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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dinner at Eight

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: Having been a fan of Casa Visco products for as long as I’ve lived in the Capital Region, a profile of the family-run operation was long overdue. I posted a photo of the bottling process yesterday; here’s the piece itself.


EIGHT AT A TIME. That’s how the sauce jars are filled at Casa Visco. An eerily intelligent electronic eye counts off eight glass jars, typically in 16- or 32-ounce sizes, and regulates the conveyor on which they’re traveling so that the chosen eight can pause below a row of nozzles and receive their bounty. They move on to the capping station even as the next eight elbow their way into place.

Adine Viscusi | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The huge, steam-jacketed tanks that fill much of the processing room aren’t so tall that you can’t see the simmering redness of their contents. The jars are filled with red. Even the floor is red, but that’s the color of the floor.

Those jars, once filled, then parade through an x-ray scanner. “It’s more than what’s required,” says Casa Visco owner Adine Viscusi, “but nothing goes out in those jars that shouldn’t be there. The machine even picks up impurities in the glass.” To prove her point, one of the jars is kicked out of line to await further inspection. The problem will prove to be a glass irregularity.

Today’s sauce is one of the company’s own recipes, and each jar gets an inkjet spray of its “best used by” date and a label that bears the familiar Casa Visco logo, featuring a warm-looking Tuscan house.

It’s familiar because you’ve seen these sauces on the shelves of local stores for as long as you can remember. Unlike most of sauces that crowd the rest of the shelf space, Casa Visco’s has always been made in small batches with no sugar and a minimal addition of salt. They taste the way tomato sauce is meant to taste, which is why this has long been the only commercial brand that sits on my own shelves, alongside the sauce I can for myself. Here’s the kicker: Adine Viscusi does the same.

If it seems insane to own a fast-growing sauce-making company and still brew your own at home, you don’t do much cooking. Making tomato sauce goes way beyond sustenance. It’s therapeutic. The process is meditative; the aroma is calming. But there isn’t always time available to do it properly.

That’s why Adine’s grandparents, Carmella and Joseph, began offering sauce as part of their wholesale grocery business. “It started when my grandmother gave away jars of it as a gift,” says Adine. “Then people wanted it so much that they begged to buy it. I can remember as a kid when we’d pour it into the jars by hand and it would be capped and labeled by hand. As I was growing up, I spent every summer working on more and more products as the business expanded. When I was in high school, I’d make deliveries in the afternoons to all of the mom-and-pop stores in the area.”

Joseph shortened the family name to “Visco” for the business, believing it simpler to pronounce and remember. Two of his sons eventually took it over, “and I bought my father and uncle out in 2008,” says Adine. “We were a pretty lean company then, and the one thing about being lean is that you can always get leaner.”

Her era began with belt-tightening, but has blossomed into a success that keeps the small operation busier than ever. Casa Visco has been picking up a steadily increasing number of customers for its private-label business, including a number of supermarket chains, but the most visible boost came recently with a move by the Beekman Boys into offering tomato sauce as part of their product line. And they’re not reluctant to say who’s preparing it for them.

“They came to us looking for a sauce made with heirloom tomatoes,” Adine explains. “We looked locally, and Denison Farm in Schaghticoke was able to grow 4,000 pounds of tomatoes for us last year, but we still had to supplement it from other sources.”

The demand became so great that the company brought in extra workers and had to run the machines day and night. “They wanted fresh basil in the sauce, and there was one day when I spent about five hours plucking basil leaves from their stems. I went out with my husband afterward to have a beer, and when I lifted it to my face, all I could smell was basil. It was awful. I couldn’t finish it.”

She says that she considers herself good at sales, “but the Beekman Boys are merchandising geniuses. They put the sauce into stores nationwide, and did things like encourage customers to take a selfie in the store with the sauce—a ‘shelfie’—and post it to their Facebook page.”

Casa Visco’s own family of sauces runs an impressive gamut, from a simple, bright Marinara to a California Garlic Lovers variety that sports strips of tomato, roasted garlic and a tangible presence of onions.

There’s Meatless, Mushroom, Homestyle, a basil-rich Filetto di Pomodoro, a couple of styles of pizza sauce and even gluten- and allergen-free versions of their most popular blends. “We use fresh garlic and onions in our sauces,” says Adine, “and it cooks all morning. We don’t inject steam into it like the big commercial producers do.” The result is paying off handsomely now: Casa Visco’s sales for the first quarter of 2015 was double their total sales for the previous year.

“This is our 70th anniversary, so we’ll be having a party for the community in June at the Glen Sanders Mansion. We’ll be introducing three new sauces then, and there will be other vendors with local product. To heck with Brooklyn. We’re artisinal!”

Metroland Magazine, 14 May 2015

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