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it's Italian

March 21, 1985|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

There are Albert, Ursula and Lydia (Mama) Vera behind the counter at Sorrento Italian Market, almost enveloped by the overflow of Italian products around them, all set for Easter.

Huge imported chocolate Easter eggs, which every man, woman and child in Italy has learned to adore, hang like Chinese lanterns from the ceiling at Sorrento. The place carries stacks of Italian dove-shaped E a stertime panettones called colomba, bread rings and braids, bags of imported candies and biscotti.

But that's just a drop in the bucket.

The Italian grocery store in Culver City has been carrying imported Italian products for 20 years and catering primarily to an Italian clientele.

Suddenly business has gone wild, and the clientele is no longer Italian, French or Argentine.

"Now 65% of my customers are Yankees," said Albert Vera. Simultaneous with the growth of the new breed of clientele has been a 70% to 80% increase in the inventory of imported Italian products over the past 10 years. "Back then, my imported inventory contained a handful of cheeses, some pasta and rice. Now everything from imported cookies to pasta machines is available."

Americans who have discovered the virtues of Italian cooking and the wonders of the regional cuisines search for extra-virgin olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, unusual and expensive balsamic vinegars, quality arborio (rice). They go in for Italian food items, which, once unknown, have become household words. There are bufala mozzarella (fresh mozzarella made with buffalo milk), carpaccio (raw sliced beef or veal), porcini (fresh and dried Italian mushrooms), white truffles (seasonally imported from Alba), radicchio (red-leaf lettuce from Venice's environs), arugula, (also known as rocket), rapini (a bitter green, also called rape), mascarpone (creamy Italian cheese) and fresh basil. (A glossary describes the Italian products on Page 20.)

Even Italian wines, unsung 10 years ago, are having a heyday. Although Lambrusco, soave and Valpolicella are still the leading Italian wine triumvirate in the United States, lesser-known, but superior wines, such as Pinot Grigio a fresh white wine of the Venice region; Barolo and Gattinara, big, robust wines of Piedmont and Lombardy, and Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany, are finding appreciative audiences everywhere.

And the demand continues.

Italian food product import figures reported by the Italian Trade Commission in Los Angeles tell the story.

Italian exports to the United States rose 45% in a 12-month period last year.

Imported cereals, which include pastas, rice and other grains, had a dramatic sales growth from $8.7 million (before duty) in 1979 to $34.8 million in 1984. Although imported Italian pasta represents only about 5% of the 2.5 billion pounds of pasta consumed in the United States, the leap represents a whopping 400% increase from 1979 to 1984.

Sales of imported cheese and dairy products grew from $24.7 million in 1979 to $44.5 million in 1984. Canned fruits and vegetables also increased, rising from $16.4 million in 1979 to $47.6 million in 1984. Imported wines and oils had a slight but steady increase. Wine imports sales climbed from $216.3 million in 1979 to $329 million in 1984, with a leveling off in the past four years.

Why the sudden interest in Italian food products?

Massimo Ludovisi, deputy trade commissioner at the Italian Trade Commission, explains it this way:

"In the past 10 years the American public has seen a dramatic increase in 'real' Italian restaurants for the first time. They are discovering that modern Italian cooking--the type found in Italy, not the American-Italian style that has dominated the restaurant scene in America up to now--is far more interesting. When Americans come to dine at my house, they are stunned by the quality and variety of Italian cooking, not just because my wife is a fine cook, but because they never knew such a cuisine existed. Made properly, Italian cooking can be compared to the finest of the French and Chinese cuisines. People have discovered that pasta is not only tasty, but healthy. And the information is spreading."

And spreading it is.

Dozens of modern gourmet Italian delis, operated, not by the proverbial Moms and Pops, but by sophisticated merchants with a nose for growing trends, are mushrooming around the country. That's where you'll find the fancy oils, vinegar, cheeses and pasta in any shape, size and color (chocolate pasta, too).

The word pasta , which only 10 years ago was in rare usage in favor of macaroni , is now a buzzword among the upwardly mobile. If cold pasta salad means "dead pasta" to Italians who have never heard of such a thing in Italy, pasta salads have been a rage among the yuppie generation here. Cooks who insist on fresh, not dry, pasta challenge the technological efficiency of Italian pasta machines that started glutting the market several years back.

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