North Beach bak­ery serves up a slice of old San Fran­cisco

Be­hind the scenes at Lig­uria, the neigh­bor­hood’s trea­sured fam­ily-run bak­ery.

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Kauff­man Jonathan Kauff­man is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: jkauff­man@sfchron­i­cle.com. Twitter: @jonkauff­man

“I’ll go even to places like Dis­ney­land, and some­one will say, I know you but I don’t know how.” Michael So­racco, Lig­uria Bak­ery co-owner

By 7:30 in the morn­ing, the last pans of Lig­uria Bak­ery’s fo­cac­cia are com­ing out of its 106-year-old oven. Sonny So­racco wields an oven peel with an 8-foot han­dle to feed the pans — each longer than an armspan — two deep into the oven and then shimmy them out through its low-roofed mouth. He bal­ances each pan on the peel, whose pad­dle is no big­ger than a din­ner plate, and fer­ries the steam­ing bread onto a ta­ble with im­prob­a­ble grace.

Sonny’s un­cle Michael So­racco — third-gen­er­a­tion baker, co-owner of the busi­ness — then wig­gles two wooden sticks re­sem­bling chil­dren’s cricket bats into the pan to pry the bread out and carry it to the cool­ing shelves. It drapes be­tween the pad­dles like a limp child, drip­ping olive oil and tomato sauce onto flat­tened card­board boxes. Af­ter 106 years, so much olive oil has soaked into the con­crete floor that the bak­ers, most of whom grew up in the kitchen, in­stinc­tively sneak a shuf­fle into their step.

Be­ing in­tro­duced to the staff at Lig­uria Bak­ery is like show­ing up at their house for Sun­day din­ner. Michael’s sis­ter, Mary, and mother, Josephine — the bak­ery’s 80-year-old co-owner — run the store­front. Michael’s old­est daugh­ter, Les­lie Mitchell, of­ten comes in for a few hours to stretch the dough and spread top­pings over­top be­fore head­ing to her sec­ond job at a bridal shop. His brother no longer bakes along­side him, but Sonny, his brother’s 22-year-old son, does.

The So­rac­cos’ col­lec­tive mem­ory ex­tends far be­yond the events they’ve wit­nessed first­hand. When Am­bro­gio So­racco, Michael’s grand­fa­ther, opened Lig­uria Bak­ery in 1911 with two broth­ers he helped im­mi­grate from Lig­uria, the shop was just an­other cor­ner bak­ery in a crowded Ital­ian neigh­bor­hood. The broth­ers baked crusty loaves and spindly bread­sticks, fruited panet­tone and fo­cac­cia. The bak­ery was open 7 days a week, the bak­ers’ hours ev­ery day well into the dou­ble dig­its. Even at a time when loaves cost 5 cents, the fam­ily would de­liver them to homes around the neigh­bor­hood.

That all ended be­fore Michael, 61, even stepped foot in the bak­ery. Com­mer­cial bak­eries that got big first — like Boudin and Parisian — el­bowed Lig­uria out of the mar­ket, of­ten by of­fer­ing Lig­uria’s com­mer­cial cus­tomers a month of free bread as en­tice­ment to switch. Michael says his father and un­cles re­fused to be swayed by ex­tor­tionary tac­tics. They told their old cus­tomers, “Be­fore I give it away I leave the flour in the sacks.”

What was left, then, was fo­cac­cia. The So­rac­cos pro­nounce fo­cac­cia, by the way, “fo-GAchah,” as if the first c has been fired from an air­gun. No one alive can re­mem­ber the ori­gins of the bak­ery’s four orig­i­nal va­ri­eties: plain, raisin, onion — topped, for at least seven or eight decades, with chopped scal­lions — and “pizza” fo­cac­cia with crushed toma­toes and green onions.

The lat­ter half of the 20th cen­tury has barely in­truded into the bak­ery, with the ex­cep­tion, per­haps, of a now-an­cient dough mixer and Sonny’s lap­top. In­stead of wood or coal, the oven is now heated with what looks like a portable jet en­gine that sprays blue flame in­side for three hours. Four­teen hours af­ter­ward, the oven bricks have cooled enough to bake bread.

Over the past 10 years, Michael and his sib­lings have added new fla­vors, in­clud­ing mush­room, gar­lic and rose­mary (Michael of­fers a “Give the peo­ple what they want” shrug when he points to it). Jalapeño and cheese ap­peared as a Cinco de Mayo spe­cial eight years ago. It sells par­tic­u­larly well on game days.

The story for 60 years, how­ever, has been one of sub­trac­tion. Gen­er­a­tions of the bak­ery’s cus­tomers have sold their build­ings and left North Beach for the sub­urbs, re­turn­ing only in the week be­fore Christ­mas to wait two hours in line for fo­cac­cia. The drug­stores, fur­ni­ture stores and den­tists that the el­der So­rac­cos re­mem­ber are all gone. Not long ago, the post-Mass traf­fic from SS Peter and Paul’s Church grew so thin the So­racco fam­ily closed on Sun­days. Three years ago, they added Mon­days off, too. Only a few whole­sale clients re­main.

An­other new ab­sence: Ge­orge So­racco, Michael’s father, who died in 2013 af­ter work­ing at the bak­ery for 66 years. “Be­fore he passed he

said, any­thing hap­pens to me, you got to go there, keep an eye on those kids,” his widow says. “So that’s what I’m do­ing.” Josephine comes in at 4 o’clock ev­ery morn­ing to keep Michael com­pany while he bakes, and stays with Mary in the front of the shop un­til the bread sells out, her per­ma­nent sta­tion a chair be­hind the counter.

Josephine has spent her en­tire life within three blocks of the bak­ery. When she mar­ried Ge­orge at the age of 18, she knew that bread would keep them teth­ered to North Beach. “I’ve al­ways said, if I had to move away from here it would be like putting me in jail,” she says.

Yet, says Mary Geb­hardt, Michael’s younger sis­ter, “The neigh­bor­hood’s dif­fer­ent. The high rents are dif­fer­ent. The neigh­bor­hood’s mostly techie peo­ple, and they leave too early in the morn­ing. They tell me, ‘You’re never open.’ Well, your hours just don’t co­in­cide with mine.”

The doors of the bak­ery open at 8 o’clock in the morn­ing, 7 o’clock on Satur­days, and the first cus­tomers wait­ing on the steps for bread are mid­dle-school stu­dents buy­ing their lunch en route to the bus stop. Then come the reg­u­lars — deli own­ers, ar­chi­tects, fire­fight­ers, con­struc­tion work­ers — pick­ing up orders they’ve called in be­fore­hand or buy­ing stacks of bread. Mary and Josephine wrap each in a white pa­per packet, truss­ing it so quickly the string ap­pears to fly into knots by it­self. Tourists and Seg­way tours wan­der in later in the day.

The front room, with its pale blue walls and empty shelves, is rarely silent. “This is like the bar­ber­shop, in a way,” says worker James Lewis. Josephine and Mary col­lect all the city gos­sip, from the Giants’ draft picks to the sta­tus of Sales­force Tower. One woman’s story about how her dog ate her den­tures ric­o­chets around the build­ing, each guf­faw pro­pelling the story to­ward the next lis­tener.

Time is par­tic­u­larly stretchy when you’ve been in busi­ness since 1911. As she waits for her bread, Pier 23 Cafe owner Flicka McGur­rin rem­i­nisces about the pies that used to be displayed in the front win­dow. Mary pin­points the mem­ory in time: the late 1970s. James Lewis, the only non-fam­ily mem­ber on staff, says he’s been work­ing at Lig­uria Bak­ery for a cou­ple years, then re­al­izes it has been more like 15.

No one greets cus­tomers with a chirpy wel­come. The So­rac­cos ex­ist in the bak­ery just as they are, the way you sprawl across a chaise lounge on your lawn on a 100-de­gree day, a luke­warm can of Diet Coke in your hand, watch­ing the neigh­bors pass by. Mary and Josephine re­serve their warmth for the hun­dreds of peo­ple they do know. There are so many. They are so loved.

“I’ll go even to places like Dis­ney­land, and some­one will say, I know you but I don’t know how,” Michael says. “I tell them, ‘If I put an apron on, will you know who I am?’ They say, ‘The fo­cac­cia place!’ ”

Just as quickly, he backs away from ex­press­ing too much pride — “It’s noth­ing fa­mous, noth­ing like that” — but the fact is, he is fa­mous. Or, just as sig­nif­i­cant to him, his bread is. Nephew Sonny says he has basked in his friends’ ad­mi­ra­tion for the bread since his teenage years. He gives loaves to the par­ents of any girl he dates. It never fails.

The most im­por­tant thing, say the sec­ond, third and fourth gen­er­a­tions of the So­rac­cos, is to keep the cen­tury-old busi­ness go­ing. Thank good­ness, more than one So­racco says, they own a big enough share of the build­ing to keep the rent down.

Yet they worry how long the bak­ery will last. Spe­cial­iz­ing in just fo­cac­cia, the way they’ve al­ways made it, keeps the busi­ness from grow­ing.

“Fo­cac­cia, ev­ery­body makes it now,” Mary says. “But they make it to last for a few weeks. Ours has no preser­va­tives. Today is today! Tomorrow it’s just OK. There’s a big dif­fer­ence.”

“We’ve al­ways thought about mak­ing can­noli, but this oven is too hot for bak­ing,” Michael says. “You can’t make a cake in there.” For a few decades they made panet­tone dur­ing the hol­i­days, but they stopped af­ter Ge­orge died in 2013.

Michael says he turns down ev­ery tele­phone call of­fer­ing Lig­uria Bak­ery some op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand or fran­chise. It would re­quire leav­ing their 106-year-old oven be­hind, per­haps build­ing a fac­tory. He shrugs. “We got enough with this.”

A statue at Lig­uria Bak­ery in North Beach, clock­wise from top left, holds fo­cac­cia; Grace Alexan­der (cen­ter), Har­vey Gill and a friend with fo­cac­cia out­side the bak­ery; fo­cac­cia emerges from the oven; Josephine So­racco (cen­ter) and daugh­ter Mary Geb­hardt (left) help a young cus­tomer. Photos by Noah Berger / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

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