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

May 17, 2016

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.

My local Italian bakery. Photo by Emiko Davies

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.

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.

Biscotti at the bakery. Photo by Emiko Davies

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.

Photo by Emiko Davies

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.

Blackberry jam crostata. Photo by Emiko Davies

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Glickie1
  • Rod Bauer
    Rod Bauer
  • Allie
  • Ginger Rodriguez
    Ginger Rodriguez
  • Andrea
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


Glickie1 May 18, 2016
Hello! What's the name of the bakery? I'm going to Tuscany next week and have to see it in person! Thank you!
Rod B. May 18, 2016
I lived in Perugia while attending the university. My Italian friends taught me to go to the back door of a bakery at 3am and buy a treat fresh from the oven.
Allie May 17, 2016
I enjoyed this article! I always look forward to your entries. I have had two trips to Italy, with my Italian husband and family. Having learned some lessons there about food, family and relaxing, we are much healthier! We found that travelling always requires humor - we were sold train tickets and told to RUN! with our bags as we had "5 minutes, go,go,go" hands waving us up the multi flight Milan station to our train...heaving panic stricken breaths for someone's entertainment. The train was on strike that day. Good food on arrival, eventually!
Emiko May 18, 2016
hahaha too funny :)
Ginger R. May 17, 2016
I took it as a joke.
Andrea May 17, 2016
Italians pay attention to any rule, at least as much as you do in the US. Given your upcoming "Trump society", you are not entitled to give moral lessons to any whole country.
Emiko May 17, 2016
This was a light-hearted joke. My country is Italy, not the US (I'm not American). I actually love that when it comes to buying food, everyone pays much more attention to the "rules" - get a number, no pushing in and so forth. But in other ways the "rules" are not so important as they are when it comes to food. As my Tuscan husband proudly likes to tell friends who visit from overseas that are alarmed by the driving that "we like to think of road rules more like 'suggestions'"! It's just a joke :)
Andrea May 18, 2016
There is very little you can confirm Your Guardian Chef. You can express your opinion, of course, but that's it. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that the unfortunate fact you got hit crossing the road means absolutely (!) nothing. What you lack is a god comparison.

The point here is that Italians are not more barbaric than, let's say, English or Americans. If you get to travel abroad, as I do daily because of my job, you'll se you can easily get run over at the zebra crossing even in Houston, Philadelphia or in London. With at least the same ease you can experience in Italy.

I understand that someon brought up with myth, legends and stereotypes, could think that Italy is such a quaint and picturesque place, out of this world, made of "mafia, pizza and mandolino" where people doesn't stop a the traffic light, gesticulate all the time, and are great at doing sex. But actually (and, to an extent, unfortunately) that's not it. Italians are EXACTLY as American, English, French, Spanish and most of the other denizens of this planet: some of them respect the rules, some other don't. It's that simple. There is no need to resort to stereotypes to brighten up a feature aimed at an international readership: "Italians stay religiously on a queue to get a slice of prosciutto but they run over each other while driving in car". Come on!

And just for the record, while I was in Dallas in 1999, waiting on queue at a movie theater to watch the first episode of the second Star Wars trilogy, I almost got punched in the face because I unintentionally walked by another guy in the queue. I've been literally saved by another guy who actually pulled out a gun to threaten the attacker. Yes, I didn't enjoy that movie that much... So, what should I conclude about the American attitude at respecting laws? I tell you: nothing.

And if you, Emiko, think Italians don't observe road rules, just try any freeway around Tampa or Orlando. Better! Send your "husband's friends who visit from overseas" over there, so they can get alarmed for a reason and get taste of the real thing...
Emiko May 18, 2016
Hi Andrea, I think this may be blown out of proportion a bit now. I'm just reporting about the way things are in one Tuscan town (my town; my husband's home town, where his family have lived for generations), not intentionally pushing a stereotype (certainly in my mind I did not ever have the picture that you are illustrating above). This is just the way things are done around here. It's just socially acceptable to park illegally on the footpath; drive with a 10 month old baby on your lap (no one says anything or bat's an eyelid!) or a little too fast (I didn't say anything about not stopping at traffic lights, that, people in this town do); and it's also the done thing to pick up a number at the bakery door -- and no pushing in. That's just simply the way it is in this little micro-society! Maybe in big cities it's different and definitely in other regions it's different. If you wanted to hear an article about how going to the bakery in Tuscany is exactly like going to the bakery in Tampa or Orlando (just to use your examples) because everyone in the entire world is exactly the same then this would be a very boring article indeed -- in fact, there would simply be no point to it! And it would also be untrue, I think (I don't know, I've yet to visit those places but I'm just guessing that like most places in the world, there is a different culture there and a different way to doing things).
Andrea May 18, 2016
Yes, Emiko, that's the point! Going to a bakery in Tuscany is exactly as going in any other bakery in the whole world. And this make your feature a bit... pointless. But I can't see the point of giving a distorted idea of Italy just to add some spice to a bland dish, while you could simplu describe what is sold in an Italian bakery (that probably is different from what is sold in a Tampa's bakery).

Actually everywhere in the world is "socially acceptable" to park on pavements, drive with a baby on your lap, or even very fast and with your eyes closed. People regularly do so. Even in Tampa. Until, one day, a cop catch you and fine you badly. The same is here in Italy. No one give a thing about you parking on sidewalk, until a cop passing by fines you for 138 euro. There is nothing exotic about it: is more or less the same everywhere in the world. And nowhere in the world people like when you walk them by on a queue: there is nothing typically Italian about it.
Andrea May 18, 2016
Wow Guardian Chef it seems you decided to move right to insults, I simply expressed my opinion in a very polite way. Can't you do the same?
Andrea May 18, 2016
Oh, sure. Nice try. :).