Italian Food’s Growing Popularity in the U.S.

Marguerite La Corte, a global trend tracker and product antropologist for the food & beverage industry, enjoys going to well known gourmet shops such as Citarella in New York City and going to off-the-beaten path to places in far-flung neighborhoods to buy special items like mortadella and prosciutto di Parma. She loves Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and she drinks Lavazza coffee.

La Corte is one example of how Americans haven’t satisfied their appetite for Italian food. In 2013, Italian imported food in the U.S. rose seven percent to $4 billion (which $1.6 billion is the wine sector), more than the double of U.S. food imports’ average (which is three percent), according to ICE, Italian Trade Commission of New York City.

The surge in Italian food imports is due to the fact that Americans have become more health conscious and have realized that Italian products are not only good, but also very healthy.

“The increase is due to the fact that consumers have gained some sort of educational food knowledge for them to fall in love with Italian products,” said Lucio Caputo, president of the Italian Wine and Food Institute of New York City. 

In addition, genuiness and freshness have become the significant keys for consumers. This has helped the imports of particular products a lot, and Italian food commands the market share with more than 50 percent, in areas such as oil, cheese, and pasta.

In fact, pasta (with 30.2 percent in the sector) is the leading import, along with the olive oil (with 50.2 percent of the market) and with cheese that reached the 26.7 percent. During the fiscal years 1998-2007, according to the Department of Commerce, Italy and France were the two top cheese sources for the U.S.

“Americans want Italian pasta, especially those that have different colors,” said John Blount, owner of Italian Harvest located in San Francisco, who has been importing Italian food since 2000. “They also love white pasta that has different shapes because they find them to be more amusing.”

In addition, Italian pasta has good quality because it is made of selected grains.

In 2011, Italy was also leading in the distribution of pasta imports to the U.S. with 30.37 percent, according to Statista, Inc. Canada followed with 24.70 percent, while China reached 10.89 percent. Pasta from Thailand reached only 6.12 percent and France 1.32 percent (France ranked only as the ninth supplier of U.S. imported goods)

Pasta is very affordable, versatile, and particularly easy to cook when a person has a very busy lifestyle, and one can make a pasta dish very tasty with pre-made sauces, ranging from pesto Genovese to marinara.

“French food has the image of being more sophisticated to prepare and it is kind of intimidating to people compared to simply boiling water or preparing a mozzarella tomato antipasto,” said La Corte.

Variety distinguishes the Italian cuisine from the French and Spanish. “It emphasizes the flavor of every product used to prepare a dish without being heavy,” Caputo underlined.

One of the secrets of Italian food’s success lies in the diversity of its regional cuisine. Italy has 20 regions, and all of them have different characteristics. One dish could be made in many different ways depending where you are.

“This variety is unique,” said Caputo. “This is why in New York we can eat in a restaurant which specializes in southern food style, in a traditional pizzeria, or even a place which specializes only in rice.”

Source: Statista, Inc.

But Italian food is more than just a combination: it is part of Italy’s culture. Regional dishes are able to tell the story of this entire country, from north to south, thanks to the most diverse ingredients that are influenced by the location, and the traditions of every region, as underlined by Morena Zanini from Manzo Food Sales Inc., a family business based in Florida that has been importing food for 30 years.

Moreover, the “Made in Italy” food can satisfy practically everyone, whether they like simple flavor or the most sophisticated Italian dishes.

“No matter what part of Italy the dish comes from, the common denominator throughout the entire country is the exclusive use of seasonal, fresh, wholesome ingredients,” Zanini said.

If it is true that Italian food is for everyone, it is also true that it helps Americans to eat healthier. But Americans have to understand the concept of portion control as people in Italy do. In fact, in Italy pasta is a first plate and it is tiny because there is a second dish.

“Here in U.S. people think pasta can be an entire meal and this is a faux pas, which the intake produces too many carbohydrates and calories. And sadly restaurants have “Americanized” pasta dishes by throwing everything they can find on top, like pizza, too,” La Corte said. 

But Italian food will continue growing in U.S. in the future. “Americans are hungry,” said Blount. “They are hungry for the (so called) Old World.”