You might not know Gustiamo, but if you keep up with the New York restaurant scene, you've probably had the pasta, tomatoes, and olive oil the company imports. Its clients read like a who's who of Brooklyn restaurants, including Andrew Tarlow's restaurant group (Reynard, Diner, and others), Roberta's, Julianna's, and Franny's, plus boutique grocers Bedford Cheese, Brooklyn Larder, and Manhattan's All Good Things.
Gustiamo never sought out this business. It all started with one chef's trip to Italy and, as it so often does, a tomato.
The Gustiamo warehouse is on a bleak industrial strip of West Farms Road that flanks the Sheridan Expressway. It looks a lot like the old New York of popular imagination, before picklers, craft distillers, and artisan wafer producers took over derelict warehouses in East Williamsburg and Sunset Park. In short, it is not a very glamorous place.
Beatrice Ughi, a native of Rome, launched the company 15 years ago. She had come to the United States to work as a C.P.A. and, weary of the profession, was looking for a way out.
On one of her many trips to Italy, Beatrice placed an order with a company called Esperya, which she had learned about from a friend. Then a new business operating on the frontiers of technology, Esperya was an online store specializing in the best of what Italy's food producers had to offer. Tenaciously, she called customer service, explained who she was, and then told a representative that she wanted to bring the company to the States. Two days later she got a meeting with Esperya's president. Six months after that, in 2000, Esperya launched their short lived foray into the new world.
"I'm talking in 1999, this company had the idea to combine together the new technologies and means of communicating with people, producers, products," Ughi said. "So I thought it was a great idea, and without knowing about food and without knowing anything about the internet, we did it."
Esperya had grand ambitions, to be a go-to source for all things Italian in America, and planned their 10,000 square foot warehouse accordingly. But after three years, the Italians decided they could no longer sustain the operation.
But Ughi, who went into the business with "no idea about the products, food, [or] cooking," had fallen in love with Italy's farmers and producers. So she kept the dream alive.
"I do understand how difficult it is to continue to produce without shortcuts, doing the right thing, treating the people well, taking care of your land," she said. "Many producers—they do things without caring about the ingredients. All of our producers care, make beautiful products, and, because of this, I started to care, to cook."
Ughi took over the company, trimmed it down so that it would not snap the bootstraps it now clung to, and moved it to the Bronx. There, Gustiamo was born in a warehouse one seventh of Esperya's. It stuck to Italian produce but dropped products like cheese.
Early on, Gustiamo only sold exclusively to consumers across the country. This was more out of necessity than strategy, though Ughi believes that it has allowed for a more natural growth. They were limited in what they could import both because of a lack of capital and the nature of the traditional products they work with. To this day, they still don't spend any money on advertising, preferring to let their products speak for themselves.
But everything changed when Del Posto chef Mark Ladner discovered piennolo tomatoes, a remarkable variety grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Gustiamo, so it turned out, imported the certifiably organic, highly regarded piennolo grown by Casa Barone.
Del Posto came on board as a client and other high end restaurants have followed, all through word of mouth.
"Our chefs travel and they're very knowledgeable about the products. The chefs here talk to the chefs in Italy and they learn about these yellow pienollo tomatoes."
Then they find Gustiamo, as Ann Arbor's Zingerman's Deli did. One of the owners, Ari Weinzweig, fell in love with the product and story of Pasta Martelli, an entirely family owned and operated business in Tuscany. Since Gustiamo first started importing Martelli, Zingerman's has been their best customer.
"They feed each other. You go to the restaurant and taste an olive oil, you ask where it comes from. Then they go online and buy the olive oil."
If Gustiamo's role is to represent Italy's farmers, than they also see it as their duty to protect them. They aren't interested, Dal Santo said, in having their real San Marzano tomatoes put on shelves next to "low quality, industrial products" and having the "consumer associate [their] products with those."
That means occasionally turning down stores and always passing on distributors. Working with the latter would mean losing the intimacy they enjoy with their customers and raising prices. "Our products are very expensive at the source. In order to be able to sell them, the margins are very low," Ughi said. This might keep them out of some major stores, but they're perfectly okay with that.
"Sometimes I listen to Beatrice on the phone and it's like she's doing anti-sales," Danielle Aquino Roithmayr, Gustiamo's social media manager joked. "She'll say, "no, you don't want that. Why do you want that?"
When I asked how long it takes for Gustiamo to start importing from a new producer, Ughi told me it took them four years to finish the process with Pasta Faella. Getting descriptions, recipes, and meeting regulations are just a few of the sales elements they have to deal with.
"We have a reputation within the industry of being very honest. If we introduce a new extra virgin olive oil at a decent price, people trust us," Ughi said. "They know we have done our due diligence, gone several times to see the producer. If somebody is with us, we have done our work."