Mention Oakland-based Manicaretti Italian Food Importers and most locals probably don’t recognize the name. But chances are good they’ve eaten some of its products.
East Bay shoppers may recognize the distinctive label and brown packaging for Rustichella d’Abruzzo, particularly its pasta, found on shelves at shops like Market Hall, Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market courtesy of Manicaretti. In addition to Rustichella and many other Italian food staples, Manicaretti was one of the first in the U.S. to carry farro, the now more popular grain that looks and tastes a bit like brown rice, but with a more complex, nutty flavor.
Argentine-born Rolando Beramendi established Manicaretti (which means “little delicacies” in Italian) in 1989 when he was in his early 20s. Beramendi, an enthusiastic chef and home cook, had just graduated from UC Davis with a degree in economics. On a trip to the Italian Alps, friends there asked if he would help them to find U.S. distributors for their food products. At the time, Beramendi explains in his new cookbook Autentico: Cooking Italian, the Authentic Way (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), when he approached U.S. importers and distributors, “everyone told me that the products were too expensive (artisanal pasta), too unusual (traditional balsamic vinegar) and too esoteric (arugula pesto).”
But Beramendi was convinced there was a market for such items, so he decided to start a company to distribute specialty, regional Italian food products himself. His intuition was correct. In the late ‘80s, taste for small, local, regionally authentic food was just about to explode.
“People were starting to become interested in foods from Italy, Spain and France,” said Beramendi. “It was the beginning of the food revolution and ‘California cuisine.’ I’d been a customer at the Pasta Shop [now called Market Hall Foods] in Rockridge. I’d drive all the way from my house in Sausalito. I decided to approach them to see if they’d be interested in retailing some of my imported Italian items.”
Sara Wilson, managing partner at Market Hall Foods, smiled at the memory. “It was 1988 and we’d recently opened The Pasta Shop on College Avenue. We were Manicaretti’s first retail customer. Rolando was this very young guy who showed up with a suitcase filled with food, including a kilo of pasta in a brown bag. The packaging wasn’t quite retail-shelf ready, but we loved the pasta,” she said.
There weren’t a lot of retail options for specialty foods at the time.
“In the late ‘80s, the world was very different,” Beramendi said. “Californians were still eating iceberg lettuce in salads. Arugula wasn’t really available, except maybe in very small bundles on the rack where fresh herbs were sold. Kale wasn’t anywhere on the radar.”
If some distributors and importers had their doubts about the appeal of Italian specialty foods, local chefs and cooks did not. According to Beramendi, along with the Pasta Shop, Alice Waters was another early and enthusiastic consumer of Manicaretti products, particularly its unfiltered Tuscan olive oil. Paul Bertolli was chef at Chez Panisse at the time.
“I was 22 years old and fearless,” said Beramendi, laughing. “I’d invite all these chefs, shopkeepers, anyone who I thought might be interested, to my house for dinner so they could taste foods I was getting from friends and small businesses in Italy.”
Word spread and Beramendi’s business grew. Buyers, locally and around the country, now routinely look to Beramendi and Manicaretti, located on College Avenue in North Oakland, for its specialty wholesale Italian food products. Locally, along with Chez Panisse, Pizzaiolo, Paula LeDuc Fine Catering, Rivoli and many other well-known restaurants source pantry essentials from Manicaretti.
Beramendi’s approach to food is simple: cooking with what he has (what he describes as “supply-side cooking”), and relying on a well-stocked pantry filled with high-quality, flavorful ingredients that he can use to prepare dishes with little fuss. The ingredients he’s made available in the U.S. — olive oils, pastas, jarred fish, herbs, vinegars, tomato products, confections — make his style of cooking accessible and allow chefs to use regionally sourced Italian ingredients in their dishes. The items come from family-owned businesses that he knows well and has worked with for many years.
In Autentico, Beramendi includes 120 of his tried-and-true recipes for hearty, uncomplicated meals. These are dishes that require 30 minutes to an hour to prepare, but taste like they took up the better part of a day. Instructions are simple to follow and ingredient lists are short and readily available, making satisfying Italian food accessible.
“If you invest in one ingredient, a good bottle of virgin olive oil changes everything,” Beramendi said.
I asked Beramendi what exactly he means by “autentico” and “authentic.”
“It’s food made by someone putting their entire life, heart, mind and gratitude into producing a particular food product. That act will then allow you to use that ingredient in a meal to nourish yourself and your family, and all in turn will feel a kind of grace and gratitude,” he said.
Both Beramendi and Wilson credit very knowledgeable, informed customers for contributing to their success and the growth in the variety of specialty foods now available.
“Our customers appreciate quality,” Wilson said. “Those customers are what made the products successful. You can’t sell even the most perfect olive oil if your customer isn’t interested.”
Rolando Beramendi will be at Rockridge Market Hall (5655 College Ave., Oakland) on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2-4:30 p.m. for a free book signing, tasting and talk.