It turns 50 years old Esselunga cuisine: it is the largest in Italy. The first delicatessen counter was born in 1974 when the store in via Morgantini in Milan began to offer ready-made first courses. At the time we cooked directly in the shop, with pots and stoves to bring another revolution to those very revolutionary shops, wanted by the owner Bernardo Caprotti: incorporating old neighborhood delicatessens into supermarkets, complete with ready-to-eat dishes, meatballs, roast beef and other recipes prepared with the products available in the shop.

Historic photo of a delicatessen counter

Esselunga of Pioltello

At the time, Italian supermarkets had already transformed the logo with the large S into long S. He had made his debut 17 years earlier and already had several shops in Milan, Florence and Pistoia. In Limito di Pioltello, then, there had been a centralized department store for 10 years. It is still its main headquarters today: 30 thousand square meters with offices, the meat processing centre, the pastry shop, the Esselunga kitchen, where fresh food is prepared – around 140 dishes a day – which has become one of the flagships of the brand . They say from Esselunga: “if we produce it, it must be better, it must make a difference, otherwise it’s not worth it.” It is the founder’s philosophy, the same one that continues today.

A poster of Armando Testa from 1992

Innovation and beauty

Innovation has always been a cornerstone: among the first to introduce barcodes at the checkouts, in 1980, to launch a loyalty program, to focus on e-commerce, in a time when it wasn’t even called that. In the 90s Caprotti brought something new from a trip to the USA: the self-service counter with already packaged products: cold cuts, cheeses, but also ready meals; He thus intercepted the need to reduce shopping times. In the meantime, Caprotti continues to open stores and wants us to be beautiful. In 2010, his collaboration with the big names in national architecture earned him an honorary degree from the La Sapienza University of Rome for the architectural value of Esselunga supermarkets and superstores. He also wants to leave a mark in communication with effective slogans and advertising campaigns. In the meantime, other factories opened: in Biandrate there is a fish processing center, in Parma the production of fresh pasta and baked goods.

Cooking paella

Production by hand

There are now 190 points of sale, the volumes of processed products are impressive, but some dishes are still prepared by hand: «It is only automated if the result does not change, otherwise it is not done». Today, like yesterday, the management gives the final OK, but also the initial one: Mr. Caprotti always said that he didn’t want to see the finished recipe, but to know every step and every raw material, and then verify the final result. It is still like this today. Everything is made at home without semi-preparations, with the raw materials found on the shelves, «perhaps in larger, but not different packages» always with the idea of ​​making something better than what the market already offers: for example for the lasagna (also vegan, with puff pastry with faba water instead of egg) the béchamel is made from milk, butter, flour, ragù from vegetables for sautéing and from whole cuts of veal «We pass the meat through a modified meat grinder so as not to heat or let the fluids escape, and which eliminates the waste parts; then to make each bite different from the next, the béchamel is dosed in such a way as to reproduce the gesture of spooning” explains Oliviero Ferrari, Head of Gastronomy Research and Development for 20 years after as much experience at Peck.

The lasagna production line

This is the approach, and little changes whether it is tikka masala, or cassoeula, pizzoccheri, hummus or vitello with tuna sauce. The traditional recipes born in the 80s, like the more innovative, international, healthy or regional ones, are developed in a kitchen dedicated to research and development – with work that can last weeks or years – and then reproduced in the super factories on the floor below, what changes are only the dimensions. Where above there is a multifunction home robot, below there are 4 of 800 liters each, which cook, mix and knead. The processes are the same, with many, many manual steps, as in the case of paella, prepared with bomba rice in the classic pans on the stove, to create the socarrat, and then packaged by hand, without any mechanization: the volumes do not justify a line of mechanized production «but even if there were enough, it is only automated if the result is the same as the original one». There are fried foods – chicken, mozzarella in carrozza, felafel, cod – soon a line of fresh summer soups.

Work in individual shops

Some dishes are started in the factory and finished in the various shops, as in the case of the rice salad – «we add the diced Emmentaler in the shop, because it spoils» – or like the prawns in aurora sauce seared in the shops and then completed with the sauce produced in the Esselunga kitchens; there are also dishes made entirely in individual shops: this is the case of risottos, one and a half million a year, all prepared in a pot and stirred with a ladle. Thus the 2,500 gastronomy workers are not only counter workers but also take care of the kitchen. Each new store adds some local dishes, the result of a little research in the area, as in the case of the latest opening in Romagna with fish passatelli or piadine, “searching in the local gastronomic reserves”.

A dynamic recipe book

Today the recipe book has over 250 entries, and it is a very dynamic sector that changes during the year and over time, updating the proposal to intercept the public’s preferences, as was the case for couscous introduced 10 years ago at a local level in the vegetable version only and then distributed to all stores in different variations, prepared today in Limito di Pioltello also integrating the production of semolina, hand-seeded for the 2 million portions sold every year. For some recipes such as lasagna the production line is active 24 hours a day, but it always works based on the orders that each Esselunga store sends to the factory every evening, in such a way as to limit the time the dishes remain on the self-service displays as much as possible , collaborating with Banco Alimentare and other solidarity organizations for unsold goods. «Production planning is based on history and constant, daily updates – says Gianluca Oldani, Buyer of Ready Meals and Delicatessen Specialties – we stress the path between order and delivery to produce as precisely as possible». A rainy day or sudden heat can have a major impact on sales, but tailor-made deliveries reduce surpluses.

The lasagna production line

75 million slices, 5 million portions

The gastronomy department, however, does not only mean ready meals, there are also cheeses and cured meats, pickles and other preparations sold between the counter and self-service area, the collaborations are mostly with artisan brands; names such as Giardiniera di Morgan, Cascina Pistavacca, Devodier, Ruliano, there are also big brands, with special selections. «Having no shareholdings with the producers, we reserve the freedom to freely choose the suppliers, but by seeking an ethical approach, if you deal with a small producer you cannot use the same methods as a large company, it makes no sense to extract a price that puts him in difficulties, then obviously we have to trade” explains Giorgio Baldini, Fresh Purchasing Director.

Jelly canapés

For some references there are even 6 or 7 suppliers, as in the case of Parma ham: «We only work with DOP bone-in hams» they say proudly, counting 75 million slices of raw meat per year, for cheese it reaches 41 million of pieces: «of 250 different types, mostly Italian, but we also have some French, the halloumi from Cyprus, the feta from the Evia PDO island of which we take 90%, the remaining 10% goes to some of the best restaurants Italians”. The numbers are impressive: over 4 million rotisserie chickens a year – taken out of the oven every 2 or 3 hours, according to need, so as not to let them dry out in the hot display – 5 million portions of lasagne, 2.5 million jelly canapés of which two million prepared and sold in the two weeks of the year, all prepared in what can be considered a great Italian kitchen, in Limito di Pioltello on the outskirts of Milan. Where since 2018 there is also Elisenda, a pastry shop designed by the Cerea brothers of the Da Vittorio restaurant. Not bad.