An Interview with Victoria Zabel of Zia Pia Imports + Italian KitchenMay 3, 2018 4:14 pm
At Zia Pia Imports + Italian Kitchen, they don’t pick favorites. Yes, the business is named after a woman from the Umbria region, but don’t let that fool you. Asking their owner, Victoria Zabel, to pick a favorite Italian region will launch her into a verbal tour of the regions of Italy, complete with firsthand stories about her food adventures on the Italian streets (let her tell you about the old mill ruins at Valle dei Mulini in Sorrento). I asked their resident pastry chef, Majid Amoorpour, a similar question about his beautiful pastries and got a strikingly similar response. “My favorite? The whole case.”
I sat down with Victoria and Majid on a Tuesday afternoon in The Market and we discussed tradition, trust, and the art of trying something new.
Your company, Zia Pia Imports + Italian Kitchen, is named after a woman from Umbria. But you sell small-production, regional imported goods from all over Italy. So what is your favorite region for Italian food?
Victoria: Part of what I love about Italian food is the diversity and the focus on quality. It is all based on a tradition. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite!
Why does regional Italian cuisine lend itself to Charlotte? Do you see connections between the two places?
I absolutely do. Regional cuisine and local cuisine have so many similarities no matter where you are. You see this resurgence of local happening here in Charlotte and appreciation by consumers wanting to know where their food comes from, how it’s made, the ingredients. And it’s the same way in Italy. The producers I work with all focus on quality. I think it’s beautiful.
You mentioned in the 2018 Charlotte City Guide how simple dishes can be in Italian cuisine. How does Zia Pia reflect that belief?
You can see on our menu and how very simple it is. It’s all about the quality of the products. Extra virgin olive oil is one ingredient that goes in everything we put out, whether it’s pasta, or salad, or a sandwich. I can’t compromise on that one. It is so important to the quality. And yes—it does cost more. But you can just taste it—like in our aglio e olio (simple garlic & oil pasta).
How has The Market helped support you as a small business owner?
In many different ways—both in working with Market management and in the obvious ways that being in an incubation is helpful to a small business. There’s also the Market community of other vendors. There is such a brain-trust of knowledge here in this Market, with all these vendors who are very generous. I learn every single day. And they were so helpful when we moved from just being a retail location and made the big leap into foodservice. Everyone was supportive and free with advice and tips on what to do. You’re not out there alone figuring this out yourself. It’s really nice to have this community here and it’s something unique to The Market.
You collaborate with other Market businesses, like Assorted Table, and Not Just Coffee (hot chocolate and pandoro). Why do you feel it is important to partner with other Market owners?
It absolutely makes sense for us to work together and collaborate. I think it makes sense on a variety of levels. Each of us, as vendors, has our customer base. And so, when you collaborate, you’re exposing each other to different audiences and expanding that reach. Also, from the customers’ standpoint, they benefit as well. They have a richer experience at The Market. Maybe they come for wine (at Assorted Table) and try our antipasti. I think it is what makes The Market special and unique: we can promote each other, work together and be supportive of each other. And everyone leaves with a positive experience.
Chef Majid Amoorpour:
I’ve seen on Instagram that you are a fan of Not Just Coffee, what do you order there?
Majid: Mostly I get batch coffee, or a pour-over but their cappuccino is the best. Growing up in Sweden, I drank coffee constantly. It’s so cold there. When I came to the United States, I was always looking for a better coffee and Not Just Coffee is doing a great job. I can’t spend my money anywhere else and be as happy about it.
From Charlotte Observer article: “Food is a way of art, too…You create something using all of your senses. You can see it and feel it and taste it and smell it. The only thing you can’t do is hang it on your wall.” What is the most artistic pastry you make for Zia Pia?
To be honest, that whole case is my showpiece (laughing).
You mentioned in the article that one single pastry made you want to go work for Jean Jacques Martin, a former protégé of Alain Ducasse. What do you hope to achieve with your pastries in such an accessible, public space like 7th Street Public Market?
We get people coming from other parts of the country. I’ve had people come here and get a box of pastries and say, ‘we’re going to sit in front of the TV in the hotel and just enjoy ourselves.’ They’re going to remember what they had in Charlotte. I want them to have a good memory of coming to 7th Street Public Market. It’s a destination. We have great stuff here, talented people. I want to add just one more layer in that. I want to put some pastries out for people who have never had day-to-day fresh pastries. Pastries don’t have to always be sweet. The contrast and crunch when it comes out of the oven, that’s something I wanted to introduce to people. And pastries don’t have to be ridiculously expensive. You should be able to pick up something for two, three, four dollars. That’s really my approach here—offer that range.
Some people may not know that you have savory pastries here at Zia Pia as well as sweet ones. What is one of your favorites?
Savory pastries are something that I am working on moving forward—people aren’t familiar with it. I think it’s going to help people with the convenience of it. And it’s one of those things that you don’t have to wait for. You can grab it and go. One of the things I do for James (at Not Just Coffee’s Dilworth location) is the ham and cheese croissant. We’re taking croissant dough and rolling it with ricotta cheese, smoked ham and onion marmalade. And it’s been selling very well. Pastries need more flavor, not just sugar. People are starting to go broader. I’ve been here for almost four months. I’m trying to see what goes and what stays. Some stuff, I think it’s going to sell, but people just don’t recognize it. So, we are experimenting more and more. I want to give people something they connect with—then maybe they’ll try something new in the future.
Does The Market make your pastries more accessible to a broader swath of the community?
I’m trying to connect with people one-at-a-time. If I can, I want to sell you a pastry and remind you of something you had in your childhood. I had a gentleman come in a few weeks ago and ask, ‘how are these macaroons?’ I said, ‘they’re really good!’ He tried one and while he was eating it, he was making noise! And he said, ‘you know what? This is memorable for me. A long time ago I had a macaroon and it changed my life about macaroons. But ever since, everywhere I go, it’s not the same. I’m trying to find that macaroon I had 15 years ago.’
Come find your childhood with one of Chef Majid’s macaroons. Grab some dried Umbrian pasta and Umbrian olive oil for tonight’s dinner while you’re at it. Stop by Orrman’s Cheese Shop on your way out of The Market and let Rachel pair a cheese for your pasta dinner.
In the next newsletter, I will see what cheese Rachel recommends for making one of my favorite Roman pasta dishes: cacio e pepe.