Searching for Healthy Italian Foods at Expo West 2018
Gluten-free, dairy-free, low-sodium... The 37th Natural Products Expo West had something for everybody. We searched for Italian foods and ingredients, and here's what we found.
Published: March 14, 2018
Foodiamo went au-nature for a day at 2018 Expo West, to check out lighter and healthier versions of our usual pasta, pizza, ossobuco and tiramisù. And we made a surprising discovery…
Healthy Italian Food That Tastes Good, Too? You Bet – at Natural Products Expo West!
Gluten-free. Dairy-free. Sugar-free. Low-sodium. Vegan. Organic. Plant-based. Biodynamic. These are not words typically associated with old-style Italian cuisine, especially on this side of the Atlantic. But can they compete with the rich, heavy pastas and creamy sauces that the American public knows and loves?
We decided to find out — and there’s good news: If you have diabetes, specific dietary needs, food allergies, or simply want to lighten up your diet, a new wave of lighter, more nutritious Italian foods and ingredients are sweeping the US. And much of it tastes pretty good!
Foodiamo braved a record-breaking crowd of 80,000 attendees and 3,100 exhibitors to savor the taste of the 37th Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, CA. Here are some of the highlights.
Pasta: Perfecting the Dough
“I clearly see a movement toward healthier Italian food in this country,” Lorenzo Boni, executive chef of pasta giant Barilla, told Foodiamo at Expo West this past week.
“It’s more authentic and contemporary, using extra-virgin olive oil instead of marinara, lean meats and seafood as well as aromatic herbs that are not typically available in Italy,” he said.
Rest assured, our dietary staple is not going anywhere. In fact, Italian producers have been obsessed with perfecting pasta’s nutrition and taste.
Take DeLallo’s new gluten-free-certified gnocchi. The pasta is 98% potato with a small amount of rice flour, according to Paul Golles. “No one in the US makes gnocchi with this much potato,” he boasts.
The company’s pastas are sourced and produced in Italy, with separate facilities for gluten-free products. Another health bonus: They’re biodynamically grown.
Golles explains that biodynamic farming enhances the nutritional value, quality and flavor of food. “It’s a step above organic.” The pasta is then dried in a kiln to create a rough surface so the sauce can stick to it better,” he explains.
Looking for new flavors to wow fickle guests? Award-winning La Pasta Inc. just rolled out all-natural, veggie-packed pastas, including a tempting ravioli stuffed with fresh herbs and lemon zest. Just add a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of asiago or parmigiano reggiano before serving,” says CEO Alexis Konownitzine.
La Pasta also offers a line of certified gluten-free pastas, each a dietary bargain at 240 calories per serving (one cup).
An important notion we learned at Expo West: Not all gluten-free products are created equal.
Some may contain high levels of allergens—such as gluten or soy, according to Pier Luigi Odorico of Molino Favero, which supplies 90% of Italian producers with gluten-free flours.
Others may contain fillers. “We follow the 5-ingredient philosophy of world-acclaimed, three-Michelin star Chef Massimo Bottura,” he explains. “Our flours contain just 2-5 ingredients, with no additives or preservatives.”
Sauces: Greening the Gravy
“Pasta is a blank canvas,” says Barilla’s Boni, who uses fresh, Mediterranean-style ingredients that are popular in the US.
For Saclà, a family-owned brand from Asti since 1939, the trend toward healthier sauces starts with a P, for pesto.
Its green sauce is the top-seller among Italian food lovers and pesto junkies in this country – and abroad, according to North America Area Manager Alberto Bretti. The secret? “Our basil is picked and packed in Italy within 24 hours.”
Can’t give up old-school American gravy? We found a product for you: Michael’s of Brooklyn’s now sells a line of sauces served at its family-owned restaurant, established 1964.
His Home Style Gravy was a tomato-ey blend of olive oil, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, basil, parsley, bay leaf, spices. Nothing else! Your guests will think you slaved over a hot stove for hours.
Pizza: Frozen and Cauliflower Crusts
Truth be told, we tasted a lot of pizza at the 2018 Expo West. The best, by far, was Russo’s New York Pizza.
Chef Anthony Russo, who has been serving pies for more than 40 years at his eponymous NYC restaurant and 36 franchises around the country, just introduced a new line of frozen pizzas that tasted as good as fresh-baked.
The NY-style, gluten-free cheese pizza was bubbling with housemade sauce, low-moisture skim mozzarella and extra-virgin olive oil. The cheese was rich and creamy, sauce had just the right amount of tang, and crust perfectly thin and crispy.
Another standout—albeit non-traditional: Cali’Flour. The 180-calorie, plant-based crust was developed by former nutrition coach Amy Lacey after being diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus.
It contains just 4 ingredients, including fresh cauliflower, and is very versatile: It can also be served as chips for dipping or sprinkled on top of salad for added crunch.
Condiments: Sweet and Savory Flavors
As Italians, we can’t live without our aceto balsamico! But how to avoid the high sugar and calories?
Naples-based DeNigris, master vinegar makers since 1889, now offers a line of savory natural and organic balsamic glazes, barbeque sauces, ketchups and apple cider vinegars flavored with honey, turmeric, cranberry and ginger.
“The flavor makes the vinegar easier to drink, or mix with salad dressings, said Claire Giegerich of De Nigris Group. She recommends drizzling the balsamic on parmigiano reggiano or vanilla ice cream.
ALSO READ: The Best Pasta Dishes in L.A. (2017 Edition)
On a sweeter note, San Francisco-based syrup maker Torani, the company that flavors your coffee (and also invented Café Tourista and Vanilla Latte back in 1980s North Beach) – just launched fruit-flavored and sugar-free versions for warm-weather cocktails, mocktails, sodas and lemonades.
The new signature strawberry syrup caught our attention. We sipped it in strawberry balsamic-infused water with just a hint of sweetness (from maple sugar). Incredibly refreshing after a long day on the trade show floor.
Desserts: Biscotti Old and New
Biscotti may be a popular US snack and dessert, but the ubiquitous coffee shop variety lacks flavor, texture and healthy ingredients.
Enter DiBella. The 100-year-old Italian company makes “pre-packaged” biscotti that tastes like it just came out of Rocco and Anna’s Palermo oven, back in the day.
Soft, chewy and flecked with dried fruit, nuts and natural flavors, they come in 14 different flavors (including fig and walnut, double chocolate fudge and apricot almond). Made with all-natural ingredients, they can be eaten alone, dipped in a beverage, eaten alongside gelato or paired with a glass of wine.
Ever seen round biscotti? Neither did we, until we met Mikaela Rae.
The New Jersey-native developed these unusually shaped Italian cookies almost by accident, when Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf hired her to create a private label line that would allow better travel and shelf life.
At the Expo, she announced her new company, Simply Divine, which sells gluten-free biscotti made with organic sugar and butter. Her best sellers are luscious lemon and chocolate brownie flavors; our fave was the crispy, crunchy chocolate chip.
How about you? Have you tried any alternative, healthier versions of classic Italian foods? Let us know in the comments.
Photos by Raffaele Asquer and Laurie Berger for Foodiamo. All rights reserved.