Viva La OU Kosher! Bringing the Taste of Italy Home

Like every foodie on the planet, kosher consumers love to eat anything Italian. And now, thanks to OU Kosher, they’ve got even more to love. Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, the OU’s Senior Rabbinic Coordinator reports a steady rise in Italian companies obtaining OU Kosher certification. In just the past two years he’s seen an increase of 30 percent.

“Kosher is an integral component to penetrating the U.S. market,” he says. “Italy makes excellent products and Americans love Italian cuisine.”

To date, 207 Italian plants have gone OU Kosher. Rabbinic Coordinator Rabbi Aharon Brun-Kestler works with a variety of Italian companies. Unigra, one of his largest clients, is an industrial complex in Conselice, in the province of Ravenna. The company produces oils, chocolate, soy milk and packaged whip creams. He said that was an atypical client.

“Many of the manufacturers are family-owned companies,” says Rabbi Brun-Kestler. “Much more like mom and pop operations.” These successful family enterprises include La Regina Di San Marzano in Naples, makers of whole peeled tomatoes; and De Cecco, producers of pasta and extra virgin olive oil in Fara San Martino. Ferrero, part of the Piedmont region of Italy bordering France and Switzerland at the foot of the Alps, is the third largest chocolate producer and confectionery company in the world.

Family owned or not, Italy’s food manufacturers are welcoming the benefits of OU Kosher certification. OU Kosher is the most widely recognized and trusted kosher certification in the world, serving more than 8,000 certified plants in 100 countries across the globe.

Along with the producers of pasta and olive oils, Italian wineries are putting in the extra effort to make their products kosher. OU Kosher wines have become a staple for wine lovers since the 1980s, when Bartenura began importing its flavorful and affordable products to America.

The grapes that create Italy’s distinctive wines grow in various regions of the country. In fact, there are at least 350 common wine grape varieties used for Italian wines in the 20 wine-producing regions throughout Italy.

Bartenura Moscato wine, which is wildly popular with both kosher and non-kosher clientele, originates from Moscato grapes grown in Pavia; Chianti wine comes from a combination of Sangiovese and Merlot grapes grown in Tuscany; Pinot Grigio grapes blossom in the sunny hillside of Veneto, a northeastern Italian region bordering the postcard-perfect Dolomite Mountains and Adriatic Sea.

“It’s a beautiful country,” says Rabbi Rabinowitz, who travels to Italy to help plants establish OU Kosher certification. “I would say it’s one of the most magnificent countries in the world—and the Italian people are very nice.”

Rabbi Avrohom Hazan, who grew up in Italy, concurs on both points. Since he started supervising for OU Kosher 35 years ago, he’s travelled to hundreds of scenic plant locations throughout the country, from the northern towns of Pavia, comprised of grassy plains, where Riso Scotti rice products are made and Asti, in Piedmont, the world’s key wine-producing provinces —to the southern sunbaked region of Calabria and Napoli, situated on the toe of the country’s boot-shaped peninsula, home to pasta, olive oil and Italian tomato production.

“Tourists come from all over the world to enjoy our resorts in San Remo, Venice, and, the most beautiful place, Sorrento, a fishing village near Naples with the blue sea and white cliffs,” says Rabbi Hazan. He also echoes Rabbi Rabinowitz’s observations of the Italian people. “They show me a lot of respect. Many of the manufacturers and workers call me before the Jewish holidays.”

Rabbi Yishai Hochman, another OU Kosher supervisor, travels back and forth from his home in Jerusalem, visiting scores of plants across Italy. His schedule entails 12 days in Italy and eight in Israel and then 12 in Italy again. “Look at a map of Italy, point out almost any location; I’ve been there,” says Rabbi Hochman, who says his proficient “street Italian” helps him break the language barrier and bridge any cultural gap at plants in Torino, Milan, Bari Reggio Calabria and Rome.

“It’s important to speak personally, in a way that helps them feel comfortable with me and lets them know we have a mutually beneficial partnership as we work together for the goal of kosher,” says Rabbi Hochman.

Apparently, it’s not just wine, olive oil, and pasta manufacturers who are seeking OU Kosher certification. Add to the list: Balconi Cakes; Grisbi and Vicenzi Cookies; Amaretto di Saronno, Frangelico, and Bicerin di Gianduiotto Cream Chocolate liqueurs; Illy Caffe; Natural Earth Balsamic Vinegar of Modena; San Pellegrino Mineral Water; and a steadfast favorite, Ferrero’s Nutella Hazelnut Spread (a chocolaty hazelnut spread, marketed in over 75 countries across the globe).

So, treat your taste buds to a tossed green salad smothered in Bertolli and Colavia olive oils; enjoy an entrée of Barilla and De Cecco pastas topped with your favorite Agromonte tomato sauce; then finish with a plate of Vicenzi Lady Fingers dipped in Bicerin Italian White or Dark chocolate liqueur. All OU Kosher.

Buon appetito!

Bayla Sheva Brenner, a senior writer in the OU Department of Communications and Marketing, is a frequent contributor to BTUS.