Forno Cultura Rises to Italian Traditions in the Heart of Toronto
The espresso machine was humming quietly and the Forno Cultura staff were busily preparing for the lunch rush when I dropped by early in March. Andrea Mastrandrea, the owner of this authentic Italian bakery on King Street West in Toronto, was gathering the ingredients for zeppole, doughnut-like pastries available every year for a few weeks before Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19) until Easter Sunday. In Italy this is also known as the Festa di San Giuseppe (Feast of St. Joseph) and is Father’s Day in a number of countries, including Italy. According to Andrea, if your name happens to be Giuseppe (a very common name, for obvious reasons), you are fed copious quantities of zeppole!
Andrea gave me a zeppola to eat while I was at his bakery and I can tell you firsthand that it was scrumptious and I did not leave behind a single stray crumb. Filled with semolina cream (poor man’s cream) and topped with bursts of flavour from amarena cherries fortified in their own syrup in aged wooden barrels, there is nothing in Toronto that quite compares to these zeppole. Andrea and his pastry chef Laura White discovered awhile back that baking them first and then flash frying them made their version soft and light on the inside but still crispy on the outside.
Andrea reaches back to his family traditions for Forno Cultura’s foundation and this is what makes the shop unique. Although Andrea is not a trained chef, his intuition, experience, and creativity are what make this bakery exciting.
Andrea’s father, a baker like his father before him, came to Toronto from Italy in the 1960s and worked four jobs in order to make enough money to bring over his family, including his parents and eleven siblings. In 1970, he opened his first bakery at Rogers and Weston roads, near where they lived. He eventually owned four bakeries, and Aida’s Pine Valley Bakery in Woodbridge continues on as a family business, a legacy left by Andrea’s dad, who passed away in 2007.
Andrea remembers being seven years old and asking his father to let him accompany him to the bakery as he prepared for the day. His father obliged and roused Andrea out of bed at three in the morning. He had him doing small tasks at the bakery and then cooked him an egg sandwich with olive oil and salt slathered on bread freshly baked in a wood oven. Afterwards, Andrea fell asleep on big bags of flour before going off to school. (When he and his two brothers were infants their mother, who also worked in the bakery, used to find little nooks for them to nap in. In essence, Andrea “was raised in a bakery.”)
The route to opening Forno Cultura was somewhat circuitous. Andrea completed a degree in architecture at University of Toronto in 1998 after spending 1997 in Florence working on his thesis. He worked as an architect while travelling throughout the U.S. before returning to Toronto in 2001. In 2002 he and a partner opened a gallery in the old Colgate-Palmolive factory at Carlaw and Queen. It was a space for large art installations and turned out not to be very profitable, so Andrea came up with the idea of hosting supper clubs there, using a small on-site kitchen. Sous-chefs, some of whom now run their own restaurants, came from all over the city to cook. Restaurateurs and chefs were more than happy to attend these evenings, which took place twice a week.
Susur Lee came one night with his wife Brenda Bent and was amazed by the quality of food; it turned out that it was one of his own sous-chefs who had cooked it. Gradually, the capacity of the kitchen grew as equipment was added and, before he knew it, Andrea was baking bread for Jamie Kennedy and others. He would leave the breads at the back door of restaurants, thereby earning the moniker “back door chef.”
It was during the time of the supper clubs that he created a professional alliance with Laura White, a longtime, well-respected pastry chef he’d already known for ten years. She was impressed with the “insane amount of knowledge in his head” and said that she would be interested in working with him.
In 2013, Andrea opened Forno Cultura on King West between Spadina and Bathurst, with Laura on board as the pastry chef. The two of them had spent the previous two years translating Andrea’s father’s and grandfather’s recipes, redeveloping them, figuring out exact amounts. Flavours that Andrea may have once found too strong were tempered but their essences are still discernable in everything the bakery makes.
Laura is totally in sync with Andrea’s vision of simplicity and she embraces his innate culinary intuition. Even though she is French-trained, it’s easy for her to adapt to Andrea’s Italian roots. She brings her technical training to the bakery but welcomes the opportunity to create new recipes and expand the repertoire. Together, they add to the allure of the artfully arranged cookies and pastries displayed along the front counter.
Laura’s amaretti biscuits, made from ground almonds, and her biscotti are purported to be the best in the city. I was speaking to Laura one day as she was gently glazing a gorgeous citrus upside-down cake that I realized I just had to buy. It was perfect.
Open beams, warm-coloured wood, and inviting shelves stocked with glistening sourdough breads, craftily stuffed sandwiches, and tantalizing sweets, all speak to the fact that Andrea designed his bakery without compromising his vision for transparency. A thin layer of glass—not doors or walls—separates the kitchen from the customers, clearly defining Andrea’s philosophy about removing the mystery surrounding what goes into making food. Customers sitting at the counter or around high-top tables can watch as big mounds of dough are kneaded and hand rolled into bread or hear Andrea as he collaborates with a baker over new recipes.
“Food wasn’t extra or luxurious, it was a necessity,” Andrea relates when talking about his family’s relationship to food. He is a very philosophical person who encourages dialogue about food and, really, life in general, so going to Forno Cultura means more than just grabbing a sandwich, a loaf of bread, or a sweet to eat; it’s an experience. Andrea has created a space where “the art of process,” in effect respecting where food comes from and how it is made, is breathed into every loaf of bread. Nothing is wasted but every possible combination of food is explored. When sandwiches are made, the insides of the bread are removed, leaving crusts as cradles for fillings. The discarded bread is mixed with goat milk ricotta, mint, parsley, and currants, and then rolled into balls, breaded, and fried to become polpette—meatballs.
“Food becoming important again, being reprioritized” fuels Andrea’s passion. Forno Cultura invites us to eat food that has been prepared simply with the freshest ingredients. Andrea sees his bakery as being part of people’s daily routine: “Customers come during the day or before they go home.” The bakery could be seen as the “core and the building block” and not only as a place to shop on special occasions.
For Andrea, value and quality are key ingredients and his desire to marry these is his greatest challenge. He speaks about his father with enormous pride and as an adult has come to appreciate how hard new immigrants had to work to establish themselves here and grow successful businesses. Andrea maintains the same uncompromising work ethic and determination when taking into consideration the landscape of where he lives.
Wherever and whenever Andrea can he uses local ingredients because he believes this makes him, as he states, “incredibly responsible.” In his shop you will find two kinds of products—local or Italian—and the one thing he will not do is compromise on quality. He is devoted to freezing seasonal fruit so that, for example, he has plums for brioche that are baked in January. From Italy he sources nuts, such as bitter almonds, and he likes to support Puglia, where his dad came from, because there is a “wealth of food” in the region.
Andrea’s breads are handcrafted and are made with flour, water, wild yeast, and Crudo, an award-winning extra virgin olive oil from Puglia. Every loaf is started with a version of the semolina sourdough unique to what he and his grandfather used when baking. It is the base that Andrea uses to create the other varieties of sourdough breads he bakes in the huge stone oven. His signature darkened crusts are like no other, with their colours and flavours coming from ingredients such as cumin or chocolate; both surprising and delicious. Whole wheat with toasted walnuts and caraway, and his grandfather and father’s corn and anise loaf are unlikely to be found anywhere else in Toronto. The bakery’s porchetta sandwich is an incredible taste sensation partly because of the unique sourdough it’s made with; filone cacao includes powdered grape skins and bitter cacao. The result is not bitter at all, but, rather, slightly sweet, salty, and habit forming.
The bakery produces 250 breads a day and wholesale orders are carefully considered because Andrea values relationships and collaborations. The restaurant Honest Weight serves his filone ai semi (durum wheat semolina with mixed-seed crust). Carmen and Torito, 416 Snack Bar and People’s Eatery, Lee’s, Bent and Fringes, Valdez, Loka, and All The Best Fine Foods are loyal customers. In early 2016, Forno Cultura launched its breads at Google Canada’s Toronto office and at all Pusateri’s locations, including the newly opened Food Hall in Saks Fifth Avenue.
Aside from house-made breads, pastries, extra virgin olive oil, and pasta sauces, Forno Cultura carries jars of preserves made by Johanne’s Pickles in Leslieville. She sources produce directly from local farmers and processes them for Andrea, who is wise enough to know he can’t do everything himself (although he did can thirty bushels of San Marzano tomatoes last fall). There are also cured meats, cheeses, and small-batch dairy products stocked in the fridge. If you find yourself wanting to relax with a glass of wine before you head home after work, keep in mind that Forno Cultura offers cinque-a-sette from 5 to 7, serving Ontario and Italian wines along with Ontario and Quebec cheeses and other savoury bites to accompany your aperitivo.
Andrea has not rushed his business’s success; he wants it to grow slowly and organically. The bakery opened in an unlikely basement location just west of the downtown core, but today Forno Cultura has a loyal following that is evidenced by the line-ups at lunchtime. Andrea is introducing a new generation to traditional Italian baking but is also visited often by grandmothers who insist that his baking is as good as theirs if not better.
Andrea spends most of his time at the bakery. Like many entrepreneurs, he struggles to find a work-life balance. His very supportive partner, Laleh, understands Andrea’s passion for his business. On his day off you might find him with Giuseppe, his 15-year-old dog, walking the trails at Evergreen Brick Works.
Having visited Forno Cultura many times, I have come to realize that Andrea values food as an important creative medium because he immediately sees, feels, and tastes the food that is made in his kitchen. Andrea’s bakery can be seen as an extension of his architectural studies, given that its foundation is built on tradition but the landscape of breads and pastries is always changing.
609 King St. West, Toronto