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Almost a decade after pasta was "discovered" as a health food, its popularity, along with other ethnic Italian ingredients, remains undiminished in supermarkets across the land. "Everybody loves Italian food," said Sandy Kapoor, a registered dietitian and professor at Cal Poly's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, Pomona, Calif. Italian is still the No. 1 ethnic cuisine in this country, she

Almost a decade after pasta was "discovered" as a health food, its popularity, along with other ethnic Italian ingredients, remains undiminished in supermarkets across the land. "Everybody loves Italian food," said Sandy Kapoor, a registered dietitian and professor at Cal Poly's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, Pomona, Calif. Italian is still the No. 1 ethnic cuisine in this country, she added, ahead of Chinese and Mexican.

"It's a universal food, and widely consumed," said Frank Puleo, director of grocery category management for Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa.

Bruce Zallie, vice president of merchandising for Zallie's Supermarkets, Clementon, N.J., has been using the store-within-a-store concept to merchandise Italian products since about 1991. "I did that because of the popularity of pasta," he told SN. "It was a big item, and it still is. It's a good food -- not fattening."

The newest Zallie ShopRite, in Medford, N.J., opened Dec. 13 with more upscale flair in its Italian section. Zallie said there is an array of 50 or more premium olive oils, 15 brands of imported pastas and 25 or more sauces. Medford is an affluent area, he said, which explains the product mix.

Zallie created his first Italian island in the Berlin, N.J., store to enhance the sales of DeCecco imported pasta, displaying 50 or 60 different cuts, or varieties, of DeCecco on a Metro rack. By contrast, in the regular aisle there was room for only 20 cuts.

The concept spread to a store that the company, an affiliate of Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., next opened in Glassboro. There, he said, "We laid the store out around it."

Next came the West Deptford store, which Zallie said turned out best because of the store's physical layout. He tied domestic pastas and sauces together on the perimeter of the "Taste of Italy" section, while inside, on 40 feet of Metro racks, he put all the imported pasta. The average size of these rectangular islands is 150 feet, multiplied by three or four shelves.

As a result, Zallie said, "Our sales in Italian items [last year] were 1% higher than the whole Wakefern average."

Genuardi's and Grand Union Co., Wayne, N.J., are two chains that have a similar store-within-a-store setup in some units for Italian dry goods, although both augment the grocery aisle with a refrigerated section serving cheeses and meats. Both use a canopy to create an Old World accent.

In addition to its Italian Market section, Genuardi's is now merchandising dry Italian grocery items in its deli and food court areas in newer units, Puleo said.

In a Grand Union store in Deer Park, N.Y., the store-within-a-store is laid out as Aisle 1 and Aisle 2, with a low-profile set of shelves down the center that holds sauces and condiments of all descriptions, as well as colored-glass cruets, dishes, salt and pepper mills, and even a small display of Mother's Cereals.

One side of Aisle 2 is shared by kosher foods, Oriental and Mexican foods, but there are plenty of tomato products on the opposite side. Olive oils are for the most part merchandised elsewhere in the store, in Aisle 9. Pope brand was selling at $6.99 for a 3-liter can, or 101 ounces. Forelli, Rienzi, Bertolli and Filippo Berio were also available in that size, the largest.

Entering Aisle 1, on the right are many stockkeeping units of imported pastas. During SN's visit, many were on "Red Dot" special. Light wooden shelves are arranged in 3-foot segments, seven shelves high. DeCecco cuts of pasta were $1.59 a pound. Kraft Grated Parmesan Cheese is merchandised in a vertical green rack holding eight shaker cans. DaVinci wagon wheels were 89 cents during SN's visit; angel hair, $1.65; and linguine and spaghetti, 79 cents a pound.

Aisle 1 ends in a canopy-covered deli area with refrigerated meats and cheeses, and refrigerated pasta is displayed nearby.

Grand Union spokesman Don Vaillancourt said that such Italian sections are "not representative of the Grand Union of the future," although the category will continue to be important.

Italian festivals, or promotions, do well, retailers said. "It's a strong promotional program for us, and for all chains. That's why you see everybody running them year after year, and not only around Columbus Day," said Andy Carrano, spokesman for A&P, Montvale, N.J. For example, Fred Meyer Inc., Portland, Ore., ran a five-week Italian Days promotion that ended Oct. 3 this year.

SN visited a Fred Meyer unit in Kalispell, Mont., in the autumn, finding that Italian foods, primarily noodles and sauces, shared an aisle with Mexican foods, macaroni and cheese and other prepackaged noodle meals. While there were no overhead signs promoting Italian Days, the shelves were blanketed in orange, green and yellow shelf tags advertising reduced prices, two-for-one promotions and buy-one-get-one-free purchases.

Other Center Store products included in the promotion were Bertolli pure olive oil, Rosetto frozen pasta, Tombstone and DiGiorno frozen pizza, Fred Meyer canned tomato sauce and Progresso vegetable soup.

At Christmastime, Italian products are part of a broader scope of promotional offerings. Traditional Italian cooks make seafood spreads for Christmas Eve and lasagna to go with the turkey or ham, or both, the next day, retailers said.

Many of the items in a store's Italian section may wind up under someone's Christmas tree, said Chuck Caplan, specialty-food buyer for the four-store Russo's Giant Eagle independent, based in Chesterland, Ohio.

"Manacredi imports olive oils from little towns in Italy, labeled after the tree they came from," he said. "They are very expensive, about $25 a bottle. They are sealed, like a whiskey bottle, and labeled after the city. I don't carry many, maybe three bottles of each. "People from that city go crazy for it. If a friend of yours came from one of these areas, you might want to buy him a bottle." Christmas tree pasta or an angel pasta make nice presents, Caplan said, or can be put into a gift basket for a friend. People also buy olive oils in carafes as gifts.

The Christmas tree shaped pastas, in red and green, "make a beautiful side dish on a holiday table," Caplan said. There are pastas "for every holiday under the sun, and also sports, like soccer ball pasta. People put them in little glass bottles in the kitchen [for decoration]."

Retailers are enthusiastic about the look of their Italian displays during promotional periods at any time of year. Caplan noted that Italian products are easy to cross merchandise; they are attractive and they produce good sales. "A promotion reminds people, 'Oh yes, I could have spaghetti and meatballs for dinner,' " Caplan said.

New and different items keep the selection fresh. Salmon-colored lentils have become popular, used to make lentil chili, and mixed packages of brown- and salmon-colored lentils are now available. "I have that item in my international section, and it does real well for us all year long," said Caplan.

Kapoor, the food expert, predicts there will be more flavored oils for dipping bread, a use that can easily apply to Italian foods.

"They are 100% fat, but a good fat, mono-unsaturated and free of trans fatty acids," she pointed out.

Russo's recently demoed a balsamic vinegar in an olive oil base for dipping. "We have a lot of premiere breads, like pesto and sundried tomato, which we use with this oil. It's been very successful for us," said Russo's Caplan.

Many supermarkets are mixing other ethnic foods, especially other Mediterranean foods like couscous, in with the Italian products. Caplan said that, due to the popularity of Calamata olives, olive oils from Greece are becoming more marketable and are now available, on either the Italian or International aisle, in his stores.