By SHARON SANDERS | ILLUSTRATIONS BY HEATHER REINERT
High-ranking U.S. government and Allied dignitaries may not always agree on matters of international policy, but when they dine on Vicidomini pasta at the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C., they are all in accord. “We cannot have an event here at the Embassy without the magnificent Vicidomini pasta,” says Lt. Col. Alessio Grasso, defense cooperation attaché.
One of the finest artisanal pastas made in Italy, Vicidomini is imported exclusively by Santisi Imports, an Easton-based company founded by Phil Noto ’72. “Food is a common denominator of all human beings. You can start a conversation about what people eat. They may not know geopolitics, science, or history, but they know their food,” says Noto, a history graduate and retired Army lieutenant colonel.
Conversations about Italian food take place around the tasting bar at Santisi’s showroom as Noto leads clients on an excursion of the senses. Patrons feel velvety pistachio cream glide on their tongues, gaze upon the sunset hue of peach jam, taste the char on a grilled baby artichoke, inhale the sweet-tart perfume of aceto balsamico di Modena, and hear the story behind each edible.
Noto says that initially Santisi’s sales were 70 percent wholesale and 30 percent retail. That distribution has now flipped. The next big push is to grow the business with new online ordering capability (www.santisi-usa.com).
“I tell customers that we’re their personal importer. The only person between them and Pomilia is us,” says Noto, referring to the prized canned tomatoes that contain nothing but tomatoes. They melt into a sweet sauce the minute they hit the skillet.
Living in Europe for eight years while serving in the Army, Noto acquired the practical equivalent of an advanced degree in culinary studies, devoting his free time to traveling, eating, and asking questions. He was bowled over by the superior quality of food, wine, and beer, combined with the attention given to the dining experience in Germany, Italy, and France.
Noto and his business partners, Vince Sciascia, Mario Vicidomini (of the magnificent pasta), and Frank Oieni, apply the same research methods as they travel throughout Italy—from the northwest province of Piedmont to southernmost Sicily— to track down the best quality foodstuffs from family producers. The term artisanal is often abused, but Santisi’s selections are the real deal.
Santisi’s first import product was an extra-virgin olive oil of certain pedigree. It comes from Noto’s cousin Giuseppe “Pippo” Calantoni who grows the olives and presses the oil in Motta d’Affermo, Sicily, the town where Noto’s father was born. Noto has visited often, frequently accompanied by his uncle Tony Noto ’41.
Authenticity is assured with each product. Noto has a deep understanding of why the grains of Carnaroli rice are plumper than Arborio, because he’s stood in the rice field where the Carnaroli stems tower over their Arborio cousins. He has tasted the sushi-grade tuna fillets from Pellezzano that are hand-packed in jars, and he recognizes and appreciates the distinctive flavor of Bronte pistachios that are grown in the volcanic soil on the foothills of Mount Etna.
As a 1967 Associated Press Pennsylvania All-State football player from Easton Area High School, Noto received offers from a number of colleges.
“Food is a common denominator of all human beings. You can start a conversation about what people eat. They may not know geopolitics, science, or history, but they know their food.”
–Phil Noto ’72
“Coach [Harry] Gamble spent four hours with us in my parents’ living room. At the end of the night, I was going to Lafayette,” says Noto. “Football at Lafayette got me a good education. I developed a lifelong reading habit and learned to appreciate poetry.”
He started as a middle guard for the Pards his second year, and in a sense has never stopped playing. He’s the historian of the Maroon Club Friends of Lafayette Football and takes part in First Huddle, Last Huddle and other support events for the current student athletes.
Starting in 2008 when John Leone, associate director of major gifts, reached out to Noto about an internship for defensive lineman Luke Schade ’08, Noto has hosted 19 members of the team as interns at Santisi. He now works with Coach Frank Tavani and Jack Bourger ’71, FoLF chair emeritus, to select players who want to gain practical learning experience in business.
Maurice White ’10, an economics and business graduate, says his internship at Santisi was “an invaluable experience” that led to Noto’s former teammate Terry Byrd ’74 hiring him as behavioral health representative at Healthfirst. “I learned the importance of communicating effectively, building and maintaining relationships with potential and current clients, and understanding the needs of the target market,” says White.
An alumnae’s romance and another Leopard link connected Noto and Vicidomini pasta.
Early in Santisi’s evolution when Noto was working out of a leased warehouse, he received a phone call from Mark Damiano ’74 who wanted to try some olive oil. Noto packed containers in his car trunk and met Damiano at Cosmic Cup.
Damiano said that his daughter, Julia “Jules” Damiano-Vicidomini ’02, lived in Italy and was married to Mario Vicidomini. The Vicidomini family was looking for a U.S. importer for their pasta, recalls Noto.
An initial trial order sold out quickly, and demand continues to grow. Damiano-Vicidomini, an art and history graduate who studied abroad in Florence and earned a master’s in territorial development and tourism marketing from Bemore, explains that the pasta is so sought after because it’s produced slowly and with care, just as it has been since 1812. Vicidomini, his brother, and two nephews own and operate the pastificio, housed in a converted 16th-century monastery in the village of Castel San Giorgio about 12 miles north of Salerno.
The process is simple and depends upon superior ingredients. A paste of semolina (durum wheat) flour and mountain water are extruded through rough-textured bronze dies that give the pasta superb mouth feel. The factory has three drying rooms, and the pasta takes three days to dry, so production halts when the rooms are filled. In contrast, mass-produced pasta is extruded through cheaper Teflon dies and dried quickly in massive ovens.
“When you use fine ingredients, you let the quality speak for itself,” says Damiano-Vicidomini. “That’s why the tasting experience at Santisi is so successful.”
Damiano-Vicidomini, who works as a marketing database assistant at Rodale, says her decade of living in Italy and cooking alongside her mother-in-law, Concetta, transformed the way she thinks about food. “Mario’s careers with the pastificio and Santisi align with mine at Rodale. Both companies focus on the importance of mindful eating and healthy, gorgeous food.”
Santisi Imports will become an off-campus laboratory for students enrolled in two upcoming courses taught by Polly Piergiovanni, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
Piergiovanni’s interim course, A Taste of Italian Engineering, taught with Josh Smith, associate professor of mechanical engineering and chair of the engineering and international studies program, includes course work on food science and processing. Students will travel to Italy to review engineering methods in factories. Before they depart, Phil Noto of Santisi will share his knowledge of the methods used in producing both extra-virgin olive oil and aceto balsamico di Modena, a protected designation of origin food product. Piergiovanni and Smith will supplement the discourse with discussion of the engineering concepts involved.
During spring semester, one section of the Applied Fluid Flow and Heat Transfer required course for chemical engineering juniors will focus on food processing. Piergiovanni plans to take students to Santisi, so they can gather information about the density and viscosity of different types of balsamic. Using the equations they’ve learned in class, the students will model the process while studying the evaporative processes.