At the end of the evening on the way back to our hotel, my traveling companion makes sure we pass by her favorite bakery, Il Fornaio, on the corner of via Cancelleria and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. I know it well. For over 30 years it has been one of my favorite bakeries, too. It was one of the first bakeries in Rome to be transformed into the Il Fornaio concept as part of the largest bakery chain in Italy.
But wait! Let’s go back to when I met the founder, Carlo Veggetti. It was 1982, just before Christmas. Carlo, my best friend Marino Giannangeli, and I were eating panettone at Carlo’s factory in Barlassina, about 20 kilometers north of Milan. Merging a family history in furniture manufacturing with his determination to save the traditional Italian bakery culture, he was building a farsighted concept. His idea was to offer Italy’s struggling bakeries a new look together with his newly developed assortment of first class bakery products, but without jeopardizing the specialty items each bakery had been preparing for decades, sometimes centuries.
Once the agreement was made with a willing baker, a team of Il Fornaio design engineers arrived to scope out and measure the interior of the premises. Within days, in the wee hours of a Saturday morning, the prefabricated wood paneling was trucked to the bakery. Come Monday morning, loyal customers – me included – were overwhelmed by the sight of their traditional bakery transformed into an upscale store offering not only their time-honored specialties but also an expanded assortment of the best baked goods Italy had to offer.
When I met Carlo he was venturing outside Italy into a franchise in California. We talked at length about his concern with how the Americans had manipulated the Il Fornaio model. He was disappointed in the way “Il Fornaio (America) Corporation” was becoming to biscotti what Starbucks was to caffe’ and Pizza Hut to pizza.
On your next trip to Rome, step into the Il Fornaio near Campo de’ Fiori. Take in the dazzling display of cookies, pastries, breads and pastas. Take your time, pick out whatever you can’t resist and order by weight, quoting the Italian weight unit, “etto” (100 grams or a little over 3 ounces). “Un etto of this and un etto of that” and you’re out the door and on your way to being another one of those satisfied customers.
In Italy, centuries of tradition based on quality and service lead to the building of a successful food related business. In America it’s all about corporate profits, chains and going public. As a consumer, take your pick.