most treasured of Italian liquids has suffered in the global marketplace. We let the fresh oil spread across our palates and felt the miracle of a product made in small batches on a single estate. Today, some of the supposedly Italian olive oil that comes to America is adulterated with mass-made oil from Tunisia and Turkey. And even when Italian food is truly Italian, an ever-larger portion is being co-opted by the Mafia, which squeezes its producers into insolvency. As the food critic and Italian food specialist Katie Parla wrote, “The corruption is so extensive it’s nearly impossible to ensure that the [Italian] food we eat ... has been harvested by people earning a dignified, living wage, or any wage at all.” Fortunately, thanks to Gustiamo, Parla concluded “you can fight the Mafia from the safety of your own home with every online [Gustiamo] purchase.”
And fight Beatrice does. It’s her strength, her passion, and her playfulness that come through in every product. “I just love Beatrice,” Victor Hazan, husband and collaborator to the late great Italian cookbook writer Marcella Hazan, said at a dinner a couple of years ago at Gustiamo’s warehouse. “She is so ... so ... bold.” Bold indeed. And playful. And gracious. And special. Everything we want Italian food to be. Indeed, if Marcella Hazan taught us how to take that very bold and special feeling of Italy when we cook, Beatrice Ughi has at last brought that feeling of the real Italy to us when we shop.
From Gustiamo, with Love
F&W Gustiamo Gift Box($160)
Since 1999, Gustiamo has been importing the most authentic food from Italian artisans who are dedicated to their traditions. For the readers of Food & Wine, Gustiamo has pulled together a gift boxfeaturing the flavors from this article: colatura di alici, produced by drawing off the liquid given off by curing anchovies under salt, is an easy way to add concentrated umami anchovy flavor to a dish. (Stumped for how to use it? A printout of the closely guarded family recipe for Spaghetti con La Colatura from the maker, Raffaella of Nettuno, and some bronze die-cut Martelli spaghetti will get you started.) Two more favorite producers are represented by DaniCoop San Marzano Tomatoes, from a Campania consortium of tomato farmers, and meaty La Nicchia salted capers, cured and packed in Trapani sea salt. To sweeten the deal, you’ll find Marco Colzani’s chocolate hazelnut spread and pistachio spread, complex asphodel honey from Sardinia, and a delicate white fig jam from farmer Francesco Vastola. (To order, visit gustiamo.com/foodandwine.)