Sunday, August 07, 2011

Il Forno The Oven, Il Fornaio The Baker


Very few tourists to Italy understand the historical importance the bakery had to the community surrounding it. It amuses me to hear complaints about Italian apartment rentals not having large ovens. Historically, most Italians had no ovens at all. Women would take their bread and meat to communal ovens of their town or village for baking and roasting, then return to pick them up, the way we walk into a restaurant for take out food. So this made the forno a major player in every Italian community. In Liguria focaccia was developed in order to test the communal oven to see if it was hot enough to bake bread. Whether it’s called a Panificio, Focaccieria or Il Forno, the bakers are integral to their communities. The bread culture in Italy is pervasive with regional festivals and many towns whose reputation rest on claims of making the best bread in the country.


Forno Antico Santa Chiara is in one such town, Altamura in Puglia. As we left Matera, one of the desk clerks from Hotel San Martino suggested that if we wanted the bread with the D.O.P. designation, we should try this very old bakery. She forgot to tell us about the focaccia that we discovered was the very best we have ever eaten.

Specific shape doesn’t seem to matter, what does matter is that this bread is said to last for 8 – 15 days. That would be a small miracle, because it would be impossible to keep it in the house that long. Our small loaf was shared with friends and we polished it off at one sitting. The crust was crisp and it had a firm crumb with a very nice flavor.


The texture of the bread looked similar to the loaf in the photo on the left, baked by a friend of the family we were visiting. The Pane di Altamura loaf was a bit darker, with a yellow cast, but the crumb was identical. Admittedly, for us the real star of the show was the focaccia that came in many variations and was delicious beyond our expectations. Besides the tomato, it came in onion, zucchini and the zucchini and eggplant combination that you see in the photo on the right.

More photos are better, right? I’m only sorry I didn’t take a photo if the onion focaccia before we inhaled it.


I did however manage to control myself long enough to snap this photo of it sitting atop the map on my lap, as we drove away from Altamura. Truly, I would not even consider going to Southern Italy on another trip without a stop in Altamura for more focaccia. It is mind boggling how simple ingredients like bread, onion, olive oil, oregano and salt, when combined can become a euphoric distraction. Our next itinerary is already planned; one of each wrapped to go (porta via) to place in the car trunk for safekeeping until we arrive at the next hotel, and another for the trip to that hotel, or to eat at the small table outside the forno. The to and from destinations are not as important as returning to Altamura.


The bakery also sells biscotti as you can see on the far left of the photo on the left or in the photo on the right. Antico Forno di Santa Chiara has been in business for generations, since before Columbus discovered America! With products like these, it is no wonder. I’d like to share one more photo with you.

As a former potter, the two small breads above the door did not go unnoticed by me. I had seen many tributes paid to and images made of “kiln gods” as “insurance” for a successful “firing”. I suspect this was the baker’s way of asking for a blessing on his forno and the successful baking of his daily bread. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Via Ambrogio del Giudice 2, Altamura, Provincia di Bari, Puglia

Il Fornaio is a very popular sign seen on bakeries all over Italy, but does not necessarily indicate the name of the bakery. Il Fornaio in this photo is located just off Campo di Fiori in Rome’s Centro Storico neighborhood and that is indeed the name. A very popular bakery with tourists who just stumble across it on their visit to the Campo, Il Fornaio also attracts locals who know that it is a great spot for a quick lunch.

As you might be able to tell by the photos I took through the display cases above, zucchini focaccia as well as tomato is available, but more importantly, this bakery has a very good reputation for pizza bianca, the white focaccia so typical of Rome. They also display the largest mortadella I have ever seen. It must be 5 feet long and the width is bigger than a man’s head, and I have photographs to prove it. As an ongoing joke, two generations of my family have posed with what we refer to as “Big Mort”. Besides the foccacia, Il Fornaio also sells panini and suppli (rice croquettes filled with mozzarella) for it’s customers needing a quick purchase, and I’m told the cannoli and other pastries are good too. More often than not, locals will go in and order a slice of mortadella layered onto a piece of pizza bianca.

Via dei Baullari, 5
00186 Rome
Tel: 06 68803947‎

In Florence, Il Fornaio Galli has several locations, but we visited the one on Via Sant Augostino in the Oltrarno neighborhood of Santo Spirito. Once again focaccia was quite prominently featured and it got us in the door. It made for a great snack, but but don’t forget to take a look at the pastries.

Don’t those tuna pockets on the top shelf look like a light lunch in the making or perhaps the spinach and ricotta version next to them? Looks like Il Fornaio is giving patrons some nice vegetarian options with the zucchini or porcini pizze in the center of the case. the sausage focaccia or pizza also look like a nice way to keep mid afternoon hunger at bay, but the pizza bianca with prosciutto cotto is probably what most locals eat, if they are anything like their Roman counterparts.

All that bread and those rolls look like a good addition to any pantry if you are renting an apartment. It would be easy enough to make your own panini if you also visited a salumeria or small grocery store. Cookies and pastries looked very classic here and would had been hard to resist, if it were not for the fact that we already had reservations for a late lunch with friends. That didn’t however, deter someone I know from ordering a slice of potato and rosemary focaccia.

Firenze: Via S.Agostino 8/r

Piazza delle Cure 15

Via Pacinotti 43/r

Via dei Neri 18

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