Pastene products, with their distinctive bright yellow-and-red labels, can be found on supermarket shelves and pantries of home cooks throughout the Northeast and parts of Canada. A Canton-based company, Pastene is the oldest distributor of Italian food products in North America, with roots in Boston’s North End. Italian immigrant Luigi Pastene sold produce from a pushcart there before establishing the company bearing his name in 1874. The operation is now run by Mark Tosi of Cohasset and his brother Christopher of Milton, first cousins of the Pastene clan. We talked to Mark Tosi, who also owns Boston restaurants Bel Ari Italian Modern and Les Zygomates, about the company.
Q. Did you and your brother work your way up in the family business?
A. Oh, yes, we did every possible job here, working the warehouse, emptying freight cars, working on delivery trucks, salesman, you name it. We did every single job.
Q. You import mostly everything from Italy; anything made in the US?
A. Our number one item is the kitchen-ready tomato, peeled and ground; it’s produced in California. But most everything else is from Italy, including San Marzano tomatoes.
Q. They’re the best tomatoes for sauce?
A. By far — they’re grown in volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius. But consumers have to be careful. There’s a brand name San Marzano made in the US that aren’t even close. With us, I guarantee they’re San Marzano; we’ve got too much at stake. We’ve been around so long because of our quality; we don’t fool around — it would destroy our name. We have people working in Italy, from the farm to the packing plant. We know true San Marzano because we’re involved in the whole process.
Q. Do celebrity chefs on TV use Pastene?
A. If you watch Food Network, you’ll see it, but we don’t pay to endorse our products. We don’t need to. When you have the best tomato, everyone else is going after you.
Q. What’s new in a company this old?
A. While most of our products are already gluten free, we’ve added a few gluten-free products, including pasta, a product that meets the requirements to be served on our own plates. We’ve not grown our food line tremendously. Italian food is peasant food, and it doesn’t change.