Jovial Foods’ Bionaturae Sourdough Pasta champions co-founder’s vision

The late Carla Bartolucci prioritized making innovative organic products everyone could enjoy. Find out how her vision led to a NEXTY Award.

Dawn Reiss

May 16, 2024

7 Min Read
Jovial Foods’ Bionaturae Sourdough Pasta champions co-founder’s vision
Jovial Foods

At a Glance

  • Carla Bartolucci started bringing Italy's Bionaturae to the United States in 1995. She launched Jovial in 2010.
  • Bionaturae is known as a premium, artisan brand, while Jovial focuses on pastas for special diets, such as gluten free.
  • The family-owned business has 13 production facilities for its 89 SKUs: 42 for Bionaturae and 47 for Jovial.

The story behind Jovial Foods’ Bionaturae Sourdough Pasta—which won a 2024 NEXTY Award in the Best New Pantry Pastas, Grains, Beans and Rice category at Natural Products Expo West—began more than a decade ago.

The concept was the heart and soul of Carla Bartolucci, the late co-founder and CEO of Jovial Foods, the parent company of Bionaturae. Bartolucci, who passed away at age 53 in 2021, started the company with her husband, Rodolfo Viola, after their eldest daughter, Giulia, was found to be gluten intolerant.

“Carla really believed that food has a really strong impact on how people feel,” says Allison Houle, vice president of marketing at Jovial Foods. “Sharing high-quality organic food products so people can enjoy a meal and not feel like they’re missing out was at the forefront of her innovation.”

That eventually led to the creation of Bionaturae Sourdough Pasta, made with fermented grains to support gut health.

“Sourdough was something that was really close to Carla,” Houle says. “She baked with sourdough on a daily basis. She had the idea and the concept for the pasta. This was just a natural extension of her values.”

Unlike many of the company’s other pasta products, which are made with einkorn wheat, its Sourdough Pasta is made with semolina flour, organic durum wheat and an organic Italian sourdough starter made with emmer, another ancient grain.

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Darker in color, emmer has a texture similar to traditional semolina. “You really wouldn’t know you’re eating anything different,” Houle says. “But the taste profile is a little bit sour, very similar to a piece of sourdough bread. It’s got that little bite.”

If you want to eat the pasta with butter or olive oil, that sourdough flavor comes through, Houle says. But it’s also versatile enough that a traditional marinara can mask the sour bite, allowing the flavor profile to be toned down.

For years, Bartolucci dreamed of bringing this concept to fruition, and it finally happened at Expo West.

“I still remember when the first truck pulled up to pick up an order,” Bartolucci wrote. “The driver said he needed to sign the bill of lading. I didn’t even know what that was, so I ran to my landlord, Frank, in a panic and asked if he had one. We learned, we struggled and we eventually were able to establish the brand.”

Bionaturae’s beginnings

Before there was ever Jovial, there was Bionaturae, an organic brand that is still gaining traction and not as well-known as Jovial Foods, its parent company based in North Stonington, Connecticut.

According to Jovial Foods’ website, at the age of 27, Bartolucci and her husband teamed up with a family member in Tuscany who had started a brand in Italy called Bionaturae. 

Bartolucci, who met Viola while studying abroad for a year at the University of Bologna, convinced him to move to the United States.

They were running a small sandwich shop in Mystic, Connecticut, and trying to figure out what to do next. Both had lost loved ones to cancer when Bartolucci’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. After going to a Bread and Circus store—an East Coast natural food chain that eventually became part of Whole Foods Market— Bartolucci was convinced she wanted to work in the health food industry.

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“Since we had very little money, instead of starting our own brand, we asked to distribute [Bionaturae] products,” Bartolucci wrote in an October 2021 blog post on Jovial’s website. “I went to my brother Mike, who had become a bricklayer like my father, and asked him if he wanted to be a partner in the company and loan me money. He trusted his life’s saving over to me, and we took a mortgage out on my parents’ home and started our first business.”

Bartolucci wrote that the three of them lived together while she and her husband worked at the company and her brother continued working as a bricklayer. He would leave money on the kitchen table for groceries since Bartolucci and Viola could not afford to take paychecks.

“I still remember when the first truck pulled up to pick up an order,” Bartolucci wrote. “The driver said he needed to sign the bill of lading. I didn’t even know what that was, so I ran to my landlord, Frank, in a panic and asked if he had one. We learned, we struggled and we eventually were able to establish the brand.”

In 1995, Bionaturae became one of the first organic Italian food brands on the American market, according to the company.

“She imported [Bionaturae] from Italy,” Houle says. “It wasn’t her brand. It was a natural organic brand that she thought would do really well in the U.S. She built it from nothing.”

Bartolucci went door to door to Bread and Circus stores, asking the retailers to carry her products, Houle says, telling them she thought Bionaturae’s elevated organic pasta would do well on their shelves.

Jovial is born out of a business conflict

Bionaturae had started to gain some traction when the brand’s Italian owners tried to stop the sale of the products in the U.S. That’s when Bartolucci opted to launch her own brand of pasta made with the ancient wheat einkorn and gluten-free grains, naming it Jovial, in 2010.

“Jovial was developed because there was a lawsuit with Bionaturae where the owners of the brand were trying to take it back and trying to say she didn’t have the rights to sell it,” Houle says. “As all that was happening and unfolding, she wanted to make sure she protected her business and her family. She developed Jovial on the side with the intent that Bionaturae would come back.”

Instead of remaining a side project, Jovial took off, becoming a multimillion-dollar business offering a variety of organic products, including its organic gluten-free brown-rice pasta lineup of spaghetti, farfalle and fusilli, as well as extra-virgin olive oil, beans and tomatoes.

Eventually, the lawsuit was settled, with Bartolucci and Viola winning and keeping the rights to the brand.

“Now we fully own the brand and have full rights to it in the United States,” Houle says. “I can’t tell you how many people have no idea that Jovial and Bionaturae are with the same company.”

Instead of Teflon dies, Bionaturae and Jovial pastas are pushed through perforated bronze metal plates to shape and cut the dough.

A tale of two sister brands

The Bionaturae and Jovial brands have a lot of similarities. Both are organic and made in Italy. Both offer organic gluten-free pasta products and tomatoes, bottled and processed the same way.

All of the products are certified Glyphosate Residue Free. “We test every production for any Roundup residue,” Houle says. “We find that a lot of people are reacting to that [herbicide] and not necessarily the grain itself.”

That’s because so many grains have been hybridized and changed over time, Houle says. “It’s something our consumers are bringing to our attention,” she adds. Many customers say that Bionaturae and Jovial semolina pastas don’t bother their stomach and intestines like other pasta brands that aren’t certified Glyphosate Residue Free, Houle says.

While Bionaturae is considered a premium, artisan brand, Jovial is more specialized and caters to niche diets and dietary restrictions.

“We use pasta artisans that have been making pasta since the 1800s,” Houle says.

That includes using a bronze-die method in which pasta is pushed through perforated bronze metal plates that cut and shape the pasta. “A lot of the U.S. manufacturers use Teflon, so it’s just not the same texture and consistency,” Houle says. “And then we use a slow drying process to make sure it has that great al dente bite. It does make a difference.”

Much of Jovial Foods’ business comes from direct-to-consumer sales on its website and Amazon, Houle says. The company is also sold in over 5,000 retail locations, with Whole Foods as its largest retailer. The products are also on-shelf at small co-ops, independent grocers, online retailers like Thrive Market and Vitacost, and other brick-and-mortar retailers like Walmart, Publix and Kroger.

With the addition of sourdough pasta to its lineup, Bionaturae has 42 SKUs and Jovial has 47. The family-owned company has 13 production facilities for the many different lines.

“We have people knocking on our door every day [saying] that want to invest and purchase the business, but they have no interest in selling it,” Houle says. “It's been a family business—that was the vision for it. It’s really awesome. They truly treat their employees like family.”

Houle, who accepted the 2024 NEXTY Award on behalf of Bionaturae Sourdough Pasta, says the accolade is a notable acknowledgment of the company’s legacy.

“It was such an honor,” Houle says. “And to be part of a company that cares about people and the planet, and really innovates for the good of consumers, and [is] not just another product on shelf is, is amazing.”

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About the Author(s)

Dawn Reiss

Dawn Reiss is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for TIME, The New York Times, The Atlantic, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Civil Eats, Fortune.com, U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, among others. Find her at www.dawnreiss.com.

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