The traditional Italian forno strikes me as being gloriously democratic. Well-heeled old ladies will happily rub shoulders with builders and workers and school children, chatting as they pick up their bread or merenda. The warm aroma of freshly baked goods, wafting from a shop door, is always delightful, obviously, but there’s a special place in heaven reserved for that of a proper Italian forno. It’s like nothing else: yeasty, malted, almost savoury. Wherever you go in Italy, you can count on sniffing out a well-priced bakery not far from the city centre.
It’s a place where you can pick up a rough and delicious pastry in the morning, along with a still-warm loaf of bread. At lunchtime, you can grab a pizzetta, panino, or a delicious, little piece of fried dough filled with ham and cheese. Good forni will offer a (more limited) selection of bread to take home after work. And sometimes, if you ask nicely, they’ll give you leftover, stale bread to take home–perfect for a simple dinner like pappa al pomodoro or ribollita.
At some old-fashioned bakeries, you might notice they sell bags of simply cooked white beans at the counter. Why? These giant industrial ovens can’t really be turned off, so when they’re not cooking bread, they make use of the residual heat to cook vats of beans. This comes from a time when one communal oven would serve a whole village and the women of the town would come along with their own dough, ready to be baked into pizza or focaccia or big slow-rise loaves.
Often, you can’t even order a coffee at the forno. It’s simply a place to grab today’s loaf of bread, wrapped in brown paper and hopefully still warm, and be on your merry way. This confused me to no end when I first moved to Italy, and the patient shopkeeper at Florence’s Vecchio Forno would stare back at me blankly when I asked for a cappuccino with my delicious morning pastry. It should be noted that whereas panificio refers to a place where bread is baked by the baker, the panetteria is the shop where this bread is sold. Of course, the lines are often blurred and it’s all the same place: simply the forno.
For many Italians, nostalgia for the forno heralds back to early childhood, when the bakery was the spot for le merende (after-school treats). Every grandma brings her grandchildren to the forno for merenda, usually a pistachio cream biscotti, a little round pizzette (only one euro!), or an oily and comforting schiacciata. Every weekday at around 3:00pm, grannies and school-children flock to the bakeries, clearing their stock of small cookies, biscuits and savoury snacks, causing merry havoc as they do.
For some joyful reason, many bakeries all throughout Italy still have vintage neon signs saying FORNO or brown 3D letters, protruding vertically on an unexpected sidestreet. For me, these dated signs are a promising indicator that the bread inside will be good.
Case in point: on a recent trip to the island of Procida, I observed ferry crew and delivery drivers in search of their early morning sugar rushes in the main harbour. After following them into a forno, which was aptly named FORNO, I ordered a Lingua di Bue (“bull’s tongue”). This is the island’s signature pastry, a folded breakfast puff not dissimilar to a sfoglia, filled with lemon cream made from the island’s native citrus. In Florence, my go-to bakery stands on a corner not far from the Galleria dell’Accademia: the simply-named Vecchio Forno bakes fresh, crusty bread on-site each morning. As well as bread and cakes, you can pick up some almond cantucci in a brown paper bag or some breadsticks to enjoy with aperitivo.
Of course, like everything in Italy, what you’ll find in the forno depends largely on where you are in the country. In Piemonte, it’s all about grissini; in Sardinia, there are towering piles of paper-thin Pane Carasau; in Florence, we have schiacciata, a salty and slightly crispy focaccia often used for sandwiches, and Pane Toscano, a historically saltless bread which Florentines love and most others despise. For a few weeks in September, Florentine schiacciata turns into schiacciata all’uva, speckled with roasted grapes leftover from the harvest, sprinkled with sugar and oozing with juices. In February, it’s schiacciata fiorentina, a plain and sweet sponge cake, flavoured ever so slightly with orange zest, sometimes stuffed with cream, and a fleur de lis stencilled on top in icing sugar. This is the very essence of the forno: rustic, local and incredibly seasonal.
The local experience of the forno is quite unlike a fancy pasticceria, where there’s a certain snobbery about where precisely you buy your maritozzo or which packaging your biscotti are wrapped in. One place that appreciates the subtle differences between the forno and the pasticceria is Roscioli, a staple on the culinary map of Rome. At this time of year, they’re currently busy making Colomba, the sweet and yeasty Easter bread enriched with dried fruit, not unlike a dove-shaped panettone. Although Roscioli Caffe Pasticceria and Roscioli Forno are just across the street from each other, they both make their own batches of colomba and interestingly, both have their own clientele. “The colomba at Antico Forno Roscioli is an artisanal baker’s product,” owner Pierluigi Roscioli explained to me. “It’s soft, direct and rustic to the nose, but also aromatic and natural in the mouth.” On the other hand, the one at Caffè Roscioli is a pastry product, made in a vaso cottura in the oven without following the classic method.”
For all this talk of rustic tradition, Italy is also seeing a much-needed move back to ancient grains and small-scale farm production in new and creative ways. This ethos is at the heart of Dal Gran al Pan, based in the village of Sarnonico in Trentino. Here, husband and wife team Giovanni and Annarosa decided to sow a wheat field to recall the “rural” past that united them and began using their own ultra-traditional grains to make bread. Spelt, rye, corn, barley and buckwheat are all produced on the farm and they often use the wholemeal seeds in breads and pastries. Initially the production was only for family use, but their goal is to sell zero km flour to the public.
Over the years, the ways in which we consume bread have changed too: Pierluigi Roscioli explains that when his family opened their Roman bakery 50 years ago, average bread consumption was around 400 grams per person per day, whereas today it is only around 110 grams. “Consumers are more attentive, so they’re more discerning when it comes to delicious and well-made products,” he muses.
This is no bad thing. Happily, the good old-fashioned forno seems to be as alive as ever. If anything, a renewed focus on high quality grains is building on the localised tradition rather than changing it. After all, this is how they all would’ve once been. So let’s hope that nonne will be taking their grandchildren for the same old merende for many generations to come.
MY 6 FAVOURITE ITALIAN BAKERIES:
Antico Forno Roscioli, Rome
Vecchio Forno, Florence
Forno Campo de’ Fiori, Rome
Panificio Davide Longoni, Milano
Lo Sfizio di…, Bra
Panificio San Francesco, Modica