What I Do: Vince di Piazza of Ditalia
Business wasn’t great for Vincenzo di Piazza in the late 1990s. Ditalia, the importer he founded in 1985 to bring artisan Italian foodstuffs to the U.S., was being outpriced and outmaneuvered by larger providers. Things looked bleak until his son, Vince di Piazza, approached him with novel idea: sell their inventory on the internet. The college student began running the online business from his parents’ basement.
Now Ditalia’s array of fine Italian imports is found in kitchens and restaurants across the country, including local favorites Louie, Sardella and Pastaria and retail venues like AO&Co. and Larder & Cupboard.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to have my own business. I always wanted to work with food. My dad by trade was a mechanic and had an auto parts shop, and on Saturdays he would make me go there, and I hated it. I’m not mechanically inclined.”
“The very first order that came through was from Mobile, Alabama. They ordered Perugina Baci and Ferrero Pocket Coffee. That was our very first order. We launched the website, and I was on it every night, 2 or 3 o’clock in my parents’ basement in the bedroom trying to figure out what search engines were, how people were going to find us.”
“When we were thinking about opening a retail store, we decided not to. … Why should we compete with the retailers? Why don’t we tell them about these products and get them behind us? Gradually, it just started working. Fortunately, there are some great restaurateurs in St. Louis that appreciate some of these products, and that business has helped sustain from January through October.”
“We’re not the big food service provider. We’re not going to be able to supply you with napkins and plates and ketchup packets and fresh vegetables and fruit. We’re staying niche. … We can’t be everything to everybody, and those are lessons you learn along the way.”
“Every trip that I make to Italy, I end up going to Sicily for a week, and those are the experiences that really open up those unique doors for me. Our olive oil, our Olio Tre Casi, it’s from this remote area in the mountains of Madonie. They have a very unique olive variety. My [Sicilian] cousins were not even familiar with it when I went there, so I was like, ‘Wow, this really is a hidden treasure.’”
“There are industrial panettones and artisan panettones. [Artisan producers] are using high quality flour; they're using farm-fresh eggs. The candied fruits that they use are actually candied fruits and not a byproduct of mix and gelatin and stuff together. How they proof their dough, how they hang their panettone upside down, using a mother yeast. These producers that we source these panettones from – that’s what they do.”
“During the busy time, you’ll see my kids here ... nieces, nephews, cousins – everybody comes and lends a hand. That’s what it’s always been, even when my dad had it. I remember him getting his first container of pasta and all my cousins going to his warehouse and unloading it. It always revolved around eating afterward. [My dad] is still here – him and his friend cook lunch every day for us. That’s one of my joys is getting to see him every day.”
Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine.
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