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How Coronavirus May Change Italian Food

(Photo courtesy of the Consortium for the Protection of Pecorino Toscano PDO.)

Cecily Mauran, Host: In the days before Easter, Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is usually packed with people buying old school Italian food — like pane di pasqua — traditional Italian Easter bread. But it was no surprise to anyone that this year, Easter was different. And what happens at Italian shops and restaurants in New York has an impact across the Atlantic as Emily Pisacreta explains.

Emily Pisacreta, Byline: Only a handful of Arthur Avenue shops and restaurants are open for business right now. One of them is the Teitel Brothers — a venerable Bronx institution. They’ve been doing wholesale and retail sales of Italian food since 1915. Every inch of the store is packed with fresh and canned products.

Ed Teitel: Tomatoes, olive oil, parmigiano reggiano, pecorino romanos, prosciutto di parma….

Emily Pisacreta: Until March, shoppers would line up along a glass case, shouting and pointing to their chosen hunks of provolone or cuts of proscuitto, and pay underneath a curtain of soppressata. But right now shoppers are sparse. Ed Teitel is the third generation of his family to manage the shop.

Ed Teitel: I know my uncles, they both passed, but they had told me that going through the depression that it was challenging. And it seems like that’s what we’re going through now.

Emily Pisacreta: The Teitel Brothers are determined to weather the storm, and for now they have plenty of goods in stock. But across the Atlantic, Italian agriculture is facing its own crisis. Production hasn’t stopped. Grapes and olives keep growing and cows and sheep need milking no matter what’s going on.

Marco Forti: Springtime is the best season but probably not this year.

Emily Pisacreta: Marco Forti is based in Grasseto, in Tuscany. He works with the dairies who make pecorino toscano cheese — an important product in the region.

Marco Forti: Most of the production is made right now in the months of April and May.

Emily Pisacreta: Coronavirus hasn’t impacted Tuscany as badly as some other parts of Italy. But strict social distancing rules are still in place and dairies can only operate with a skeleton staff. Fonti says the cheese takes twice as long and twice as much money to make. And its not the kind of thing you can take shortcuts with.

Marco Forti: Every single pecorino wheel there is a lot of people, a lot of work, a lot of organization, who work together to guarantee a premium quality of cheese.

Emily Pisacreta: Much of Italian agriculture functions this way — consortiums of small, family-owned farms and factories using traditional formulas. And the American market is huge for them. Americans spent 5 billion euros on Italian food and wine in 2018, according to the Italian Trade Agency. Now Italian agriculture faces expensive production challenges and a decrease in demand from the US.

But even before coronavirus, Italian food was caught up in the trade wars. Jeremy Parzen is an Italian food and wine historian and media consultant. He says importers were really freaked out by the tariffs that started at 25% on cheese. were afraid to ship products to the US. Until suddenly in February, the Trump administration announced they wouldn’t add any more tariffs.

Jeremy Parzen: It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. You know, there was some hope, that OK, let’s start shipping the wine again, let’s start ordering, things are looking up. And then a week later, Italy was being shut down.

Emily Pisacreta: The combined impact of the tariffs and now the coronavirus could put many of these small producers out of business. Parzen says that wouldn’t just be an economic loss.

Jeremy Parzen: But it’s also to lose a cultural institution — an economic model and cultural institution that is at the backbone of Italian identity.

Emily Pisacreta: That’s a connection that reaches all the way to places like Arthur Avenue. Parzen says that shops in the US may not be carrying the kind of specialty products that you can find now at the places like the Teitel Brothers. As the global economy changes in the wake of the coronavirus, our food may change, too. Emily Pisacreta, Columbia Radio News.


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