Lots of Italy, on Many Collectible Plates

For his 73rd birthday in April, Felice Macchi had lunch at La Bettola Del Gusto, a restaurant in Pompeii, Italy, with a focus on seafood.

He ordered the house specialty: spaghettoni, a thicker spaghetti, in a fermented anchovy sauce with black truffles and butter made with milk from water buffalo native to the Mediterranean region. The meal came on a ceramic plate with a whimsical hand-painted design depicting the spaghettoni dish and a smoking volcano, a nod to nearby Mount Vesuvius.

Mr. Macchi finished his meal — he said it was “excellent” — but did not leave the restaurant empty-handed. Instead of leftovers, he took home the plate his pasta was served on.

It was a new addition to a collection he has amassed of that type of Italian tableware, known as Buon Ricordo plates. He has hundreds of them, many of which he eats on. Others decorate hallways, the kitchen and the dining room of his home in Varese, Italy.

Since 2022, Mr. Macchi has been the president of the Buon Ricordo Plate Collectors Association. The group, which has about 400 members in Europe and South America, is planning an exhibition of the plates at the Fondazione Sant Elia, a museum in Palermo.

When asked why he started collecting the plates, Mr. Macchi, an insurance agent, answered romantically.

“Why do we fall in love with a woman?” he said.

The tableware was introduced as a marketing tool for an association of regional Italian restaurants, called the Buon Ricordo Union, formed in 1964. It can still be found at the union’s restaurants — as well as at Italian flea markets and antique sellers, design trade shows like Maison et Objet in Paris and high-end décor stores like ABC Carpet & Home in New York.

At the time the plates were introduced, local Italian cuisines were mostly prepared at home and largely seen as not worthy of serving at restaurants across Italy, many of which had French-influenced menus instead.

The idea for Buon Ricordo, which translates to “good memory” in English, came from Dino Villani, an Italian advertising executive who, among other accomplishments, founded the beauty contest now known as Miss Italy. He proposed the restaurant union as a way to promote and preserve regional Italian cooking at establishments in the country.

Restaurant owners who wanted to join had to show that they were using regional recipes and ingredients. Joining the union has also required an annual fee; this year, it was 1,000 euros. In the 1980s, it started to accept restaurants outside of Italy that adhered to its membership criteria.

Once part of the union, establishments received unique tableware designed to highlight their signature dishes, with each restaurant’s plate featuring its name and a hand-painted motif that often included cartoonish renderings of swordfish, rabbits, snails, cows or squid.

When a patron ordered a restaurant’s signature dish, it was served on a Buon Ricordo plate, which could be taken home as a keepsake — a practice that has more or less continued to this day at the union’s 112 restaurants, 11 of which are outside of Italy, in cities including Paris, Tokyo and New York. (These days, patrons of the restaurants receive the plates only if they order the house specialty as part of a multicourse Buon Ricordo tasting menu.)

Suki LaBarre, the vice president of merchandising and e-commerce at ABC Carpet & Home, said the store started carrying the plates in 2022; at first, it offered a small selection of about 50 pieces that she and a colleague chose after considering various designs for more than an hour. Last year, she ordered some 600 more plates for the store from a supplier that specializes in midcentury European decorative items.

“We’ve gone with the fish stories and not so much the meat,” Ms. LaBarre said of the types of motifs on the plates sold at ABC, which cost $60 a plate. She attributed the interest in the style partly to its playful aesthetic and partly to its history.

Daniele Tassi, 36, bought a few plates at ABC in February to use as décor at his Italian restaurant Terre, in Brooklyn. “I was surprised to see them there — but I understand why they are,” said Mr. Tassi, the chef at Terre, which he co-owns with Monia Solighetto and Alessandro Trezza, a married couple with Milanese roots.

In January, Terre became the first and only member of the Buon Ricordo Union in the United States. Ms. Solighetto, 49, said she wanted to join the union because it stands for Italy’s tradition of “eating locally and using quality, seasonal ingredients” — a tradition, she added, that is now also “trendy.”

At Terre, the signature dish is pappardelle pasta with a wild boar ragù, a family recipe Mr. Tassi was served regularly when he was growing up in Italy’s Umbria region. Except for the boar meat, which comes from Texas, the dish at Terre is made using ingredients from Italy.

It is served on Buon Ricordo plates with a design depicting the Italian and American flags and a gray boar standing in a coil of yellow pasta. They were produced at a factory in Vietri sul Mare, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, which has been using local clay to make the tableware since it was introduced six decades ago.

On April 9, the Buon Ricordo Union had a dinner to celebrate its 60th anniversary in Vietri sul Mare. A special plate was issued for the occasion, and chefs from some 100 associated restaurants prepared a tasting menu. They included Mr. Tassi, who said he returned to Brooklyn after the event with dozens of Buon Ricordo plates; he picked up some from his grandparents, who had collected the tableware in the ’70s and ’80s, a time when interest in it was surging in Italy.

Mary Lies, 60, has been a fan of the plates ever since she noticed some at an antiques fair in Lucca, Italy, in the early 2000s. She has since been buying the tableware for herself and for her retail business, Mercato, in Kansas City, Kan., which sells it for $37 a plate.

Ms. Lies described the ceramics as a sort of instant mood lifter.

“Seeing them, you can’t help but smile,” she said.

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