The King of Cake
Nono Colussi learned his trade in a bakery that has been in continuous operation since 1720. He is now a master of a culinary art that is nearly extinct: making mouth-wateringly light cake out of naturally yeasted dough.
By OWEN EDWARDS
Unlike other popular Italian cities—Florence, Rome, Bologna or Siena, for instance—Venice offers no dazzling opportunities for dining. Granted, the seafood is plentiful and interesting; if you order a misto di mare at lunch, you’ll be given a plate full of creatures you saw early that morning at the Rialto fish market, at least half of them unidentifiable. But in a city where the two specialties are squid in its own ink (to which I happen to be addicted) and liver and onions, one doesn’t expect much gastronomic glamour. Sure, you can get a fine enough meal at Alla Madonna near the Rialto Bridge, or at Bentigodi in the Cannaregio district. But food to write home about—or sufficiently well crafted to write about for this magazine—is not generally on the menu.
I’m no angel, but I think these are as close to true angels’ food cakes as anything I’ve encountered. They are light, yet textured enough to invite slow savoring, like a lot of other Italian food.
There is, however, one delicious exception—a truly unique, Venetian delicacy worth an ode: the foccacia that has been sold for more than half a century by a bravissimo baker named Nono Colussi at his pasticceria just off the Campo San Barnaba. One of the first things my wife and I do on our annual trip to Venice is get ourselves over to Nono’s and buy a couple of these magical foccacia, and then go to sleep dreaming of how good a slice or two (or three) will taste with our first day’s morning coffee.
Though the term “foccacia” can refer to a wide variety of baked goods, I have long felt that Signore Colussi’s yeasty, feast-worthy cakes deserve their own term. However, when I suggested this to him during a long conversation recently, he had none to offer. I had walked down the narrow Calle Lunga San Barnaba on a Thursday afternoon, when I knew–after a few years puzzling out Nono’s baking schedule–that the first of his cakes would have been taken off the racks where they hang upside down like sleeping bats (to keep them from collapsing when fresh out of the oven) and would be waiting for the knowledgeable locals who know what’s good and where to buy it.
As anyone who reads wine criticism knows, describing taste can lead to wild verbal excess. So I won’t say much about the flavor of Nono’s foccacias, lest I veer into inane metaphors. I’m no angel, but I think these are as close to true angels’ food cakes as anything I’ve encountered. They are light, yet textured enough to invite slow savoring, like a lot of other Italian food. Franco Colussi (his given name) clearly knows what he’s doing. He began his oven-centric career at the age of 11 (he’s now in his late seventies) when he went to work at the Caffe Florian, on Piazza San Marco, a famous place that has been operating continuously since 1720.
“When my grandfather goes on vacation,” Nono’s granddaughter Marina said, with a look of amused resignation, “I have to go to the closed shop every day to take care of il lievito.” This is Nono’s natural yeast starter. Today, even bread bakers rarely take this trouble, preferring the speed and convenience of commercial yeast. And cake bakers almost never bother with natural starters.
The Florian is an oasis for expensive desserts, and though little Franco started out doing all sorts of menial chores that had little to do with baking, in the six years he worked there he absorbed important lessons in how a high-end patisserie works. His next stop was a larger commercial baking company on Murano, an island known more for glassware than éclairs.
By the time Nono left Murano, a few years later, he had adopted a “madre.” This was not a substitute for his own mother, though in my imperfect Italian I at first thought it was; rather, it’s a natural yeast starter for his foccacia that has stayed with him, working its magic ever since. Nono’s charming granddaughter Marina, who works in Pasticceria Colussi along with her mother Linda, explained how the madre has to be carefully tended to keep it alive and well. “When my grandfather goes on vacation,” she said, with a look of amused resignation, “I have to go to the closed shop every day to take care of il lievito.” (Strictly defined, this term means “the riser,” which is what natural starters do to dough. The French calls theirs the levain—same meaning.) All the years of tender loving care make the Colussi madre about as well looked after as the Madonnas who smile down from the walls of countless Venetian churches.
In 1956, Franco and his brother—a fireman who later died in a fall while fighting a blaze – opened their pasticceria, exactly where it is today, though he says that the place was much smaller back then. Franco—or Nono, as he is known (he was vague about the origins of his nickname; perhaps he was the ninth child)—makes and bakes his foccacias on Wednesdays, hangs them up, then puts them into the store window in preparation for his many regular customers, who come from all over the city to get his cakes before they’re all gone.
They are not cheap—15 euros (or nearly $17) for the small size, 30 for the large. But in the years I’ve been the maestro’s devotee, I have never seen any cakes left un-bought. And in all those years, I have never seen my hero baker out of sorts or out of energy. The man is truly as happy in his work as his customers are with his work. So if you find yourself in Venice, make sure to include a Wednesday in your itinerary, and by all means say hello to Nono for me.