Bread ABCs: <I>Pane</I> power here and there

This is the final installment of Christina Ball's culinary updates from Firenze. She's back in town with a hearty appetite for news. –editor

FLORENCE– What does a Florentine forno have that Charlottesvillle's Albemarle Baking Co. lacks? Certainly not yeast, sacks of hard wheat flour, and an artisanal approach to the baking craft emphasizing quality, tradition, and consistency over mass-produced quantity.

Master baker Gerry Newman, who started his European-style bakery nine years ago with his wife, Millie Carson, even stocks several items which I could find right around the corner in Florence-­ pane toscano (crusty, usually unsalted "Tuscan bread"), ciabatta (a light, porous oblong "slipper"), sweet and savory focaccia rounds, bags of seasoned crostini, and even special Italian holiday breads like the colomba pasquale ('Easter dove') and fruit-bread panettone ("big bread"), traditionally served at Christmas and New Year's.

What you definitely won't find at most Italian bakeries are breads from other countries– French baguettes, German dark bread, hearty American multi-grains. In fact, you'll even have a hard time finding breads native to other Italian regions in Tuscany.

Like wine, food, and accents, Italian breads are an inherent part of each region's culinary history and identity. Tuscan bread is rustic and noticeably salt-free because it accompanies hearty, salty foods like Tuscan salami, prosciutto, and pecorino cheeses. A self-respecting Florentine wouldn't think of eating moist, salty, semolina flour breads from Apulia or Sicily with their bistecca, tripe, or roast pork. It just wouldn't make sense.

Chefs in Albemarle County have an easier time breaking with tradition. Since we're talking bread, a bakery like ABC is crucial to an evolving, increasingly international culinary scene like Charlottesville's because it combines traditional European craftsmanship with a knack for versatility and innovation.

"I never wanted to be an American bakery," Newman says. That's why– despite the regional emphasis of the bakery's name (emphasizing the area served, not the breads' pedigrees)– his first calling card was the classic, crusty French baguette. Trivia tidbit: Newman's breads first appeared on tables at Michael's on The Corner. ABC now serves more than 40 local restaurants, cafes, and shops.

 An Italian baker would be even more amazed than I was to witness the well-oiled, multi-talented team of Gerry Newman and Co. (his staff numbers around 20) at work. Though rooted in the European traditions (he trained with a Swiss master), Newman is also free (i.e. from sacred regional traditions like those in Italy) to experiment with new hybrids like "potato-rosemary focaccia," sourdough "oatmeal crunch" and spelt-quinoa.

An Italian fornaio (bread baker) would also be shocked to find that this American baker makes a mean tiramisù. As anyone with a semi-sweet tooth knows, ABC bakes a lot more than bread. In fact, they actually got their start stocking coffeehouse pioneers like Mudhouse and Greenberry's with scones and coffeecakes– and they now make everything from cookies to fruit tarts and specialty cakes. In Italy, such multitasking would be virtually unthinkable, since sweets are made and sold primarily in special pastry shops (pasticcerie).

Tonight I'll raise my glass of effervescent prosecco to the panegyrical pair of tradition and innovation. Don't tell a Tuscan, but even when it comes to something as sacred as bread, they do collaborate nicely.

ABC's Gerry Newman