As Italian immigrants flocked to America in the late 1800s, they began to adapt their tastes to what was available in their new home. The popularity of pasta was born out of necessity. Staple fruits, vegetables, and cheese common throughout Italy were scarce and expensive in America. Pasta, largely considered a special holiday dish, was cheap and plentiful. Many Campanian immigrants had established themselves as grocers and imported ingredients traditional to their region, such as tomato pasta, oregano, and garlic, over other regional flavors. For this reason, pasta with red sauce emerged as the quintessential Italian dish in the States.
Small pasta factories were opened in every “Little Italy” across America, though immigrants preferred importing directly from their homeland.[i] That began to change in 1899 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture secured durum wheat seed that could be grown in America to produce macaroni of a similar quality to Italian products.[ii]
However, World War I brought these imports to a halt, increasing reliance on and profitability of U.S.-based manufacturers. At a time when most food prices were rising, pasta was cheap. The growing popularity is demonstrated by an increase of 373 pasta makers nationwide in 1914 to 557 by the end of the war in 1919.
Food scientists and millers also contributed to the popularity in the 1920s, calling for Americans to “eat more wheat” to get their daily nutrients. Restaurants and cafeterias capitalized on the craze.[iii] Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Kentucky Macaroni Company utilized local newspapers to feature their state-of-the-art facility,[iv] high-quality ingredients, and sanitation methods[v] to inspire locals to try their products – a tactic surely other manufacturers employed.
By the end of the 1920s, annual per capita consumption of pasta went from nearly zero to 3.75 pounds in 10 years, and Italian restaurants became the most popular ethnic restaurants in country, a lead that still remains. When the stock market crashed in 1929, those suffering during the Great Depression sought pasta as a healthful, cost effective meal. [vi]
In 1937, the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association held the first annual “Macaroni Week” from October 10-16. The Association and local producers, including the Kentucky Macaroni Company, prepared retailers with promotional material regarding the nutritional value of pasta and recipes for home cooks, responding to the rising popularity and opportunity for growth.[vii] In this year, Peter J. Viviano of the Kentucky Macaroni Company explained that macaroni contained “the elements that build sturdy bodies and alert minds” and outlined macaroni’s versatility as “non-fattening” and having a “mild, appetizing quality” that could be serve with many ingredients to “make ideally balanced meals” for the family.[viii]
Pasta consumption and popularity continued to rise with each decade. Cost, versatility, and ease of preparation remained key selling points, such as in a 1977 article offering macaroni-centered recipes for a reader’s next camping trip.[ix] Promotion to athletes was prioritized, citing pasta’s high-energy, low calorie properties.[x] In the 1980s, fine dining, celebrity chefs, and home appliances positioned pasta as “posh.” Pasta-making parties were trendy as an at-home pasta machine came onto the market. Upscale New York City chefs featured pasta primavera and creative takes on raviolis across their menus. Event James Beard published “Beard on Pasta,” featuring classic recipes alongside more adventure takes, such as egg white egg noodles and pasta-stuffed roast chicken.[xi]
CONSOLIDATION OF PASTA MANUFACTURING & CURRENT DAY
In the early half of the twentieth century, every city had a local pasta company, such as those run by the Vivianos. As the popularity of pasta rose, local brands like San Giorgio and Prince, immigrant-founded companies themselves, began buying up smaller entities in the 1960s.
Other food producers, such as Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Pillsbury recognized not only the profitability of pasta itself, but the additional ingredients, such as sauce and cheese, that were bought simultaneously.[xii] Additionally, pasta ingredients were sourced from the U.S., therefore not subject to international trade fluctuations, and the affordability of the consumer product ensured strong consumption even during economic depressions.[xiii] During this period, as a Joseph Viviano put it “[The small, local companies] really only have three options: One is to sell out. One is to go public with your own stock. The third is to go bankrupt.”[xiv] Of the 500 pasta companies in existence in the 1940s, less that 100 remained forty years later.
Most mega companies dropped out of the pasta race by the 1980s and Hershey emerged most successful from this endeavor.[xv] At this time, Hershey was the second largest pasta manufacturing company in the world, behind Mueller’s, with 10 percent of the market share.
To achieve this, Hershey had acquired San Giorgio in 1966, though maintaining the brand name on grocery shelves. Delmonico (previously Kentucky Macaroni Company) became a division of San Giorgio / Hershey in 1966.[xvi] The third addition was Promico and Rossi. Skinner Macaroni Company was acquired in 1979. Executives from the purchased companies become part of Hershey’s pasta division leadership, such as Joseph P. Viviano, who served as President, to provide their expertise.[xvii]
Despite their mega status, profit margins were low and, by the 1980s, sales had plateaued to grow only by 2.5 to 3 percent each year.[xviii] At the close of the millennium, sales stagnated further, likely due to the popularity of “low-carb” diets and an economic boom enabling more people to eat out in restaurants. Hershey wanted to refocus on its core confectionary business. In 1999, Hershey’s pasta division split off as an investment group called “New World Pasta.” Finally, in 2001, New World Pasta purchased the remaining pasta business of Borden. They now produce regional brands nationwide, operating out of five manufacturing facilities.[xix] All of the Viviano companies had either gone out of business or been acquired by Prince, Hershey, or Borden during this time. None of the local brands remain in production as of 2022.
Nowadays, there are a handful of major dried pasta manufacturers in the United States, including New World Pasta, pumping out 300 million years of pasta year. They are intimately tied to the flour industry and have invested in the expensive equipment to produce such a quantity that, given the actual profit margin of pasta, there is little room for anyone else.[xx]
Pasta and Italian cuisine have become an integral part of the American table. It has provided sustenance in times of struggle, nostalgia for those who left home, and a chance at the American dream for generations of fortunate manufacturers and restauranteurs. Though the Vivianos’ factories have been purchased and closed, their story remains an important chapter in that of the Italian-American story.