When Alexander Palermo’s mom came to visit recently, she brought a long-forgotten sixth-grade school project titled “How to Make a Pizza.” She wouldn’t have guessed it at the time, but that Wisconsin school project would prove to be the first step in her son’s lifelong journey to share Italian cooking with the world.
Palermo founded The Divine Pasta Company in 1992, one of the largest suppliers of handcrafted pasta and sauces in the world (if you’ve ever been to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s you’ve likely unknowingly enjoyed his pasta sauce), as well as L.A.’s own Pizza Romana on La Brea Ave. His philosophy towards food originates with his Italian heritage, but the impetus for his empire can be traced back to his family’s move from Rome to Wisconsin in the 1970s.
“When we came to the United States, all of the sudden, access to fresh ingredients became a luxury,” says Palermo, who, as a child, was accustomed to eating fresh San Marzano tomatoes from the backyard garden and making pasta by hand every Sunday. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Palermo’s desire to make the freshest ingredients possible accessible and affordable informs everything he does. Pizza Romana, for example, is as well-known for its customizable personal pizzas and niche Italian wines as its affordable prices. To make this possible, Palermo puts in an extraordinary amount of effort behind the scenes.
“Pizza Romana is a great portrayer of the idea that you can be simple, use the best ingredients, and provide value to your customer. That’s what we are all about,” says Palermo.
“I am very proud of where I come from and the culture we have, so my whole goal with Pizza Romana is to help people understand how enjoyable the process of eating is in Italy,” says Palermo. “For me, it’s a very personal thing. I don’t want an industrialized product, I want the best.”
Though Pizza Romana is a small storefront, having The Divine Pasta company behind it means that Palermo has a unique advantage: he can buy “ridiculously amazing” ingredients at scale, because of the huge volumes needed for his wholesale business, and supply Pizza Romana with top quality ingredients at a hard-to-beat price point.
Here’s how Palermo sources ingredients for some of the most popular menu items at Pizza Romana:
Roman-style pizza dough
After visiting 15 different pizza factories across Italy, Palermo fell in love with the specific flavor profile of the dough at the last factory he visited (and now owns). It uses double zero flour — which makes it silkier and easier to chew — and goes through a 24-hour fermentation process to break down the proteins and gluten resulting in a uniquely Roman-style crust that is both crunchy, fluffy and easy to digest.
Palermo flies the dough in from Italy each week, then tops it with fresh Mozzarella Di Bufala DOP, sourced from Italy and direct from a manufacturer in Wisconsin, and sauce made from the highest quality San Marzano tomatoes (sourced from another Italian factory owned by Palermo).
“Our most famous product from that factory is the Black Truffle Pizza. The factory is 30 kilometers from Norcia, which is considered the epicenter in Italy of black truffle country. But we also make every pizza you could ever imagine,” says Palermo.
Not surprisingly, Palermo sources Pizza Romana’s wine selection with the same standards and vigor as the food. He makes it his mission to find lesser-known, traditional Italian grapes, and to keep bottles priced under 40 dollars. The result: diners are encouraged to experiment with a glass of Aglianico, from Campania, a Falanghina, or even a Lacrima di Moro d’Alba with their pizza.
“Moro d’Alba is a very unique grape from the Marche region of Italy that most restaurants don’t carry on their menu because people aren’t aware of it,” says Palermo. “We want people to try these things because that is what makes Italian cuisine so unique.”
Palmero also feels strongly about stoking a passion for quality ingredients within his growing company. Tucked away on the rooftop of his corporate headquarters rests a lush garden filled with Meyer lemons, Tarocco, and Sicilian Blood Oranges. It’s a beautiful spot for employees to enjoy views of downtown L.A., as well as the source of fruit for natural citrus sodas served at the restaurant.
“It shows our commitment from the company’s side to the ingredients that we use. And it’s a daily reminder that no matter where we go along this path, this is where we come from, this is who we are,” says Palermo.
Address: 615 North La Brea Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90036