There’s no denying that the U.S. Italian foods market felt the pinch of the “low-carb” diet in the early part of this decade. But like other fads before it, the anti-carbohydrate attitude tapered off and Italian foods are making a comeback.

The Italian foods market saw a modest 3 percent sales increase between 2005 and 2006 to $11.9 billion – and is expected to reach $14 billion in sales by 2011, according to Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md.-based division of Market Research Group LLC.

“We saw the low-carb diet craze as a fad and we rode the fad out,” says Tom Finn, director of sales & marketing/consumer products at Rosina Food Products. “Now, all of a sudden if you look at the Nielsen data for supermarket sales, you’ll see the pasta category has rebounded in the last couple years and sales have increased.”

Today’s consumers are looking for more well-rounded products that offer nutritional benefits and convenience.

“Many of our products are in fact reasonably balanced nutritionally to the credit of our wholesome ingredients,” notes Joe Kent, director of marketing at Michael Angelo’s.

Refrigerated and frozen Italian food processors also are adding nutritional balance by offering whole wheat, all-natural and organic pasta varieties.

“One of the things that the industry is trending toward  – is a clean ingredient deck,” says John Zimmerman, director – of sales & marketing/foodservice division at Rosina.

This is one area in which Italian food shines – in fact many of the ingredients used to make classic dishes such as lasagna can be found in consumer’s own kitchens.

Italian flavors have become so familiar to American consumers, Italian food often is considered “comfort food” in the U.S., Finn says.

“It’s become part of the American culture. Frozen Italian food is the largest ethnic section of food out there,” he says. Although frozen and fresh Italian pastas and entrees may taste like homemade, new varieties have one important difference.

“In Italian entrees, consumers are looking for quality – foods that are so good that they either don’t make them [from scratch] at home or they don’t go out to a restaurant,” says Eric Eddings, chief executive officer of Monterey Gourmet Foods.

Consumers today will find they have many pastas ad entrees to choose from. Refrigerated & Frozen Foods took a close look at three processors who are leading the category with innovative products and fresh takes on old world recipes: Rosina Food Products Inc., Buffalo, N.Y.; Monterey Gourmet Foods Inc., Salinas, Calif.; and Michael Angelo’s Inc., Austin, Texas.