California Bakery. I dolci dell'America

American gastronomy culture in Italy. “California Bakery” in a book

, 14 September 2014

Some month ago came out in bookstores a book I wrote entitled “I dolci dell’America” and published by Guido Tommasi Editore. It’s actually the story of five people – real people – and of the recipes that belong to what it is today the most important American Coffee Bar/Bakery in Italy, California Bakery. If you live or happen to be around in Milan you probably noticed its sign, a stylized pie on a shelf, or maybe you even spent an afternoon there, for a coffee break or a brunch. Its menu features the most classical American foods, from cheesecakes to pancakes, from hamburgers to bagels, from apple pies to scones, from American coffee to brownies.

Zeitgeist, the list of the most searched keywords on Google, ratified that in Italy the pole position among food words goes to the word “Cheesecake”: interesting, isn’t it? It was the most searched in 2011, the fourth in 2012 and the second in 2013. Not all Italy is connected on Internet of course and only this year the digital divide might be resolved for the whole Country. Yet I found curious that the many compatriots are searching on Google for the perfect recipe of an American dessert. It makes sense though: if for a tiramisù recipe or a pastiera napoletana maybe you can ask for grandmothers’ tips, who do you ask to as an Italian? Google is the answer.

The last three years in Milan have seen many hamburger places popping up, same can be said about American-style panini stores. Most of these locations are gourmand territory: some specialize in creative recipes, some other in vegetarian menus, some still stick to tradition and some change it for a twist. Milan always anticipated Italy’s moods, and we can say – looking at this city’s perspective – that something changed: the cuisine made in US is changing its “reputation”, using a digital specialist term. This means this cuisine is not only fashionable, it’s also highly appreciated even in such a traditional Country like ours. “As Americans abroad we sold our food-culture short at the early stage” said some month ago at Bookcity during the presentation of this book Laurel Evans, American food author and blogger, who first started to write online about American cuisine, initially leaving some local quite perplexed. But fast food times are long gone: today American cuisine is starting to be perceived such as refined. It’s a change that finally gives back to the US the dignity of a Country with gastronomy traditions, old recipes of apple pies prepared for Thanksgiving, much closer to an idea of “artisanal food” than the previous commercial image it gave us.

It is not a chance, in fact, that the US has decided to invest in Expo 2015 – the universal Fair that next year will take place in Milan, themed “Feeding the Planet Energy for Life”, as announced by President Obama. US will occupy an important Pavilion to communicate its food specialties through two of its most important organizations representing the field: the James Beard Foundation and the International Culinary Center. The First Lady herself, Michelle Obama, has spent part of these years to bring the food theme to the table (sorry for the pun!), following chef Alice Waters’s lead, vicepresident of Slow food International, by promoting a healthier and sustainable approach to food. United States produces many local foods, unique and linked to diverse lands: cranberries, salmon, maple syrup, chestnuts, pumpkins, beef, apples, bread… The different gastronomic regions have been mapped by Gary Paul Nabhan in his  “Renewing American’s Food Tradition” book that aims to endorse these specialties. The book stresses how important they are and how endangered they might be in the future. We could say the same for Italy, just skim a food regional guide and you’ll get an idea of how Italian food patrimony is incredibly wide: from cheeses, to primi to desserts, the Country is dotted with specialties that Slow Food is safe-guarding since years.

Between the 19th and the 20th Century food became the symbol of national identity: this is not only true for Italy but for England, France and United States. Just as it happens with languages, local food traditions stand to enforce one Country’s identity, a political decision made to create a national cuisine, which inevitably had and has the collateral effect to stereotype those same cuisines. Mary Douglas, in “Coding a meal” and “Food as a communication system” stresses how populations are in need of a strong gastronomy identity when going through changes. In Italy “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene” (1891) by Pellegrino Artusi, or “Il talismano della felicità” (1925) by Ada Boni are considered food bibles, the latter book containing over 2,000 recipes and having been republished in Italy for almost a Century and considered a traditional gift for a bride. It’s also the book that formed the gastro-identity of one of the people in my book. In the United States some example can be “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” by Fannie Farmer: with her 1850 recipes she contributed to introduce readers to American cuisine as a whole, from north to south, through cooking measurements such as cups, tablespoons and teaspoons, and to give a thorough panorama of American gastronomy. This kind of national identification with food contributed, mostly in Italy, to emphasize the “ethnic” accent on foods that were coming from different places, causing disagreement among people over a clumsy attempt to claim the most convenient nationality. Clumsy because it’s quite an illogical way to act since many of the traditional Italian dishes would not exist without geographical contamination. Tomatoes belonged to the Americas, we all know this. Industrialization, in the 20th Century, contributed to give us a far from romantic context for American food, fully linked to supermarkets (context that Andy Warhol recounted through an esthetic approach, detached from taste). The last twenty years of globalization didn’t help either, with the fast foods coming from the US – that was called “Fast Food Nation” – to colonize Europe. On the other hand, globalization brought the instruments to help us understand each others’ traditions and habits: from easy access to information (with Internet, satellite programs and food specialized programs where Muffins and Apple Pies are the protagonists) to low cost flights, we now know that Unites States are not only about junk food, quite the opposite: it’s a Country with traditions that are interesting to investigate. Globalization has also contributed to create an international debate about nutrition, about what it is today and what will be more sustainable tomorrow for the planet. This consequentially brought politicians to question the same and to seek more sustainable food models, such as local food, farms, and products in season. United States and Italy are now more similar than ever on this aspect.

Milan is among the protagonists of my book, not by chance. It represents today what London was in the 50ies and 60ies, a city that experimented constantly with different foods coming from all over the world. In Milan coexist more than 90 ethnicities with at least 40 cuisines and over 450 non-Italian restaurants.

And here we are, back to California Bakery, a Coffee Bar founded by two Italians that is today a case history in restoration. I have been living in Milan since 2006, and I have always been a client of California Bakery, then later their communication consultant, and now friend of Marco and Caroline, the founders. The idea of recounting the history of this place through a book, a place that says a lot about Milan and its boundaries with the rest of the world, came out one day: it just seemed the best way to do so. It’s a story of love and food, a declaration of love to United States. People are fascinated by it: the book was sold out in only a few months, and the second Edition is on its way.

In 2007 Elena Kostioukovitch published a book whose aim was to reply to this question: why Italians like so much to talk (and to read, I’ll add) about food? She says we do it because it’s a way to dispel the crisis, a way to feel better and to socialize, an element that historically gives us hope. The history of “I dolci dell’America” is also an entrepreneurial success case history, which is also why it’s interesting to read in this particular era: it combines food, love and business. And shows us the willingness of knowing more and more about food, an ancestral curiosity that – if coming from abroad – makes us travel through it.

But how did an Italian couple succeed in creating such a successful business by advertising a foreign cuisine? Some could say that it is just our passion for foreign things, but that doesn’t guarantee a 20 year-old business, still going strong. Is it the gift to anticipate trends, always keeping up with a diverse offer, like brunch before any other place in Milan or the real deal cheesecake when there were only sad copies? No, not enough yet.

I think California Bakery was ahead of its time. The brand was born twenty years ago. Its story is worth a digression. It is 1995 when Mark D’Arrigo, a Sicilian manager who had moved to Milan specializing in business and marketing, decided to give up his promising career in a multinational food company to become a full time pastry chef. An American lady, Carol, who had opened a small muffin bakery not far from his workplace, inspired him: Marco found himself there every morning for breakfast, remembering his college period in New York, at 19 years old; that place made him see Milan from another perspective. Despite a career well underway he chose to pursue his passion for business, travel and food. He sold his BMW and used those 16 millions to detect the small bakery; he hired the American lady for three months to learn her secrets, while never having been in the kitchen. Then he started a trip in the United States. He went to 50 bakeries, visiting the kitchens, getting to know the confectioners, studying the packagings, finding suppliers. He also discovered that many of the most famous bakeries have pastry chefs of Italian descent, and many of southern Italy, his homeland. In the background the wisdom of their day Italian baked goods. Back to Milan and enriched by this experience he started California Bakery. His first takings were 113.000 liras. Today, almost twenty years later, California Bakery earns million euros per year. Ten years ago, Marco called Caroline, a successful publicist graduated in New York, to remake the corporate image of the bakery: being tired of too much work to handle, he was convinced to sell his brand to the most interesting buyer. The two fall in love and decided to mix family and business. So California Bakery moved from being a small bakery for takeaways, with just a few products, to a true cafe with a sweet and savory menu and a brunch offer, then widely imitated in Milan. That’s how the communicative world of California Bakery started: the brand expanded and strengthened its visual identity, contaminated by European taste of Caroline, half French and half Italian, and the travelling soul of the couple. Ten years later California Bakery has 100,000 customers a month and a dozen stores only in Milan. The company aims to expand to other cities, the first being Rome. It is recognized as a quality brand by consumers, businesses and institutions. California Bakery project has succeeded in creating a new culinary culture, disrupting the appearance of “ethnicity” as a barrier doing synthesis between Milan, the cosmopolitan face of Italy, and the United States. To do so the company has identified values that it declines both in work organization and communication: they are the symbolic link between the authentic culinary traditions of both countries.

Three are the interesting aspects in the work organization. First, the decision to set their own preparations in the local context: California Bakery Cheesecake is not made with industrial cheeses but with soft cheese and ricotta cheese from Lombardy; Poppy Seed Cake is wetted with Italian oil, instead of butter, and juice of Sicilian oranges; everything is made fresh, following natural processes without chemical additives. They say they prepare the “Grandma Duck pies” which, in our pop imaginary, stands for something traditional and made with love. Yes, there is an American Pastry Chef in the kitchen, surrounded by moulds and baking trays made in the US, but he also works using a rolling pin and using his hands, dirty with flour: technology and simplicity meet, just like these two cultures. The stores are old artisan shops re-opened and transformed into cozy places where you can spend time relaxing from 8 am to midnight: it is an international approach to dining, with a scan time adapted to the new times of the city. On the other hand the human resources: the staff, from extremely diverse backgrounds, is prepared to be proactive and a vector of marketing through their look, attitude and level of preparation; the management choose staff that does not come from the restaurants’ world and prefer who presents himself or herself as a good communicator, motivated to have a career and build their own destiny, a process modeled after the U.S. companies and the self-made man philosophy. Number three: the cultural divulgation. California Bakery decided to teach their clients how prepare cakes and bread like in a bakery; a Cooking Lab was created: it’s a school where students participate in lessons and prepare their American sweets side by side with a chef, to learn a technique and then do it again at home; the book I am talking about today was born with the same idea; ingredients’ mixes were made available to customers to make their own American products at home; and activities like Social Cooking bring US gastronomy culture in Milan’s courtyards, houses and “socialstreets” for free; even a tv serie is under discussion.

This brings me to the other work force, the one that’s my field: communication. A storytelling process built around what we eat and the hours we spent at the table is the key-factor to impress people and conquer today their loyalty. It is no coincidence that neither Caroline nor Marco come from a food background, but from international marketing, business and communication fields, both sons of exchange processes between our country and the United States. The food of the future will be more and more good to think about – it also tells us a Eurisko research a few years ago – and that the United States still have much to teach us about. The way we recount ourselves is central to give an identity to what we eat, make grow, produce. For this reason, California Bakery stores have always been put on display baskets from American campaign, the Nordic Ware cakes molds, wood elements as in country houses; for the same reason a format becomes a message, as in the case of the picnic brunch, designed on the model of en plein air picnic in Union Square in New York, brought to Milan to give families a smart mode to spend the weekend in the city with kids; and behind-the-scenes in laboratories are told on a daily basis through Instagram and other social media channels, in a continuous dialogue between American and Italian traditions.

The identity of a place depends so much from his postal address as the flavors that we associate the place with. So when we taste something and we close our eyes we can see right away if we feel at home or not. In California Bakery I have always felt at home. Marco and Caroline realized that food, even when it has foreign origins, must first be culturally edible to become part of our everyday experiences, representations and identities. No longer national but global, connected and always travelling.

Taken from my speech at University of Verona for “Food and Identity in Literature and Culture” seminar