Skyler Mapes, Cofounder of EXAU Olive Oil, an internationally recognised extra virgin olive oil brand based in Calabria. Photo: Madeline Farin for Loyale Studio.
Entrepreneurs and chefs are shaking up Italy and its food landscape. We sat down with some of the biggest food changemakers in Italy.
Italian food has always been everyone’s favorite. According to one study of more than 25,000 people in 24 different countries, pizza and pasta were found at the top of the most popular foods in the world. With cherished recipes and ingredients that are part of a proud national heritage, Italy has a long-standing relationship with food that is defined by tradition.
But now entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, and chefs from unconventional backgrounds are now claiming a seat at the table. Who are the new voices entering the arena? What is the current food landscape in Italy, as of today? And how is it changing? We spoke to some professionals at the cutting edge of Italy’s food scene.
Quarter: rethinking Italy’s new delivery culture
According to media reports, the size of the food delivery sector in Italy nearly doubled last year, due to the pandemic. 60,000 full- and part-time workers are employed in the industry across Italy, with a combined revenue of more than €900 million. With multiple lockdowns and restrictions changing seemingly every week in 2020 and 2021, restaurants had to adapt — and takeaway culture boomed, helped by delivery platforms like Glovo or Uber Eats.
Not everyone has been happy with this cultural change driven by multinationals, with Italy’s restaurateurs’ union, for example, raising its voice against what they describe as an industry that’s killing off the restaurant. But some food entrepreneurs in Italy are surfing on the trend, combining the high-quality products associated with traditional Italian food with a community focus — as well as a fast and reliable door-to-door service.
Take the new food delivery start up Quarter. Based in Rome, Quarter is a new food delivery service that operates just like current delivery platforms, but with a focus on building community connections. Restaurants sign up to get a dedicated webpage, allowing them to retain control over the consumer’s hospitality experience. Deliveries are then handled by Quarter’s own fleet of couriers, but restaurants can oversee and choose the customer’s experience when it comes to delivery — including compostable options for instance. They also focus on mom and pop shops, the little salumeria down the street, or the neighborhood forno, allowing these local outlets to grow their own customer base.
Beehive Bagels: challenging tradition (and restaurant waste) in Rome
Alongside delivery, one of the newest trends in Italian food culture is brunch — and high quality non-Italian products are in demand. But it’s not all avocado toast. Bagels, the Yiddish cuisine that became a staple in metropolises from New York to London, have now arrived in Rome.
Linda Martinez and Steve Brenner are the people behind the Beehive Bagels project. Hailing from the States, they opened back in 1999 a small hostel in Rome that offered cooking classes and had a café for many years.
But in order to fight food waste — the rarely mentioned dark side of the restaurant industry — they had to rethink the business model of their café as a whole. “Like every restaurant, we had food waste, but we also had a clientele with very different budgets,” Linda and Steve tell us. “When thinking about this problem of waste, the thought struck us: why do we need a fixed menu?Why do we need prices? So, we thought we would do away with all of these rules and cook based on what we have and serve people based on how much — or how little — they want to eat, and they would pay us what they think is fair.”
This desire to be close to their clientele is what encouraged Linda and Steve to open their artisanal bagel bakery in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. “People were unable to move, travel, and eat out, and were longing for something homey and cozy, some comfort food,” Linda explains. “And delivering bagels worked very well. We were looking for ways to keep busy and keep earning during this challenging year and discovered this niche, which also happens to be something Steve is incredibly enthusiastic about.”
To make it a reality, Linda and Steve partnered with a local pizza maker, Emanuele Piga, combining his savoir-faire and expertise in pizza making with their innovative recipes. And while so far there is reason to be optimistic for the future of the bakery, Linda is aware that establishing a non-traditional food business in a city like Rome can be challenging. “It’s still very traditional — and I hope it continues to hold onto tradition — but that also doesn’t leave a lot of room for invention. Italians, in general, are not that adventurous when it comes to eating. This is because so many Italians gravitate to what they know. The tourists landing in such a famous culinary destination obviously want to try local specialties, so bagels aren’t that well known here. We’re hoping to change that.”
Beehive Bagels are now traveling and shipping their products all over Italy. And, this summer, they are opening pop-ups — a whole new concept on the Italian market — in cities like Naples, continuing to establish new trends.
The women fighting stereotypes in Italy’s food industry
“I’m dedicated to educating the public about high-quality olive oil and fair representation for women of color in this industry. I’ve worked for the past four years to disrupt it.”
This is Skyler Mapes speaking. She is the cofounder, along with her husband Giuseppe, of EXAU, an artisan olive oil company based in Calabria. Skyler sees herself as an olive oil producer, educator, and breaker of barriers, something that makes her proud. Giuseppe’s family has been producing olive oil from their Calabrian estate for almost 100 years. Skyler is a third-generation Californian. It’s a combination that makes EXAU unique and special.
With a background in winemaking and design, Skyler was well-equipped to join the ranks of olive oil makers. But harvesting and making olive oil is an extremely patriarchal industry, which made things a little difficult. Skyler mentions the various industry players who tried to refuse her a seat at the table.
“The olive oil industry is full of gatekeepers,” she explains. “Doors were continuously closed to us for the first two and a half years. Retailers didn’t want to give us the time of day. So the only way we could sell our oil was direct to consumers. We catered completely to the needs of our consumers. We worked events all across the Bay Area [in the US] in order to meet as many people as possible. By listening to consumers we were able to build a brand that catered to their needs.”
Today, EXAU’s products are often sold out, Skyler has been featured in Forbes 30 under 30 and Oprah herself has chosen the oil as one of her 2020 favorite things. EXAU is another proof that tradition, and ancestral savoir-faire can be married with new voices. Skyler is a force to be reckoned with, hopefully setting the path for other pioneers — and she is considering the possibility of starting a scholarship for a woman of color, to be taken on as an apprentice, and learn about the fascinating process behind olive oil. The future of the food industry in Italy will be more inclusive and fair for voices that have been, to this day, still unheard.
According to Eater.com less than 30% of restaurants across Europe, including Italy, employ female chefs in their kitchens. Chiara Pavan a chef from Verona is determined to change this. Sexism and gender distinctions have often kept women out of Michelin stared restaurant and high-end cuisine, tradition expecting to box women in a more Nonna style type of cooking.
The Chef is the executive chef of the Michelin starred restaurant Venissa in Veneto and was nominated in 2019 for The Best Female Italian Chef in Europe category. Before working at Venissa, Chiara worked at Da Caino in Tuscany. The Tuscan restaurant is led by Valeria Piccini, another female chef and powerhouse in the Italian fine dining landscape. Chiara mentions the lack of support for chef who are mothers and the difficult working conditions as another barrier that female food professional face. She feels empowered when working with other women and high-quality products. The town of Mazzorbo has a rich history of farming. Making the most of this tradition while adding her own perspective and flavors, Chiara experiments with this playground, creating ground-breaking and innovative dishes at Venissa.
Sophie Minchilli: building community around food expertise
Sophie Minchilli’s instagram is a treat. Every day, she shares with her followers delights about life in Rome, Puglia and around Italy. Videos of women making pasta in Bari or sneak peeks of markets in the early morning. Raised in Rome by an Italian dad and an American mom (Elizabeth Minchilli), Sophie has always been passionate about food, Italian traditions and its beauty. More importantly, Sophie and her mom lead food tours all over the country.
Food was something Sophie was always in love with. But the idea of food tours did not always exist in her mind. “After university in London, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” she tells us. “All I knew was that I loved Italy and loved food. So when my mother told me that she was thinking about starting this very strange and new idea of leading ‘food tours’, I thought it was too good to be true, but it slowly became our main business.”
Sophie and Elizabeth’s customers are English-speaking, and many book tours after seeing their posts on social media — tours of Rome, Puglia, Abruzzo, Umbria, Sicily and Emilia-Romagna. For each tour, customers are offered a curated selection of small family owned businesses, cheese makers, ceramic makers, wine producers, and restaurant owners. During lockdown, Sophie offered international customers the possibility of ordering a ‘package’ from family businesses in Rome, in which customers could give some directions to Sophie and she would shop for them — a lovely idea that builds bridges and establishes connections between lesser-known Italian businesses and the greater international community.
Italy’s food scene should brace for change
Italy is a country that has been a victim of brain drain for many years. However, there is a whole new generation of food makers and entrepreneurs who are driving Italy’s food scene into the future. With newcomers and natives looking to shake things up while following ancestral traditions, the horizon is widening, creating new narratives that include the combined poetry of Italy’s rich history and fresh energy.
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