Backstage of an essential business in New York City
Words and Photos by Gloria Feurra
Illustrations and Art Work by Leonardo Martinelli
I came back just before the borders closed, bypassing the usual MXP-JFK journey by way of a series of daring layovers, still carrying traces of ash from the Sardinian carnival. At the end of February, I decided to take few days off to go home, to Seneghe, a village with one-thousand-and-a-handful sparkling souls found at the foothills of the Montiferru mountains. With me, part of the famed Gusti Team. An expedition part nostalgic and part anthropologic, mixed with reunions with our longstanding producers and intervals of scouting – because the family can always grow bigger.
Sometimes, but not often enough, rewinding the tape back to a few weeks ago is soothing. Now that even in New York State sheltering in place is the law, I linger like a retired rock star on the memories of a glorious Mardi Gras, which later became dark circles under my eyes and stockpiles of vacuum sealed Pecorino.
I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A radiant and gentrified neighborhood where the most commonplace complaints include rent increases, the sputtering of the L train on weekends, or the cherished stores on Bedford Avenue relentlessly being replaced by big chains. While these things are sad and definitely sociologically relevant, admittedly there’s not much to complaint about. Williamsburg is a weekend place. A pilgrimage destination for street food events and flea markets, please RSVP one week in advance to land a spot for that brunch or that happy hour drink on that waterfront rooftop. It’s a place where every now and then a new pop-up store appears, with lines of cool kids snaking around the block. You can still spot some lines today, the longest outside Whole Foods.
Otherwise, everything else is done by delivery. The new lionhearts wear loungewear while waiting for their shipments, then get fired up at defenseless couriers. Occasionally, I join the chorus. But I’m the one on hold with the customer service rep, trying to investigate a missing package for someone else. In fact, I ship packages way more often than I receive them. Since 1999 at 1715 West Farms Rd, in the Bronx, from Monday to Friday cardboard boxes sealed with white tape and plastered in FRAGILE stickers are sent out. They go to all the Continental United States. Regularly, at this address, trucks unload their cargo of real San Marzano tomatoes, slowly dried porous pasta, almonds and pistachios selected by Corrado Assenza, “the orange wine of vinegars” made by Sirk, or those Tradizionali aged inside wood barrels in the lofts of Reggio Emilia or Modena for at least 12 years. Exquisite Sottoli, heavenly Colombe e Panettoni, phenomenal extra virgin olive oils. The contents of the boxes shipped is clear: Gustiamo, Italy’s best food, it is written on that white tape.
In short, Gustiamo imports from Italy and distributes in the U.S. I could surely exceed the 800 words limit just explaining how much more there is, other than selling. Obsessive research, education, a 20 year-long fight against the ruinous Italian sounding, and a ton of other terrific things. Like the warehouse dinners in the midst of pallets during which guests like Rula Jebrael chitchat with others like Joe Beddia, or like that time when the Italian consul almost beat Ghetto Gastro’s Pierre Serrao at our ping pong tournament. Often, on occasions such as these, the soundtrack is an out of tune chorus of Italian karaoke voices. But the goal of this post, I think, is to explain how a business that might not look like an essential one, has come quite close to the definition of vital. I’ll also try to report on how in the last weeks our lives have changed, waiving a strident patchwork of stress, routine and alienation, resolutions, gluts of support and back pain.
Our e-commerce was assaulted. We ration out our supplies, but stocks drain while we compulsively monitor the days that keep us separated from the containers crossing the Atlantic. Big numbers were never in the DNA of the company. That is in part because the products we like are scarce (and that’s why we like them), and in part because the demand for a $10 pasta bag is what it is. Small quantities and high prices, proudly. Yet, we are pressed by a new and paradoxical phenomenon: retail customers crowding our website to hoard shelf-stable products inside their virtual carts; while the restaurants, our spine, cutting their orders to the bone. Within a few hours we had to revolutionize our long-standing strategies. Bulk sizes usually reserved to wholesale customers are now available on our e-commerce platform; every day, the entire team leaves their desks unattended and works the fulfilment floor, learning in record time how to pick and pack 60 lbs. orders. We are working wearing masks and gloves, keeping the recommended safety distance between us, as if things were not simple enough.
One month has passed. We started experiencing some aches, but the emails and voice messages left by customers cheer us up. They genuinely express gratitude for the high quality food delivered straight to their homes, or patiently ask recommendations and information about the ingredients. In these weird pandemic times, the distinction between luxury, exception, transgression and necessity is becoming blurry, especially regarding food. The stereotyped American all about fast, pre-made meals has found all the time in the world to hang around the kitchen, experimenting with ancient grain flours from Sicily or just braving intricate recipes. One of the last joys remaining during these times of lockdown: cooking, eating. Isn’t this relevant, essential even?
Meanwhile our restaurants, weakened yet willful, are reshaping and reinforcing their delivery formulas. Shyly, new wholesale orders surface. On the other front, in Italy, we are trying now more than ever to support our network of farmers and artisans, whom we admire and prize. We are not heroes, but we keep going, sure to be on the right side.
When people ask me about the mood in New York City, I refer to the Coronavirus Briefing from NYTimes. Currently my direct experience of the city is limited to riverside walks during the weekend and weekday rides down the FDR, when I gaze at what I used to consider the most vibrant city I know from the rear window of Danielle’s car – my zealous colleague who, 5 days a week, drives from Harlem to Brooklyn, then back North again to the Bronx. The subway, usually my most reliable thermometer of the city’s Zeitgeist, is off limits. It’s been weeks since I boarded a train. Placid and disfigured, the city that never sleeps.
How is it going to be when all this finishes? I don’t know, but the optimistic quote given by Beatrice, the woman that back in 1999 founded Gustiamo, to the HuffPost reads: “this moment is showing me that when this is over, more people will have realized that food is important in the world — and they should take better care of themselves.”