Playtime In The Kitchen With Rienzi

Not all food writers also like to cook, but I eat out so much for my job that when I get the opportunity to make food at home, it’s a joy. A representative for Rienzi Foods, an Italian company that makes pasta, canned plum tomatoes, jarred sauces and more asked if I’d like a few product samples to try. It sounded like fun and I had no familiarity with the brand, so I said to go ahead and pick a few things for me to test out.

I was shocked when what ended up on my doorstep was a veritable Italian kitchen in two boxes (something that my college-aged son and his friends were surely grateful for, because even after my cooking experiments for this article there was still plenty left over).

Rienzi Foods was founded in 1967 and is still a family-owned company. It owns farms in southern Italy, including the Basilicata Region, which led to the slogan, “from our farm to your table.” Everything, from the pasta to the jarred sauces, are actually made in Italy then imported to the United States. The company initially sold mozzarella and flour to New York City pizzerias and bakeries. These days, their products are in major grocery stores.

Rienzi products
The “samples” Rienzi shipped for us to test was a veritable Italian kitchen! Photo by Phaedra Cook

Careful examination of the labels revealed QR codes. When scanned with a QR code reader (readily available as a free smartphone app), the codes access links to videos of chefs making recipes with various Rienzi products, which is rather clever. (The videos are also available on Rienzi Food’s website.)

The recipes demonstrated are extremely simplistic and usually meatless, many times only using Rienzi pasta, tomatoes or pasta sauce, garlic basil, a smattering of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of their grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. It looked rather boring, but we tried the Potato Gnocchi with Crushed Tomatoes. It calls for fresh chopped basil at the end. We had none, so we threw in a handful of good old Italian seasoning mix early on to get some herbal flavor.

It was impressive how quickly the gnocchi cooked and how effortless it was to tell when they were done. All you have to do is wait for them to float to the top of the boiling water, then fish them out.

The simplicity of the recipe meant that the crushed Italian tomatoes were allowed to shine. There’s a reason why many Italian chefs insist on only tomatoes from their homeland. There’s something that’s richer and deeper about them. Unlike most fresh vegetables, tomatoes don’t suffer from the canning process. In fact, canned tomatoes are higher in lycopene, which is believed to act as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent when consumed. There’s a time for a sliced tomato at the peak of ripeness, but making tomato-based pasta sauces isn’t usually it.

Rienzi spinach gnocchi
Rienzi Spinach Gnocchi and Tomato Basil sauce with Italian sausage Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

For our second round of cooking, we wanted something more substantial than the simplistic recipes on the web site. This time, we used Italian sausage with Rienzi’s spinach gnocchi and tomato basil sauce. I am deeply suspicious of jarred sauce. I literally never use it. However, I read the label and was pleased to see nothing that made me nervous: 80-percent or more Italian chopped tomatoes, sunflower oil, fresh onions, one-and-a-half percent basil, salt, sugar and starch. A bit of sugar can round out the flavors in a sauce, but it should never be high in the ingredient list. In this case, sugar being second-to-last was acceptable, as well as that bit of starch at the end for thickening. The second recipe was a success as well and the leftovers a welcome find in the fridge the next day.

In the Houston area, Rienzi pastas, sauces and canned Italian tomatoes can be found at H-E-B. According to Instacart, pastas cost around $1.71, canned tomatoes are $2.27 and jarred sauces are $5.22.

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