Inside an Italian Bakery (and How to Navigate One Like a Local)

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In Italy, the forno, or bakery, is the place where you buy bread, naturally: You can get bread at the grocery store, too, but the quality is incomparable and Italians are very traditional—they prefer to go to the bakery for their bread. The forno is also where you buy really any baked good, which includes snack-sized portions of pizza, pastries, cookies, and local specialties. And depending on the region—or even town—that you’re in, the specific goods will change, too.

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Here in Tuscany, the shelves of the neighborhood forno are heavy with the weight of the morning’s fresh loaves of saltless Tuscan bread and wholemeal or grainy alternatives; more and more, you’ll find good bakeries branching out from tradition and baking with quinoa, kamut, and other alternative flours.

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Meanwhile the wide, flat loaves of schiacciata (Tuscan focaccia), glistening with olive oil, lay on chopping boards below, where they are easily sectioned into portions. Bread is purchased by weight, and you don’t even need to buy the whole loaf, so if that huge loaf of Tuscan bread is too big (it goes stale quickly), you can ask for half. Or a quarter. And if you just want one slice of schiacciata to munch on right then and there, they’ll slice it, and weigh it.

The glass counter has a heaping selection of baked treats such as cornetti (Italian croissants), apricot jam-filled occhio di bue (bull’s eye cookies), cantuccini or almond biscotti for dipping into vin santo after meals (these ones are “dairy-free wholewheat cantuccini”), or seasonal specialties like autumn’s schiacciata all’uva (flatbread filled with fresh red wine grapes) or slabs of jam crostata or even full cakes. During Easter, my local forno has a line out the door for their local specialty, schiacciata di pasqua, which is panettone-esque but scented with aniseed rather than candied citrus peel and raisins. And attached to the wall is a rack holding an array of colored ribbons for tying up packages of biscotti or pastries as gifts.

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The forno is also the place to grab a quick savory snack—particularly schiacciata, plain or sliced open and filled with prosciutto or mortadella. In our local bakery, they even have a heavy slab of porchetta on the counter that gets sliced as often as is requested (which is very often) to sandwich between schiacciata. There’s often also a long, flat margherita pizza, which can be bought by the slice, too. It’s one of the best solutions for a fresh, quick, portable lunch or savory snack on the run.

Whichever way you go, it’s best to get to your local forno early to get your pick of the best bread and other goodies before they sell out. Everyone goes to the bakery first thing in the morning to get fresh bread for lunch. If you go there too close to lunchtime (when the bakeries usually close for a few hours), you’ll find everyone in town has already been there before you and your favorite loaf may be sold out!

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And don’t forget, during busy times, to look for the little ticket machine that distributes paper numbers—it will be hiding somewhere, often near the door. Pull out a number and wait for your turn. If you forget a number, it doesn’t matter if three people got there after you: You’ve got to go to the back of the line. Everyone will make sure of that! Italians may not pay much importance to, say, road rules, or many other “rules,” but who got their number first at the bakery or the deli—you can’t mess with that!

The Food52 team is now accepting packages of Italian bakery treats. (Just kidding. Mostly.) What’s your go-to bakery order? Tell us about it, and about your favorite bakery, in the comments.

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