Ode to Pasta, and to the Pluck of the Italian Family Business

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PARMA, ITALY -- Captains of industry came and kissed hands. Celebrities slipped through the crowds sipping sparkling wine. And local television reporters buttonholed smiling politicians, from both the left and the right, who had come together in a rare moment of concord for a nation stuck in parliamentary gridlock and economic crisis.

What united them was the one thing that nearly all Italians can agree on: pasta. Or more precisely, the pasta maker Pietro Barilla, who died in 1993 but would have turned 100 on Tuesday, and whose life was being celebrated in old-world elegance at the gilded Teatro Regio in Parma.

The show this week was part ode to pasta ("the soul of Italian cuisine," according to one actor) and part biography. But mostly it was a feel-good moment for a country whose businesses are feeling bad, and a reminder to all of what has long distinguished the Italian economy -- the charm and pluck of its family-run enterprises, which have weathered tough times before and even thrived to become global brands.

It was also a chance of Italy's politicians to stand up and show their pro-business bona fides, even if they are blamed by many industrial and financial leaders for prolonging a political paralysis that has made it all the harder to mobilize the economy.

Emilia Romagna, where Parma is the provincial capital, is home to some of Italy's most agriculturally abundant lands, which produce its famed cheese and prosciutto products, as well as an industrial sector that makes some of the world's most famous sports cars. Titans of both sectors were on hand to celebrate the success story of a man praised by one guest, the Ferrari chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, as "an important made-in-Italy icon."

"Barilla is to Parma what Agnelli is to Turin," said Marco Federici, a reporter for the Gazzetta di Parma, the local newspaper, which gave the commemoration copious coverage. "For Parma, this is a big event. The city is grateful to him, he did a lot of good."

The Italian entrepreneurial model that the Barilla story represents is based largely on small and medium businesses closely tied to their territory. The story of how Mr. Barilla propelled a family business based in Parma into a multinational brand is not without setbacks, a fact that made it more timely and appealing to many who watched and participated in the event.

"It underscores that a moment of crisis can be useful for people to rethink their own lives, it can be a moment of opportunity," said Giovanni Minoli, an Italian television reporter who narrated and wrote the script, "Pietro. One Hundred Years Ahead."

The Barilla brand began in 1877, with Mr. Barilla's grandfather and a family-run bakery. "Barilla is not a brand, it is my family name," Mr. Barilla said in a 1986 video, excerpts of which were shown during the performance, interspersed with musical interludes, poems and vignettes portraying the impact that Barilla -- the man and the company -- had on postwar Italy.

The company produces both pasta and baked goods. A trip to New York in the early 1950s inspired significant investment in stylish designs and distinctive promotional campaigns that have entered into the history of Italian advertising.

"Pasta became queen of the Italian kitchen," said Francesco Alberoni, the author of a biography published this week, adding that Barilla had left a mark on Italian customs and that the ads had moved generations of Italians.

Mr. Barilla's foresight and optimism even in times of economic hardship were championed in the performance as a call to arms for local industrialists and entrepreneurs feeling the pinch of Italy's lingering recession.

The food industry is not without competition -- in this moment, locals say, from Germany, Europe's No. 1 exporter -- and foreign companies have bought some of the area's most iconic companies. The French food group Lactalis has bought the dairy giant Parmalat, which survived a 2003 financial fraud scandal.

"We should not rest easy," said Vincenzo Bernazzoli, president of the province of Parma.

Persistent political instability in Rome has become a matter of growing concern for Italian industrialists, whose calls for support during the economic downturn have gone mostly unheeded. "The political situation doesn't help us when it comes to making plans," said the Barilla chief executive, Claudio Colzani, noting that the company had continued to invest in Italy, opening a sauces factory in a nearby town in October. At the same time, a sizeable portion of the business is now based outside Italy.

Early elections appear increasingly likely after the failure of political leaders to form a governing majority seven weeks after inconclusive national elections, and many Italian lawmakers have gone into permanent campaign mode. The event, held Monday evening, was no different.

Mr. Barilla's life "is the story of a possible dream, the Italy that is achievable if you have vision and farsightedness, not the Italy of stagnation," said Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence who has been aggressively vying for the past year to lead Italy's main center-left party. He worked the hall expertly, with easy charm.

Silvio Berlusconi, who announced over the weekend that he would again run as the center-right candidate for prime minister if snap elections were called, also made an appearance, his arrival at the theater here on Monday greeted by admiring fans, irate hecklers and a swarm of journalists roughly jostled by Mr. Berlusconi's sizeable security detail.

"Pietro was proud when he increased the number of his employees, or when a new factory opened," said Mr. Berlusconi, 76, a media tycoon from Lombardy who counted Mr. Barilla as a friend, as many industrialists did.

The proceeds of the show's ticket sales were devolved to the Pietro Barilla children's hospital in Parma, which this year received an €8.5 million, or $11 million, donation from the family. But the sold-out performance was also relayed on a maxi-screen in one of Parma's main squares, and TV Parma broadcast it live.

Despite the challenges facing Italy today, Mr. Barilla's heirs are "optimistic about the future, even though we are aware of the difficulties of the moment, and know that significant resources are called for, but we see success ahead," said Guido Barilla, one of the three Barilla sons who now run the business.

Mr. Minoli, who scripted the show, believes that were the entrepreneur still alive today he would inspire his descendants with one of his trademark phrases: "Let's move forward, move forward with courage."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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