CASTRONI – A gourmet International food institution since 1932

Per la versione Italiana: The Way Magazine – Fine Living

CASTRONI

The first time I walked into CASTRONI, I felt like Charlie Bucket the day he stepped inside Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory after winning his golden ticket.  I was overwhelmed with joy as I took in the sight before me.   I was inside their flagship store on Via Cola di Rienzo, and at the time I didn’t know that CASTRONI would one day become my daily stop for my morning cappuccino or my afternoon macchiato!  Walking into CASTRONI is like taking a walking speed food tour around the world, and all expats who live in Rome know the sheer heart warming joy that occurs when you find that food from your home country or find that ingredient that is impossible to find anywhere else.  Most foreigners who live in Italy, if they have to visit Rome, will almost always make a CASTRONI visit a must in their otherwise busy itinerary.  A true foodie will find visiting CASTRONI just as important a priority as visiting the Colosseum. 

 When you walk into the store,  it’s the aroma of coffee that first welcomes you, it embraces you and invites you to investigate further.  Sweets and chocolates share the limelight with the coffee, but I really can’t begin to summarise the more than 5000 food products that are sold here.  Think tea, Jams, honey, and biscuits (cookies) from all over the world.  Herbs, spices, wine, (some prestigious bottles costing €220.00 and another €650.00) Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar (the most expensive is a small bottle aged 100 year that costs €250.00 ), boutique pasta brands, American breakfast cereal and a selection of Coca Cola flavours that I didn’t even know existed. There is one section dedicated to varieties of salt, (who knew there were so many types of salt!) another dedicated to gluten free products, and they sell Vegemite!  The Asian section is vast and one of my favourite places to visit.  I put that down to the fact that most of the ingredients there were impossible to find when I lived in Tuscany, and also so many are still such a mystery to me, and it reminds me there is still so much for me to learn.  Special holidays sees whole walls of Tea and Jams disappear to make room for a stunning selection of Easter Eggs or Panettone and Pandoro for Christmas.  Christmas also brings the arrival of English Christmas Puddings, brandy butter and fruit mince pies.  Thanksgiving means cranberry sauce, canned sweet potato and creamy Libby’s pumpkin – and dare I mention the refrigerated products that include specialty foie gras, smoked salmon and even jars of goose fat! (Think perfectly roast potatoes ).

  

CASTRONI on Via Cola di Rienzo, in the Prati neighbourhood of Rome,  opened it’s doors in 1932 when Umberto Castroni bought the 90mq  store space after selling his ‘kiosk’ that was located ‘lungotevere’ – along the Tiber river.  He continued to sell drinks and fruit juices, and during the war he listened and responded to people’s needs and ‘caffè di cicoria’ became a best seller.  Cicoria Caffè was a coffee surrogate during the war years when coffee was either impossible to find or too expensive for most to afford. It is a healthy, bitter beverage that doesn’t contain caffeine, and is known to have digestive and detox properties.

Humble beginnings.

Umberto’s siblings entered into the business, they were four women and two men.  The youngest was Marcello, he had a keen eye for business and in 1955 opened the second store virtually around the corner in Via Ottaviano, close to the Vatican City.  It was after the opening of the second store that the family began to divide – in a business sense, and CASTRONI at this point boasted six stores around Rome.  The strong and close family bond is the main reason for Castroni’s  past and present prosperity and it’s this ‘secret’ that guarantees their success for future generations.

Marcello remained at the Flagship store and his clever intuition lead him to begin selling International products following requests from the many Embassies and Consulates based in Rome.  CASTRONI then began roasting and selling their own brand coffee and it was aptly named ‘Augusta’ after their mother.  One of the coffee blends they began roasting was the secret  ‘Miscela Bar’ blend that is served at their bar every day and is also sold to the public.  This is the coffee I enjoy every day, either at Castroni’s bar or at home, yes – we also drink Caffè Castroni at home, buying it freshly ground.

Roberto & Fabrizio Castroni

CASTRONI continued to grow, expand and enjoy increased popularity rapidly over the next ten years.  Marcello’s  two sons,  Fabrizio and Roberto joined the company, and brought with them a fresh, young and new enthusiasm.  Ethnic food items and specialised foreign ingredients became important merchandise to sell especially with the high number of foreigners visiting or living in Rome.  CASTRONI was the first to bring Japan to Rome for example, and sells ingredients that are otherwise impossible to find.   CASTRONI expanded to a floor space of 200mq, then to 400mq. The other CASTRONI stores enjoyed the same success and expansion and by the time the fourth generation entered the business, CASTRONI had 13 specialty International food stores in the Eternal City.

I often wonder how CASTRONI find many of their products.   Roberto Castroni explained to me that he has invested over 30 years in foreign travel  researching speciality food items and over the years they have created a network of International contacts, collaborators and even friends that assist in assuring CASTRONI always has it’s finger on the ‘foodie’ pulse.

 

CASTRONI is synonymous with family unity and pride. This philosophy hasn’t changed since Umberto Castroni began his Empire.  The family takes an active role in the business and you’ll always find a family member in each store.  You’ll find more than one actually – just think there are 30 family members working amongst all the store, and at the Via Cola di Rienzo store they have 44 staff – 8 of which belong to the Castroni family.   Employees who aren’t directly related to the Castroni family remain loyal for years, there is always a warm atmosphere when you walk into CASTRONI and their commitment to customer service never wavers.  Roberto says his employees are happy because they are treated well. He says that his father Marcello taught both he and Fabrizio that to ensure their staff worked well, they must be treated well and looked after – as much as is possible.  In fact, Castroni employees always receive their wages regularly on the 27th of each month.  (Not always a guarantee in Italy today).  They also receive benefits that aren’t common in every workplace in Italy, such as health insurance and monetry incentives for productivity etc.  80% of Castroni employees have worked at Castroni from 10 to 30 years, and  after 25 years, employees benefit from a generous long service bonus for their loyalty.  One employee will be retiring soon after 35 years of service. 

Lovely Antonio has worked here for 32 years.

One thing that is surprising is that bar prices are not inflated, and are in fact kept very competitive.  My daily cappuccino costs €1.10 and a caffè (espresso) costs only €0.90 ! And considering all the pastries and sandwiches are made freshly on site daily, sandwiches costing from €1.90 – €2.80 and pastries only €0.90; Castroni offers quality at a price that’s hard to find in Rome.  This is especially true in a neighbourhood that borders on the Vatican City and is otherwise known as a neighbourhood for the wealthy and elite, not to mention the daily tourists that pass on their way to the Vatican, every day of the year.    Roberto told me that this is actually a historic strategic decision.  The bar not only brings people into the store, but it also creates  a constant circulation of clients inside.  Castroni is also famous for their gelato and especially the coffee “granita” during the hot Roman summer.

Umberto, one of my favourite baristas takes his job very seriously!

For me CASTRONI has become much more than just the International food store across the road from home.  CASTRONI is my morning caffeine fix, served by Rome’s most adorable baristas who haven’t forgotten what old fashioned good manners and personal service is about.  CASTRONI is my go to place for every-day and gourmet ingredients.    CASTRONI is also my ‘pick me up’ when I’m having a bad day.  It’s  where I go for a little chat and a guaranteed smile. I have a wander through, enjoy a coffee, say hello to staff that now feel like life-long friends, look at the many shelves taking in all that is on offer and see if I can spot anything new.  I may not have ‘needed’ anything when I walked in, but you can bet I don’t often leave empty handed (I mean without that famous yellow Castroni logo shopping bag.

 

Today CASTRONI also offers an online shopping service and shipments are made daily throughout not only Italy, but all of Europe.  Castroni’s coffee can also be shipped to Canada and the U.S.A.  Their website can be visited in Italian or English.

CASTRONI’s success surely lies in setting trends and not following them. Our shopping high streets are so often filled with chain stores offering an impersonal service that it’s refreshingly comforting to have a store like CASTRONI in the neighbourhood.   The name CASTRONI has not only become a household name in Rome but it’s a name that will always be associated with excellence, from its humble beginnings to the incredible family business that it is today. 

Make sure you include this on your itinerary for your next visit to Rome.   

Always a smile from Roberto Castroni

 



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