Italian Oil Exec Brings Food Makers to Houston

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Representatives from six commercial food producers from the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna are visiting Houston this week on a trip organized by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce of Texas.

Their tour of the city included a walk-around tasting with Houston food buyers and restaurateurs yesterday at the Hilton Houston Post Oak, followed by a happy hour at Mascalzone on Westheimer. Tonight the group will dine with their Houston-based guests at Carmelo's on Memorial.

None of the Italian companies, which include a large-scale winemaker and a frozen pizza producer, have a market presence in Texas. But the three-day visit is intended to foster new business ties, said Daniele Ghezzi (above, right), who serves as director of the Piacenza Food Producers Association.

"We see Houston as one of the least saturated markets in America today," he said over diminutive plastic glasses of sparkling wine and appetizers at Mascalzone yesterday.

Piacenza is one of Italy's most wealthy provinces, in part thanks to the many behemoth food companies based there but also because of its substantial oil deposits.

"The director of the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce, Brando Ballerini, is from Piacenza," said Alessia Paolicchi of Pisa (above, center), one of the chamber's board members. "And his family has worked in the oil industry for three generations."

"The first major oil deposits discovered in Italy," noted Giulia Silva (above, left), "were found in Piacenza [province]." And Ballerini's family was one of the first in Italy to make a fortune in petroleum.

Ballerini moved to Texas in 1998 after selling his families company. The new owners, he said in a 2012 interview published by the Italian daily L'Opinione, had asked him to manage one of their energy companies in Houston. He became a member of the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce of Texas in 2001 and in 2010 he was made president.

"Young Italians need to go abroad," he told the interviewer, "and I recommend that the come to America and especially to Texas. It's an exceptional place and you can learn many things here. At the moment, Texas represents the economic reality and the best growth in the U.S. On its own, Texas would be the twelfth largest economy in the world and Houston would probably be among the top twenty. The enormous growth of population here is due to low taxation, the low cost of energy, and a climate that is generally extremely favorable to business."

Next month, the city of Piacenza will open the doors of its new Oil and Gas Museum, said Silva, who grew up in Italy's own "Texas," as the region is sometimes referred to in Italian-language trade publications.

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