Can Italy Still Make Things?

MILAN — It’s the day before Christmas. Renzo and Lucia are in their shiny new Alfa Romeo, on the way to their grandparents’ apartment in central Milan for the traditional Christmas Eve family dinner.

Everybody is smartly dressed. Grandma’s vintage red Valentino dress smells faintly of Acqua di Parma. Grandpa, resplendent in his Loro Piana cashmere sweater, is relaxing in a Poltrona Frau armchair. Aunt Stefania looks radiant in a black Gucci gown. And what a spread they’ve put on! Classic Buitoni rigatoni — what would Italians do without their pasta? — followed by salad dressed with Carapelli olive oil. To drink, a bottle of Chianti Gallo Nero. And of course some San Pellegrino mineral water.

After a taste of the traditional Italian Santa Lucia mozzarella, there’s the greatest of all Milanese classics: Motta panettone cake with Gancia spumante wine! Coffee, as usual, is served with Baci Perugina chocolates for everyone. And there’s a special surprise gift for Lucia — those Bulgari earrings she always wanted.

Christmas Eve doesn’t come more Italian than that! Does it matter that none of these products are Italian-owned anymore?

Alfa Romeo, founded in Milan in 1910, is now part of the Netherlands-based Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, or FCA. The Valentino fashion house has been sold to Qatar’s Mayhoola for Investments. Acqua di Parma, in business since 1916, now belongs to the French luxury group LVMH, as does Loro Piana. Poltrona Frau, established in Turin in 1912 by Renzo Frau, was sold last February to Haworth, an American furniture company. Guccio Gucci set up shop in Florence back in 1921, but today his company is part of the French Kering group. Pasta Buitoni, which has been going since 1827 and is named after its founder, Giovanni Battista Buitoni, is the property of the Swiss conglomerate Nestlé, which also owns San Pellegrino. And so on down the list.

Many more iconic Italian brands have been sold to foreign companies recently. Ducati, which has been making motorcycles since 1926, is now owned by Germany’s Audi. Peroni (beer, 1846), was bought by the South African beverage giant SABMiller in 2003. Pernigotti (chocolate, 1868) currently belongs to the Turkish Toksoz group. Fendi (fashion, 1925) went to the French luxury group LVMH in 1999.

Even many brands that don’t get much recognition outside the country are Italian no more — Plasmon, which has been providing Italian mothers with baby food since 1902, is now owned by Heinz; Algida ice cream is part of the Anglo-Dutch Unilever group; and Star, a pasta sauce found in almost every Italian kitchen for decades, is now owned by Spanish food group Gallina Blanca.

Globalization is hardly unique to Italy. And yet the gobbling up of so many of our beloved and time-tested consumer brands is noteworthy, and a bit unsettling. Part of it is, of course, Brand Italy itself: Foreigners have been quick to spot the potential of anything associated with Italy and market it around the world. Italy reminds people of life’s pleasant things — art, music, good food, great wine, chic design and an enviable lifestyle.

There’s a less obvious, but still clear, linguistic appeal as well. Many Italian words are stressed on the penultimate syllable, which gives them a reassuring rhythm. One of the reasons for the universal success of Italian-style frothy coffee is that people everywhere simply love to say “ca-poo-CHI-no.”

And if you want to set a soothing mood at the restaurant, skip the Gewürztraminer and order Brunello di Montalcino (remembering to pronounce it “Mon-tal-CHI-no”).

Many so-called Italian products are not even designed or made in Italy. America imports just $2 billion in Italian food goods a year, but “Italian-sounding” goods in the United States are worth $20 billion. And that’s just the food sector. Around the world, the figures are $54 billion, against $23 billion in exports.

Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese are the most imitated food types: Americans have Parmesan, Brazilians nibble Parmesão and Argentines chow down on Reggianito. The endlessly negotiated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which aspires to create a free-trade zone between Europe and North America, is going to have to deal with this, one way or another.

Of course, plenty of Italian companies realize the potential of the Italy brand and have become household names abroad without selling out to larger groups: Think Prada, Armani, Campari, Barilla, Ferrero Nutella, Pirelli and Jacuzzi.

One newcomer is the Verona-based company Giovanni Rana, whose fresh pasta business is growing at 20 percent a year, with most of its sales abroad, and 18 percent of its sales in the United States, where it just clinched a deal with Walmart. Last year in New York, the company opened a store called Pastificio and Cucina, where customers can buy fresh pasta to go or eat on the spot.

There’s a telling detail about Rana’s American expansion that might explain a lot about the migration of Italian brands, and their manufacturing, overseas. Rana’s new plant in Illinois was fully operational in seven months. Thanks to dense regulations and slow contractors, expanding the original factory in Verona took seven years. Could that be the reason so many Italian brands seem to prefer living abroad?