October 14, 2019
BOLOGNA, Italy — It took no more than a week in Bologna to understand SAIS’s dedication to instilling the precious qualities of ambition and ability in its students. Similarly apparent was the unveiling of this elite academic institution’s seedy underbelly: seeking to convince students of the necessity of long hours of study, exploration, examination, analysis and droopy eyelids in a secluded two-story library. In moments like these — when AirPods playing “chill lo-fi study beats” are more prevalent than smiles — it is especially important to find sanctuary. What environment harbors a warmer sense of envelopment than a bakery and its perfume of yeast, sugar and vanilla extract?
When a friend first mentioned the existence of a late-night “secret bakery,” an hour of online research returned a morass of subreddits, travel blogs and fruitless ‘Yahoo Answers;’ fellow foreigners entranced by the idea of an Italian grandmother serving fresh baked goods at 3 a.m. were useless here. Instead, this bakery — a garage door replete with graffiti before 12 a.m., when its door opens — demanded immersive field research.
The bakery can be found tucked away on Via Borgonuovo, and although there are no official hours, the shop typically opens around midnight and serves its loyal late-night crowd until traffic peters out around 3 a.m. — later on weekends. Anna, the Mother Mary who operates the bakery, has been running the shop for 65 years and serves anywhere between ten and 200 night owls per shift. In terms of price, the bakery is average if not affordable, with a delicious cornetto vuoto priced at one euro and ten cents. The following paragraphs recount my personal experience of discovery and indulgence at Anna’s bakery:
Following a Friday night dedicated to a cathartic session of dance, the time had arrived when nothing could prove more satiating in the early morning then a quintessential overfilled Italian cornetto. When leaving the clubs and strolling through the city center, it is impossible to ignore the increasing population of couples and individuals practicing their certain brand of self-care by burying their faces into fresh baked goods veiled by greased wax paper. Pitying my disheveled appearance — a shirt saturated with sweat and jeans stained with the spilled drink of another club-goer — a carefree couple kindly directed me to the bakery’s location in Via Borgonuovo for salvation via carbohydrates.
Despite the absence of any signage, the crescendo of the slurred sentences of late-night party-goers guide vagabonds like myself to a nondescript storefront adorned with graffiti. A written menu doesn’t exist, so don’t bother foolishly searching for one; instead, simply get in line.
The bakery offers two main items: pizza by the slice, which comes as a dough-centric square with the option to add prosciutto or salciccia; and cornetti filled to order with pistachio, crema, chocolate, Nutella or marmellata. In the name of thorough investigation, your loyal correspondent ordered three cornetti: one crema, one Nutella, and one with both pistachio and chocolate — the baker’s recommendation. Anna, overseer of this midnight oasis, scuttled back — her apron ends trailing freely behind her like Kate Winslet in the Titanic — and within minutes returned with the night’s bounty.
Having fed the camera first with a few quick snaps, a gentle separation of the Nutella-filled cornetto revealed two findings. First, the plentiful fragile flakes that fell in the process spoke to the proper lamination of the dough — Mary Berry would approve. Second, provided the cornetto was filled only minutes before, it made sense that the filling was more molten than your average 9 a.m. cornetto. The Nutella filling was the runniest of the three, presenting an exciting opportunity to mop up the drippings with the handy tools provided by the pastry’s empty ends.
Alas, my eager anticipation was rewarded only with bleak disappointment. The filling’s hazelnut flavor matched that of a jar of sun-bleached Lavazza. This absence of nuttiness left an imbalanced sugar-to-cocoa ratio that, when combined with the dough’s innate sweetness and confectioners’ sugar, tasted of half-melted chocolate rediscovered a month after Halloween.
Conversely, the pistachio cornetto’s intensity provided a nutty, fatty backbone that achieved a delightful balance with the rich, presumably milk chocolate filling. The crema filling was the firmest of three and was made using a different dough adorned with nonpareils, rather than confectioners’ sugar. Less flakey, more rigid and lacking the thick center vein of cakey, tooth-sinkable dough distinguishing a good cornetto from the bad, this was the least interesting of the three. Nonetheless, the exposed insides of all three cornetti released an intoxicating aroma of lemon and yeast that cuts through the sweetness and inspires customers to clean their plate — or in this instance, a stone doorstep.
By sunrise, the crowd had thinned considerably, and Anna had a moment to chat. Bolognese through and through, Anna has spent her whole life in the city. She feels that the bakery has had an unmistakable impact on the city, and believes that it is widely understood that fresh baked goods after midnight is a privilege — and almost all customers, despite their varying levels of inebriation, treat her with immense respect. Pointing to the gate that bars guests from entering and up at the nearby windows of the residences of families and working people, Anna said her biggest problem was noise complaints. Anna sells from the building’s door as a strategy to defend herself to city authorities when complaints are filed; all customers are on public grounds and thus, she contends, they should be fined instead of her. However, she lamented, this rarely works out as planned. Instead, she pays the occasional fine, though she is generally more concerned about inadvertently disturbing the viccolo’s residents than the fines themselves.
As the clock neared 6 in the morning, Anna sent her fellow baker home and momentarily removed the bakery’s small gate to allow for a few photos. Italians don’t drink without food,even if it is a lowly potato chip, and you shouldn’t either. With that in mind, Anna’s bakery is a highly recommended pit stop during a night giro through the city.