The news, when it was announced in late December, was both dire and definitive: Ronzoni had discontinued its signature pastina, product No. 155. Fans all over social media — many of them Gen Xers who were raised on the tiny pasta shape and fed it to Gen Z children, just like their postwar elders did for their families — were outraged.
Twitter lit ablaze as people mourned the star-shaped carb.
On Facebook, people have been posting boycott threats to Ronzoni. One user wrote: “Dear Ronzoni, I’ve decided to DISCONTINUE YOUR PRODUCTS altogether. I’ll look for a brand that sells what I want to purchase and purchase only from a competitor. Hoping others do the same.” Another said he was so “deeply disappointed” that unless the company reconsiders, he “will never purchase any Ronzoni product again.”
Ronzoni says it’s listening. That it hears us. That this “wasn’t a decision we wanted to make.” But its explanation for the discontinuation (more on that later) didn’t help matters. Pastina, as noted by Bon Appétit magazine, is “2023’s devastating first food casualty.”
What Is Pastina, Anyway?
For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of slurping up a bowl of pastina — Ronzoni-brand or otherwise — here’s what you should know. Made from durum wheat, pastina is often referred to as toddler food because it cooks up into a soft, soothing bowl of fluff that doesn’t require much chewing, similar to farina or oatmeal. Its name literally means “tiny pasta,” and when boiled in water or soup, it basically becomes a slick cereal.
“Every Italian child grew up eating this,” New York City-born Tara Siligato-Felitto told HuffPost via Facebook. “My mother-in-law made it for my boys every time we visited. This is such a shame.”
Pastina’s pliability also makes it a great sick-room food. Commonly referred to as “Italian penicillin,” pastina is easily digestible, just like chicken soup.
People may be most familiar with Ronzoni’s rounded-corner, starlike product, but pastina doesn’t have to be a particular shape. As long as it’s smaller than 1/4 inch, it qualifies. So although stelline, or star-shaped pasta, has become the pastina standard, tiny tubes, shells and rice shapes like orzo also qualify. It doesn’t even have to be commercially made that way or store-bought to count. Tear up a larger strip of pasta into bits and voila! It’s pastina.
How And When People Eat Pastina
When they’re not throwing it into soup, Italians cook pastina as a stand-alone dish with butter and Parmesan — or, as Woodstock, New York-based hospitality professional Dale LoSasso said, “cream cheese in a pinch.” Sometimes an egg is added for protein. And almost always, if it’s not in service as a “first food,” it’s intended to console and/or coerce.
“I was a fussy eater as a child and I remember my Italian-born father coaxing me to eat a concoction he made of pastina, scrambled eggs and cheese when I was a kid in New York City during the 1960s,” Miami-based photographer and writer Joann Biondi told HuffPost on Facebook.
“My grandma would mix butter, egg, milk, salt and Parmesan cheese in our pastina. It was a ‘treat’ or made for comfort,” said Lynne Smith Sibilia, who still lives near the northeastern New Jersey town where she grew up.
Her kids at it that way too, she added — and they apparently still do, as she recently made it for her grown son after a sinus surgery. “It never fails to bring all the feels,” she said.
Laura Lafata, who owns and operates the Florida-based culinary entertainment company La Diva Cucina, said her great-grandmother would turn to pastina to feed her family.
“I was very young when my mother passed away from cancer, leaving my dad to raise alone my sister, brother and myself,” she recalled. “To help him cope with his grief, we often went to Grandma Rose’s house where we’d play in her garden and be fed. Pastina was what she would make us kids for lunch. It was simply pasta and a ton of butter, almost soupy in its consistency and texture. It was salty and warm and comforting. I still make it whenever I’m under the weather or sad. It’s comfort in a bowl to me.”
Everyone HuffPost asked would use those kinds of words to describe it. “It’s like wrapping a warm blanket around my heart and soul, and feeling all the love my mother showered on me growing up,” one person remarked. “A hug in a bowl,” said another. Such sentiments are echoed all over social media.
How Ronzoni Became The Go-To Brand For Pastina
As those in the postwar generation became the first to have both parents in the workforce, latchkey children were left to their own devices after school. That meant Gen Xers cooked for themselves if they were hungry. Pastina was not only easy to make, but fast and approved by parents. They thought it nutritious. And it was, in a way, as it was enriched with niacin, thiamin and riboflavin, as well as folic acid and iron. The milk was an added bonus, they figured.
It also filled people up for pennies.
But its inexpensiveness was only one reason that Ronzoni’s pastina was so well known. The business was the first to make pastina mainstream in America. Originally called the Ronzoni Macaroni Company, the family-run outfit was founded in 1915 by Emanuele Ronzoni Sr., an Italian who immigrated to New York in 1881. This was a success story in which many Italian Americans took great pride. And so, as the Italian American Podcast noted, members of that community are particularly affronted.
If the discontinuation of Ronzoni pastina was, as company representatives initially said, caused by “insufficient sales to support continued production,” it’s likely because carb-averse millennials of all cultures — and the following generations — have ditched big bowls of starch as breakfast and after-school snacks in favor of trendier alternatives.
Why Has It Been Discontinued?
Not everyone was keyed into the loss of Ronzoni pastina at first. The shock for some was immediate, but the ripple effect is ongoing. Cooks who aren’t on social media may not have known until they went shopping and found it virtually absent from the shelves. Disappointed devotees are stocking up with as many boxes as they can find, like when there’s a going-out-of-business sale for designer shoes.
Eva Pfaff, who runs the Fanwood Larder grocery store in New Jersey, said she keeps selling out. “There is a college marketing textbook reserving a slot for this saga,” she said. “Seriously, pastina is in short supply in central N.J. and elsewhere across the country as a result of it being discontinued by Ronzoni. We are able to find it here and there to keep it in stock at the Larder, but it is becoming more and more difficult to source.”
Others, still hopeful, have been questioning whether this is all just hearsay or perhaps a wacky ad campaign.
Even well-known food writers are getting involved, with The New York Times’ Kim Severson asking, “Is this a marketing gimmick or the end of the world?”
It appears to be neither myth nor publicity ploy so far, although there was enough speculation for Snopes to get involved and investigate.
The fact-checker found that Ronzoni was acquired in May 2021 by 8th Avenue Food & Provisions. The parent company, which is itself owned by Post Holdings, stated that Ronzoni’s pastina had been made by a third-party manufacturer, which is now stepping aside.
“This beloved product’s unique small size and star-shape require specialized production,” 8th Avenue Food & Provisions said in response to recent uproar. “Our long-term manufacturer informed us they would cease producing Ronzoni pastina effective January 2023. Despite exhaustive efforts, we have been unable to identify a viable, new manufacturer who could make pastina in the same shape, size and standards that Ronzoni customers have come to expect.”
Though the company added that “We haven’t given up,” it doesn’t look like pastina will return, at least not in the near future.
Journalist Addison Del Mastro recently wrote that the manufacturing explanation is easier to buy if you understand how far society has come in terms of technology — and how far away it’s gotten from the use of simple machinery. He compared this to the time when Apple was forced to halt domestic manufacturing of the Mac Pro computer because it couldn’t reliably find or make enough small screws.
Of course, creating any kind of packaged pasta shouldn’t be too difficult these days. And yes, there are several competing brands. Barilla, Flora and San Giorgio all make pastina. So do Rustichella d’Abruzzo and Riscossa, which prefer to call it stelline.
De Cecco has been delighted to step into the gap and let trigenerational mourners know that it makes Acini di Pepe, product No. 78. But surprisingly, no one else seems to have taken advantage of so much free publicity so far. (Where are Barilla’s marketing people?)
Maybe it’s because some of these products cost two or three times what Ronzoni pastina did, and others are harder to find. Now, of course, if you try to order pastina on Amazon, eBay or other such sites, you’ll find boxes going for 20 times their original value. Even with inflation, supply chain issues and the price of gas, it’s cheaper to order a dozen eggs for delivery until the furor dies down.