Down the Aisle:Beatrice Ughi

Founder and Owner of Gustiamo Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

To enter the world of Beatrice Ughi, founder and owner of Gustiamo, is to become enveloped in a world of all things delicious and Italian. The Bronx-based importer opened its doors in 1999 with the mission of bringing to the US the finest and most sustainably produced products that Italy has to offer. From Sicilian almonds and flour to Sardinian honey and Bottarga, her offerings are about more than just quality; they are about culture, and the unique and individual stories behind each farmer and producer. As I followed Beatrice around the 97th Street Greenmarket in Manhattan one late summer morning, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between her approach towards Gustiamo and the way she seems to know every single purveyor at the market on a first-name basis; noting, for instance, as we passed by one stall, “Oh, he just had a child and got married!” Within just an hour with Beatrice, I felt as if I knew more about each purveyor than I would have known through months of simply shopping there. Beatrice is proof that the greatest joys to be found in food are in the multitude of relationships that it brings to our lives, and how it can connect us with and teach us about our place in the world, from Italy to New York.

How often do you grocery shop, since you are constantly surrounded by an abundance of Italian food?

B:  I come here every Friday morning at 9am before I go to the office.  It’s where I come to buy my produce and my meat.  I always start with Ray Bradley and his farm that he has up in New Paltz.  I sometimes come with my husband, but he doesn’t always like to take the time to interact with everyone in the morning.  (laughing)  It’s not a grocery store where you don’t talk to people- you come here and you spend some time interacting with the sellers.  It’s a conversation!

(I notice that Beatrice is pulling a bottle of olive oil out of her bag to give to Ray.)

Do you always barter with your olive oil? Is this a thing?!

B: Yes, we are bartering. (laughing)

Okay, this is the first time I’ve seen this happen.  Can you tell me a little about it?

B:  I bring my olive oil to my friends here like Ray, and the cost of the olive oil we sell is a certain amount, so I do my purchases at the farms stand and then they deduct the amount of the olive oil from my bill.

Ray has the most amazing celery and eggplant, but he is mostly famous for his garlic and his tomatoes. His garlic is so good- there is a woman who comes here…she is Italian, speaks a very heavy dialect, and I cannot understand her.  She is from Southern Italy, and she is here every morning very early, buying tons of garlic- giant bags of it.  I asked her once, “What do you do with all of this garlic each week?!” She simply told me she has a big family, and that the garlic here is the best. I mean, she is buying more than I have seen restaurants buy!

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 “It’s not a grocery store where you don’t talk to people- you come here and you spend some time interacting with the sellers.  It’s a conversation!”

 

So how can you tell that this garlic is of such good quality?

B:  It first starts with a good seed, and it takes a whole year to grow.  Pick the garlic that is hard, not soft, and with only 5-6 cloves per head.

Do you meal plan, thinking of new meals to make per week?

B: No, no. I get the same thing every time, depending on the season of course.  If I have some special dinners for guests, I will buy things for that menu specifically, but usually I am always buying the same ingredients.

What is your go-to meal?

B:  Fish from our fish guy at the end over there, and steamed vegetables.  At this time of year, we eat chard and small beets steamed with some olive oil and then fish on the grill.

Those squash blossoms are beautiful- do you get these often?

B:  Only when they are in season. They make the most delicious appetizer.

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“I look for integrity and people who pay a fair wage.  I look for good people.  Usually, if you find these people, their product is going to be good too.”

 

I always think it seems so difficult to make fried zucchini blossoms- do you have any advice?

B:  I do!  I fry the zucchini flower in extra virgin olive oil.  Put flour and water together in the bowl, and make it a little soupy. I don’t really measure.  Then I put all of the flowers in the batter.  Fry each flower one by one- and in 5 minutes you have the most fantastic zucchini flowers with no mess.

It seems like the process of buying your food here at the farmers market is very similar to how you source food from Italy for Gustiamo.  I can tell you want to get to know the farmers- what their story is, and how they grow their food.  Can you tell me a bit more about your process for choosing producers at Gustiamo?

B:  It’s a very difficult process, and it takes a long time to select a new producer. The information I need has to come from many places. One place is their community- the people who work next to them, and not necessarily their friends.  In most cases it’s their competitors. I talk to journalists and food writers because they know who is doing what and they are closer to the information than I am.  We are on the phone with Italian producers all day long.  But since I am mostly here and not in Italy, my relationship with the people I trust in order to try these producers or to give me information is very important to me.  I look for integrity, and people who pay a fair wage.  I look for good people.  Usually, if you find these people, their product is going to be good too.  I know whether they are making money or not, and if they want to start another business or not. I want to know their whole story.

Have you always been interested in food this way?  It seems like it’s such an intimate and time consuming process, and that you must really have to love this part of the business and have a passion for it to dedicate the time you do to it.

B:  I have always been fascinated with the way people produce their food and the care they take to make a quality product.  I was when I was an accountant, which I was for 20 years; 10 in Italy and 10 here in New York.  Even before I was in the food business, I would serve beans to my friends and tell them where the beans were coming from- that person’s story.  The passion has always been there.  The story inspires me.  I had no idea that that passion would turn into my work one day.

So how did this passion for the story behind the food take you from being an accountant to opening Gustiamo?

B:  For one, I was going nowhere at my accounting firm.  I was not great at it, and it was not my passion.  I met my husband here in America and continued my career in accounting for 10 years when I first moved to New York. Then, by chance, an Italian came to me who was starting a company that was going to embrace all aspects of Italian culture, starting with food.  This ambitious plan never came to be, but during that time I had been doing so much research and spending so much time learning that I just fell in love with the work.  I really fell in love.

The asset that I bring to the equation as an accountant is I am very concerned with accountability- doing the right thing- for better or worse.  I have a strong sense of fairness.

 

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“We want to be good. We want to have good relationships, to learn all of the time, grow, and try to do some good by helping these producers and the land that they work on.”

 

In your opinion, what are the most essential ingredients to have in your house in order to make a delicious Italian meal?

B: Olive oil, pasta, and tomatoes.

What ingredients do you splurge on?

B: Olive oil and tomatoes (laughing).  Well, caviar and oysters too.

What are your top three Italian restaurants to go to in the city?

B:  In Brooklyn, Romans.  One that I discovered only more recently that is so nice is Locanda Verde.  And I go to Lincoln Ristorante when I want to splurge.  

Do you and your husband have any rituals around cooking or eating together?

B:  I’m impressed because although my husband is American, we ALWAYS sit down at the table together when we eat a meal. Even if we are in a hurry, or cannot spend much time eating the food, we make it a priority to sit down together. There are no exceptions.

Since you work with so many chefs and restaurant owners, can you tell me what you favorite part of that relationship is?

B:  My favorite part is working with the people who are interested in learning about the products they are buying.  I love it when they say they want to visit producers that I have turned them on to.  It’s the cultural experience.  Food is a very cultural experience. It’s hard work but it pays off.

It comes down to asking yourself, “What do you want to do in life, what is your vision?”  We want to be good. We want to have good relationships, to learn all of the time, grow, and try to do some good by helping these producers and the land that they work on.  I believe in what we are doing!

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Take-aways:

  1. Gustiamo: Italy's Finest FoodsGustiamo
  2. Faella SpaghettinniSpaghettinni
  3. Anchovy ColaturaColatura
  4. Yellow Piennolo TomatoesJarred Tomatoes
  5. Roman's NYCRoman's
  6. Locanda Verde NYCLocanda Verde
  7. Lincoln Ristorante NYCLincoln Ristorante
  8. Ray BradleyRay Bradley's Farm
Recipe Recipe

Recipe:

Spaghetti with Colatura and Yellow Piennolo Tomatoes, by Beatrice Ughi

The recipe I am making very often these days is spaghetti with Colatura and Yellow Piennolo Tomatoes. It is amazing for its simplicity and deep taste. I served it last night to friends, and they couldn’t stop praising it. It shows that good ingredients make the simplest recipes and best dishes!

Ingredients:

  • 1 Bag of Spaghetti
  • 1 Jar of 500gr of Yelllow Piennolo Tomatoes
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped very thinly
  • 9 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 tbsp of colatura
  • 2 handfuls of chopped parsley
  • Aged pecorino cheese, grated

Serves

4-6 people

 In a big bowl, combine the garlic, oil, colatura, and parsley. Add the pasta (very al dente), add the tomatoes, and add the pecorino.  Add, if necessary, some pasta water.  Mix well, until you get the “cremina”. Buonissimo!
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