Bread has gotten under Roberta Pezzella’s skin.
“I think I’m up to 30 tattoos by now. And they’re all connected to bread, in one way or another” laughs the baker. A spray of wheat inked in black curves up her neck. The names of baking mentors accent her ankles. She rolls up her T-shirt to reveal an impressive back tattoo of Salvador Dalì brandishing a loaf of bread. Her left wrist reads “Il pane è una cosa seria,” or “bread is a serious matter.” I believe her.
Hailing from Frosinone, Italy, Roberta Pezzella is widely considered one of the top bakers in the country. So far, 2021 has gone smashingly for Pezzella: she opened up her first bakery, Pezz de Pane in her hometown a mere five months ago, and has already been awarded the coveted prize of “Best Bread of the Year” from prestigious gastronomic association Gambero Rosso, the culinary authority in Italy. The buzzy bread in question is Pezzella’s pane al cioccolato fondente, or dark chocolate loaf.
“Roberta’s recipe doesn’t shy away from showcasing true dark chocolate and all its nuances,” explains food journalist and head of Gambero Rosso’s bread guide Sara Bonamini. “The end result is extremely elegant – the crust is thin, the crumb melts in your mouth. It’s otherworldly.” I set out in pursuit of this bread on a July morning where the sun shines brashly, the regional train sighing to a stop at Frosinone station.
Located an hour outside of Rome, Frosinone is a mellow hilltop town flanked by mountain ranges; Roberta’s bakery rests in the crook of its local piazzetta. Inside, plump slabs of focaccia dough streaked with olive oil, oval seed-flecked loaves, and burnished rounds of rye huddle around the counters. A solitary dark chocolate bread fittingly reigns from the very top shelf. Its origins lie in pane e cioccolato, chocolate bar pieces cradled between two slices of white bread, that most Italians – Roberta included – will wistfully recount as a treasured childhood snack. The chocolate breads she sampled as a grown-up baker, riffs on that hallowed marriage of carb and candy, had always disappointed. “I tried chocolate bread loaf after chocolate bread loaf and they were always cloyingly sweet, or rich in color but not in flavor,” she says. Pezzella began to concoct her own version purely for fun, dabbling in melted chocolate and cocoa powders, chips and chunks. The final recipe, the descendent of that original nostalgic treat, is conjured out of water, four different flours, sourdough starter, cocoa mass, and 85% Noalya dark chocolate chips shimmied directly into the dough. “People go crazy for it – it was BOOM from the first day,” says Pezzella.
Roberta’s devotion to bread wasn’t as swift. She didn’t grow up baking or even particularly like bread as a kid. “My uncle Silvio always insisted that we eat at least one piece of bread at the dinner table. Looking back I now see it as a sign of things to come, a hint at my destiny.” A local food market job in her 20s introduced her to the importance of fresh, seasonal ingredients, and in her spare time she’d splurge on gourmet restaurants. Eventually, Roberta decided to unravel the techniques behind the dishes she so revered and settled on a cooking degree at Gambero Rosso’s Rome-based school. Her Uncle Silvio transferred the full tuition amount into her bank account on Christmas Eve as a surprise. “I really see his generosity as what shaped my career and life,” she says. Her meet-cute with bread finally arrived at the school’s graduation dinner. “The pan brioche dough in the kitchen that day caught my eye; I was suddenly struck by how it transformed and rose. It was like a light bulb went off in my head, and I decided to learn everything I could about bread making.”
Bread has punctuated Italian culture and history since ancient times. First introduced by the Greeks to the Romans around 170 BC, bread shaped civilization: a lack of it caused riots, a surplus of it calmed them. Emperors shrewdly wielded bread to their political advantage, appeasing their subjects with panem et circenses, or bread and circuses, food and entertainment. In the thousands of years since, the people of now modern-day Italy continue to knead, produce, and be nourished by bread. The beloved carb shape shifts from region to region: in Sardinia it’s the shatter-y thin pane carasau. In Genova, pudgy loaves of focaccia are strewn with tomatoes or rosemary. Sturdy-crusted Pane casareccio features nightly on the Roman dinner table, summoned for sopping up leftover pasta sauce otherwise known as doing la scarpetta. Italians bring bread back from the brink of death, tumbling stale sourdough crusts with generous glugs of olive oil and fresh veg for panzanella, or reincarnate them into breadcrumbs scattered on pasta dishes. Bread outlives and persists and adapts.
Pezzella’s initiation into the sacred tradition of pane was chaperoned by culinary heavyweights in the capital: her very first job post-grad saw her in the kitchen of Chef Heinz Beck’s 3-Michelin star restaurant La Pergola. Beck noticed her penchant for pane and encouraged her to undertake specialized bread courses and internships abroad. He eventually entrusted her with revamping La Pergola’s bread basket, which hadn’t been altered in 15 years. “Chef Beck truly believed in me,” shares Pezzella. “I always say he’s like my second dad – I am who I am thanks to him.” In her time off, she toiled in the bakery of Gabriele Bonci, a veritable bread and pizza icon in Italy. Often called “the Michelangelo of pizza,” a nod to his epicurean approach to pizza by the slice, Bonci, who also has locations in Chicago and Miami, mentored Pezzella in the early days of her career. After 8 long years at La Pergola, she eventually left her role with Chef Beck to manage Bonci’s newest bakery (she has his name and the names of his children, her godchildren, tattooed on her wrist).
While the dark chocolate loaf currently acts as the bakery’s headliner, I’m also eager to learn more about Roberta’s other breads. “Each recipe is dedicated to someone or somewhere,” she explains. The rustic filone, a sourdough of crisp crust and an airy crumb, was the first bread that Bonci taught her to make. Dark and dense in seeds, Il Pane di Franco, she shares, pays homage to master bread maker Franco Palermo. Then there’s Pane di Vito, made with Pugliese durum wheat semolina in honor of Vito di Dicecca, a local cheesemaker and friend (she flashes me a tattoo of his logo on her upper arm). The bread Filove serves as a bread for the popolo, or local people of Frosinone. “I use only top Italian ingredients, and it’s priced low so I don’t make any money off of it. But I wanted to make a very reasonably priced bread that everyone in my town can afford.” It also happens to be named for her friend Filo. Her rye bread dubbed Toc serves as a nod to pal Giorgio. Ponza, a comma-shaped island in the Tyrrhenian sea where Roberta returns every summer – un posto del cuore or a “place of my heart” – has its own bread, too. “It’s available only in July. I pick wild fennel off the island and I infuse the water with it and then put it directly into the dough while it’s still fresh.” La Barese pizza? “It’s dedicated to all of my loved ones from Puglia.” Even her first sourdough starter, Thomas, was named for friend Thomas Piras, maître and sommelier of restaurant Contraste in Milan. “Everything I do has a reason behind it, from my tattoos to bread,” Roberta told me.
The idea of opening a place all her own began to take shape during Italy’s COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. “I had three months of complete solitude and reflection. I realized that I wanted to be closer to my family, to return home and put down roots,” she explains. She stumbled across the space that would become her bakery last August. “It seemed like it had been made for me, it was just perfect.” She decided to forgo an architect, trusting her own instincts instead. “I studied art before cooking so I sketched out everything exactly as I wanted it. This isn’t just where I work, it’s my home too.” The first client in line on opening day? Her uncle Silvio, of course. “He stepped inside the bakery and we both burst into happy tears.”
As the afternoon draws to a close, we head to the bakery’s shop front and Roberta finally ushers the dark chocolate loaf from its perch. When she first debuted the bread with customers, she dolloped it with honey and goat’s milk ricotta from a local producer. Some clients prefer to eat it with meatballs and sauce; others, with ice cream. One customer swears by it paired with roasted pumpkin. Ultimately, it’s extremely versatile, “ideal paired with ricotta or orange jam for breakfast. I also love it slathered with liver pâté or even wild boar ragu,” recommends Bonamini.
Roberta presses a slice of the hallowed dark chocolate bread into my palm. Compact, dimpled with dark chocolate chips, it is entirely savory, a tang of salt at the edges of each bite, chocolate uncloaked of butter and sugar, chocolate striking out on its own, chocolate at its most independent. The bread, I conclude, is delicious, yes, but also as unexpected as Roberta herself, the baker who successfully opened a business in a pandemic and went on to win the Oscar of bread-making only months later. Before I leave, I skim the bakery’s small but mighty inventory again. There’s Filove, and Toc, and pane di Vito – Pane di Ponza – the Barese pizza –the filone for Bonci. “You can taste the devotion and love that goes into everything she bakes,” Bonamini had said. Roberta Pezzella isn’t just tattooed with love letters; she kneads them – to her friends, to her favorite places, to her childhood, to her community. Pane, she explains to me as we head out into the sunshine, is “alive. It has a heart.” Bread is serious, yes – but also beautifully sentimental.