Alarm bells ring in Italy as spiking wheat prices threaten the country’s most beloved dish

September 19, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

Enoteca Corsi is among the last of a dying breed of eateries in Rome’s historic center: ensconced since the 1930s on a small side street a few steps from the Roman Pantheon, the locale has avoided the temptation to modernize. Its origins are as a wine shop that began offering small plates of food to patrons. Today, the Corsi family still offers well-prepared, reasonably-priced meals in a no-frills atmosphere. 

The menu is a single sheet of paper, only in Italian, and the offerings change with the seasons (the amatriciana—a traditional pasta dish with tomatoes, pork jowl, and pecorino cheese—is a perennial favorite). And there’s no wine list. Instead, bottles are on display on the crowded shelves in the main dining room. On any given day, patrons may range from tourists and laborers to nobles, politicians, and celebrities. 

Like many businesses, the coronavirus pandemic hit Enoteca Corsi hard. The lack of tourism, closures to nearby businesses, pandemic health rules, and a general wariness of eating around strangers have taken their toll. Two years ago, the four-man kitchen staff would make 200 lunchtime meals a day, sometimes 250. Now, it’s rare for them to make 100.

“We’re hanging on,” said 81-year-old Fabrizio Corsi, the son of Enoteca Corsi’s founders. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

And that situation is about to get even more difficult. Soon, Enoteca Corsi and other Italian dining establishments will have to absorb a big new blow: a major increase in the price of pasta.

The ‘purity law’ and the perfect storm

1967 Italian decree called the “purity law” requires that all dried pasta sold in Italy be made from durum wheat, a strain of hard-grained, coarse wheat that is far more difficult to use than traditional bread wheat, but which makes a pasta that holds its form during cooking without becoming soft or bland. 

The trouble is, less than a tenth of the world’s total wheat production is durum wheat. Because it is only grown in a few areas—the north-central U.S., Alberta in Canada, as well as parts of France and Italy—the product is vulnerable to weather anomalies. So far this year, drought conditions in North America and floods in France are a big part of what pasta empresario Riccardo Felicetti called a “perfect storm” that is driving prices higher and higher.

Also part of the storm: rising demand, emptied out storehouses, and supply chain issues related to the pandemic. The result: contract prices this month topped €500 ($600) per metric ton for the first time ever, an 84% increase compared to a year earlier. 

Felicetti, owner of an eponymous pasta company and president of the pasta section of the Italian Food Union, predicts contract prices will top €600 ($720) a ton by the end of the year. At that level, everyone from small, local producers to medium-sized companies like Pastificio Felcetti to multinationals like Barilla will feel the pressure.

“We risk reaching unsustainable levels for durum wheat prices,” Felicetti, whose company produces around 30,000 tons of pasta per year, told Fortune. “So far we are managing. But if prices continue to rise, the impacts are going to be very costly.”

Costly, as in a big rise in prices customers pay for dry pasta and other consumer products made from durum wheat, like couscous and some kinds of bread.

Seeds and spikes of durum wheat from Palermo, Italy, lie in a cardboard box among thousands of others in a storage room at the Leibnitz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) on March 17, 2021 in Gatersleben, Germany.
Sean Gallup—Getty Images

1,000 tiny cuts

According to Silvia Piconcelli from Confagricoltura, Italy’s oldest agriculture association, major Italian pasta makers are delaying increases in the prices they charge in part out of fear of losing market share to rivals who manage to hold off a bit longer. But she said the main reason retail pasta prices haven’t started climbing—at least so far—is because bulk contracts cover multiple months or years. With wheat prices so high, pasta makers are holding off on signing new contracts. Instead, they’re buying smaller quantities to fill gaps while keeping average costs low.

“Flour suppliers are honoring the old contracts. But as they expire, the situation for pasta makers will become more severe,” Piconcelli said. “If prices don’t stabilize, it means that at some point, probably soon, pasta prices are going to climb very quickly. When it happens, it’ll happen all at once.”

That would be another major blow for Italian restaurateurs. Angelo Boccanera, who runs Enoteca Corsi’s kitchen at night (and is Fabrizio Corsi’s nephew by marriage), estimated that if pasta prices rise in step with durum wheat prices, Enoteca Corsi would have to add a euro or two to each plate of pasta they sell (prices now are in the range of €9 to €13, or $11 to $15). That doesn’t sound like much. But Boccanera likened it to a form of, if not death, then distress by a thousand tiny cuts. 

“Seeing a big increase in the price of pasta would be symbolic because pasta is so essential in Italy, and people would notice,” said Boccanera. “But the truth is one or two extra euro for a plate of pasta alone wouldn’t have a major impact on most of our customers.” 

But the real problem, he explained, is that rising pasta prices are not the only challenge.

“Now, add that to the fact that tomato prices are rising,” he said. “Same for olive oil. Some people don’t want to go out and eat because of the pandemic. Tourists aren’t coming back as we expected. More people are working from home. With everything put together, it’s hard. It all seems to be happening at the same time.”

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