The Chinese may
have invented it, but the Italians perfected it: pastasciutta. Today, one of the most famous brands of pasta
worldwide is Buitoni, an industry that grew out of a modest pasta shop opened
in 1827 by Giovan Battista Buitoni and his wife Giulia Boninsegni in
Sansepolcro, a small village in the province of Arezzo.
In 1856, two of the couple’s nine children, Giuseppe
and Giovanni, opened a factory in Citta di Castello to manufacture pasta from
the hard durum wheat they procured in Puglia. Using the latest technology, they
increased sales by producing, for the first time, a gluten-free pasta
particularly suitable for children and sick people. In 1886, the business was
registered as an unlimited company under the name Giovanni e Fratelli Buitoni.
It was a
fourth-generation Buitoni, named Giovanni after his grandfather, who made the
company’s pasta a household name not only nationally but also internationally.
Born in Perugia on November 6, 1891, Giovanni Buitoni studied law before going
to Germany in 1909 to learn the language and to observe advanced industrial
operations there. Unexpectedly called back home after receiving news that the Perugina
chocolate company his father, Francesco, had co-founded two years earlier was
on the brink of bankruptcy, he took over general management of the business at
just 18 years old and succeeded in turning it into a profit-making concern.
Following a brief
stint in the army during World War I, in 1918, he returned to the day-to-day
management of Perugina, installing modern machinery in the plant and
introducing new products, among them the Baci (‘kisses’) chocolates with their love notes inside, developed
in 1922 by Luisa Spagnoli, the wife of one of his father’s partners (and his
considerably older lover until her death in 1935).
A genius at
publicity, in the 1930s, Giovanni Buitoni was the first in Italy to promote his
pasta by putting picture cards into its packages. Customers who collected
complete sets of the cards were then eligible to take part in a radio contest
and win prizes, including a FIAT Topolino automobile. Immensely popular at the
time, especially because the country was in the grips of the Great Depression,
the cards were eagerly traded almost like stocks and bonds.
(‘mayor’) of Perugia from 1930 until 1934, Giovanni Buitoni married opera
singer Letizia Cairone in 1936. Upon the death of his father in 1938, Giovanni
became CEO of both family companies. In 1939, he and his wife were invited by
the Hershey Chocolate Company to take part in its 30th anniversary celebrations
in America. From there, the couple went on to visit the World Fair in New York,
where they thought the food offered to visitors was too costly. To remedy this,
they opened a spaghetti café in the basement of the Italian Pavilion, where
daily they served more than 15,000 portions, each on a paper plate, for just 25
the couple was in the States, Italy entered World War II. Giovanni found
himself stuck there, without money or merchandise, unable to return to Italy.
As his great grandmother had done over a century earlier, his wife pawned her
jewels to provide the capital to set up a new company, the Buitoni Foods
Corporation, eventually building two famously ‘starch free’ pasta factories
(one in Brooklyn, the other in Jersey City), a spaghetti restaurant in Times
Square, and a Perugina shop on Fifth Avenue.
Giovanni Buitoni returned to Italy in 1953 to found the International Buitoni
Organization to coordinate all the industrial activities of the
family-controlled multinational, he continued to live for long periods in the
United States, cultivating his lifelong interest in music and actively
promoting U.S.-Italian relations, for which he received numerous awards.
In 1963, he
fulfilled his fondest dream: to sing opera at Carnegie Hall in New York.
Sparing no expense, he hired the venue, filled it with family, jet-setting
friends and employees. Silver-haired and elegantly dressed, he entertained them
by singing, in his deep bass voice, arias from Don Giovanni and Ernani. The New York Times reported, ‘Mr. Buitoni made up for the lack of power
in his singing with the ardor necessary for the role.’
Buitoni died in Rome on January 12, 1979; his wife outlived him by 21 years,
dying at 95 in Switzerland in 2000.
Giovanni Buitoni retired from hands-on management of the group. In 1969, the
Buitoni and Perugina companies merged to become the Industrie Buitoni Perugina.
By 1971, the group had six factories in Italy, three in France, one in the
United States and one in Brazil. However, during the 1970s, the group
experienced a fall in profits and increasing debt, largely a result of family
squabbles, top-heavy management and a lack of clear vision for its future. In
1985, the company was purchased by Carlo De Benedetti’ s CIR. Failing in his
attempt to re-organise and re-launch the group, De Benedetti sold it in 1988
for 1.4 billion U.S. dollars to its current owner, Nestle.