Pasta performance dishes up tasty prospects for the future: Food: an Italian immigrant family's recipe for British success has come from an unlikely source

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ON SATURDAY evenings when Virginia Lopalco was a girl, in Treviso, Italy, she would watch her mother make next week's pasta dough. It was a good way to learn the skills that she now uses at Crawley, Sussex, where she is the creative force and part-owner of Pasta Reale - Britain's biggest producer of fresh pasta.

Mrs Lopalco, her husband Salvatore and brother Roberto Santi typify the sort of immigrant success story more often associated with New York.

It all started in the early Sixties, when Virginia came to London, aged 17, to learn English. After working as a dining- room maid at Eton for a couple of months ('The diet was appalling') she worked for Frank Muir as an au pair.

Then she met and married Salvatore, a chef in a Soho restaurant. They had two children, and bought a transport cafe in Croydon which, with the help of a large loan, they converted into the town's first trattoria - the Bella Venezia.

'We risked everything,' she says. 'That first Christmas, in 1966, we had an egg sandwich for lunch.'

The Bella Venezia prospered, not least because Mrs Lopalco spent every afternoon making fresh pasta. In 1977 she went to Italy to buy a small machine to help with the task and found it produced more pasta than the restaurant needed. She asked the owner of a delicatessen if he would like to sell the surplus. 'The next day he came back for more.'

The Lopalcos discovered that no one else in Britain made fresh pasta on a commercial scale. They started selling to more delis and in 1979 sold their house and restaurant, bought an old bakery, and filled it with machines.

Still demand rose, boosted in 1982 by business from Harrods and Waitrose, then from other supermarkets. 'They couldn't get enough,' Mrs Lopalco says. The family - brother Roberto now included - still had only three helpers, and they realised that if they did not expand production someone else would move in and grab the market.

Once again the house was mortgaged and Pasta Reale moved into a factory six times bigger, on the perimeter of Gatwick airport. That kept them going until last year, when they moved yet again, into a 58,000 sq ft factory. It cost pounds 8m, including equipment, and for the fourth time the Lopalco house was put in hock. The new BMW and Mercedes outside suggest that they no longer eat egg sandwiches, however.

According to John Freestone, the chief executive whom the family hired last year, this is one of the most advanced food factories in Europe. From the moment when the semolina - powdered durum wheat - is poured into hoppers at one end, to the emergence of sealed plastic packs at the other, there is minimal handling. Pasta Reale delivers on a just-in-time basis: 60 per cent of its production is own-label for supermarkets, the rest is branded.

The big food companies, such as Nestle and Mars, did not muscle in until the late Eighties, and Pasta Reale is still in the lead with a 48 per cent share. The market has grown phenomenally: from virtually nothing in the mid-Eighties to pounds 28m, or 20 per cent of dried pasta sales now. The market is also moving north. 'Every week we get a new retailer saying, I'm getting fresh pasta in,' Mrs Lopalco says. The greatest compliment paid to Pasta Reale is that it has been imitated by domestic Italian producers. Its style of wrapped fresh pasta was then unknown but, Mrs Lopalco says, 'Soon after we started, every maker in Italy was doing the same.' The company produces a wider range than any Italian company. Mrs Lopalco, who is constantly experimenting in her kitchen, says the British have swung from being too conservative to being, if anything, too adventurous.

'They want ever more exciting flavours,' she says. 'They have gone overboard with garlic and chillies.' Pasta Reale responds by producing a new flavour or shape every month. 'I even developed chicken tikka- flavoured pasta,' she says. 'I'm glad to say no one took it.'

Pasta Reale is now going for the ultimate challenge. 'We're doing market research in Italy,' Mr Freestone says. 'We have variety the Italians can't match.' Mrs Lopalco believes her homeland will succumb. 'I challenge anybody who says our pasta is not as good as theirs.'

(Photograph omitted)