Gourmet Food Boxes: A Traditional Italian Gift

Come December, shops across Italy from tiny corner grocers to huge supermarket chains begin displaying sumptuous “cesti natalizi” (Christmas baskets) of every shape and size. In this food-centric country, it comes as no surprise that one of the popular and beloved holiday gifts is these decorative baskets or boxes stuffed with holiday goodies like wine, chocolates, panettone, and even lentils and zampone...a traditional New Year’s Eve dish.

From the most basic packages pairing a bottle of spumante with a small panettone to elaborate cellophane-wrapped confections bursting with dozens of sweet and savory treats, these gourmet gifts are exchanged between close friends and family as well as between casual acquaintances and colleagues with equal enthusiasm, and the contents enjoyed for weeks or months after the holidays.

When we were deciding what to feature on our new CantinaDirect website - dedicated to authentic Italian food that can be ordered directly for home delivery in the US - we knew we wanted to include these quintessentially Italian gourmet food boxes and reached out to Elena Carradori, a long-time friend and source for sweet and savory gourmet delicacies in Italy. Her Florentine shop, Dolceforte, is our go-to for quality chocolates, cookies, balsamic vinegar from Modena, Tuscan artisanal pasta, and other delights selected from local, sustainable, and traditional producers.

Our first Florentine food boxes have already arrived in the US and customers are very pleased.

As Renée L. put it, “The contents of the box provide the makings for a delicious snack, an appetizing first course, or a light meal—all with the possibility of transporting the recipient to an ephemeral Italian experience to sustain the spirit in these times without travel.“

Vicki C. wrote, “LOVE the boxes. Also they were really full! It did not feel like there was packing etc to make them SEEM full - they were so full that after I unwrapped things I kept them in the box they came in at first so I could keep it straight - but it was actually hard to fit it all back inside!"

Our boxes are ideal gifts for Italophiles and gourmands alike. Each item inside the box is shipped in the original packaging, so you can give the entire handmade box crafted by a Florentine artisan using patterned paper from Tassotti di Bassano or Carta Fiorentina, or divide up the contents to be presented individually as smaller holiday or hostess gifts during the Christmas season.

We interviewed Elena this week for insights into her shop’s history, her artisanal products, and how business is going in these COVID-19 times:

Having a gourmet shop in Florence seems like a dream job! Tell us about how it began...
I opened the shop with my sister in 1999, but to be honest it was a part-time job for me because at the time I worked as an art historian for the educational department of the National Trust leading school tours of Florence’s state museums. Unfortunately, my sister passed away in 2008 and I had to decide whether to carry on with the shop or continue as an educational guide. Food had always been my biggest passion - I also love to cook - so I decided to dedicate myself to the shop and enjoy the city’s art and culture in my free time.

Tourism fell dramatically in 2020...has it affected your business?
Yes, the lack of tourists this past season has had enormous consequences for my shop as it has for all businesses in Italy’s historic cities that depend on tourism. Not only have international and domestic tourists disappeared, but also visitors passing through for conferences, trade shows, exhibitions, and other events...it has been a real disaster. My shop is very much tied to a personal relationship I have with customers...I’m not an anonymous supermarket! I explain each product, offer samples, provide information about the ingredients and producer...all of this to say that it’s a bit complicated to sell my products online to clients who don’t already know their quality.

Of the products you stock, is there one that you particularly love?
I could never single out one product above another because I know almost all the producers personally!

Do you generally visit the workshops or factories where the products you stock are made?
Yes, I’ve often been able to visit their workshops...though it has become increasingly difficult to do so because Italy has such strict hygiene regulations that many are closed to the public.

Have you noticed that your American customers have a favorite product?
Honestly, Americans don’t seem to have strong preferences for certain products, something that I’ve found with my Japanese and Chinese customers. Americans have diverse tastes and appreciate both quality balsamic vinegar or pesto and cookies and chocolate. What Americans look for in general is excellent quality both for savory and sweet products.

Why did you decide to start offering gift boxes?
I thought it would be interesting to go beyond just carrying quality gourmet products and create elegant boxes made completely by hand and covered in prestigious artisan paper from a workshop that is less than a kilometer from my store! Papermaking is an art that is starting to disappear as people prefer cheap (and ugly!) factory-made boxes and paper from China. My boxes are a gift in themselves and are not meant to be tossed out but used as decoration or storage. They will last for years if treated with care.

What’s the difference between ordering from you or from a larger Italian food supplier like Eataly?
Keep in mind that Eataly is the “Amazon” of Italian food. Customers who order from me are supporting a small, independent business rather than a large chain that often puts smaller shops and producers out of business by artificially driving down prices.

This is an issue that is close to my heart, and the larger high-quality producers I have chosen to carry (La Molina, Frantoio di Sant'Agata di Oneglia, Giuliano truffles, and Pasticceria Bonci are some examples) have gone against market pressure and decided to avoid being sold in large chains like Eataly.

In addition, I sell products by tiny operations like torroni by Borrillo, torroncini by Francesco Taverna, Angiolini chocolates, and peccatucci by Mamma Andrea (at the Mamma Andrea workshop in Palermo they still slice their orange peels by hand!) because I feel that it’s of vital importance to support these traditional producers in any way I can.

If you didn’t run Dolceforte, what do you think you would have done as a career?
I definitely would have continued my career as an art historian!