Some like it haute: Italian family capitalism

Which company is the employer of choice for young Italian graduates? No, it is not high-tech Apple, although the Californian maker of the iPhone is the second choice, according to an annual survey of more than 12,000 Italian graduates. And no it is not Google or one of Italy’s big banks. It is Barilla, the world’s largest pasta manufacturer, which shows how sensible these young Italians are. After all, Barilla is not only a classic example of enduring Italian family capitalism. It also does what Italy does best: food.

I recently attended a food conference organised by Barilla at Milan’s Bocconi University. This family concern has set up a food and nutrition centre as a think tank to analyse trends in food consumption and to promote healthy eating.

Guido Barilla, Barilla’s dandy chairman and current family scion, says he cannot do without a plate of pasta a day and a glass of good red wine. If he manages to stay remarkably slim to fit in his natty Italian tailored suits, it is because he says he also eats a lot of vegetables and only uses olive oil to dress them.

But I suspect he may well be the exception to the rule. I for one find that eating pasta is an absolute killer for the waistline, though difficult to resist. After listening to the third or fourth lecture on the challenges facing the food industry, from climate change to sky-rocketing commodity prices, I escaped with an old Milanese friend to a nearby pastry shop cum bar in Piazzale di Porta Lodovica called Gattullo. I spent six happy years as a correspondent in Milan and Gattullo brought back to me one particularly fond memory of this otherwise grey and rather provincial metropolis. This is the evening ritual of the aperitivo, or what locals think is swankier to call “il happy hour”.

The aperitivo is not just a drink or two with some friends after work. In Milan, it is often a little banquet where you can sip a good cocktail and nibble on an array of small eats. You don’t get anything like it in Paris or London or New York where, if you are lucky, you may get a few pathetic olives, some nuts and potato chips.

In this respect, Milan is far more civilised. Before taking the local train to Varese, where I lived in an old villa overlooking the lake, I invariably popped in at Café Bindi opposite Cadorna Station. The barman there was an ex from Harry’s Bar in Venice and mixed the perfect Bellini which, he explained, required a touch of Grand Marnier as well as fresh white peaches. On the counter, you could pick at little pizzas, a more refined version of the sausage roll, giant olives, mozzarella and tomato on sticks, prawn canapés and so on. The subsequent 50-minute train ride was hardly sufficient to digest this “aperitivo”. Somehow I still managed dinner.

Gattullo that evening in early December also put on a good show – a cocktail of exotic fruits and prosecco and tasty morsels including some pretty wicked miniature profiteroles. Locals, some with their Labradors, walked in and out, gobbling small entremets, a handful of particularly good crisps, washed down with some pink- or blue-coloured concoction.

That same evening, Signor Barilla threw a grand dinner in Palazzo Clerici with its Tiepolo ceiling in the heart of Milan. After Gattullo, it was a struggle to get through the multitude of courses prepared by the Barilla chefs. Graduates should not be put off: working for Barilla is certainly tough, but undoubtedly rewarding for the stomach.

Next week: Peter Bazalgette tastes readers’ favourite sausages

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