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food / travel

Bakery Paradiso: Organic Breadmaker Rises In His Own Sicilian Ghost Town

Maurizio Spinelli, baker of the "best bread in Sicily"
Maurizio Spinelli, baker of the "best bread in Sicily"
Laura Anello

SANTA RITA - "Don't let nostalgia screw you..." Alfredo tells the young Totò in the 1988 Italian movie Cinema Paradiso, urging him not to look back, to forget his native Sicily: the "evil earth."

Maurizio Spinello, instead, kneads that very nostalgia into his bread every day, having chosen to stay in his village of 11 people tucked in the rolling hinterland of the Italian island. ""You're crazy," was the reaction he got from just about everyone when he decided to open a bakery in tiny Santa Rita, where the only residents were his family and the neighbors across the street.

Spinello recalls everyone telling him: ""Leave like everyone else. Go where there's work.""

But instead, the bet on nostalgia has paid off. His business is flourishing and his gourmet bread has been crowned "Best In Sicily" by the island's premier food website Cronache di Gusto.

This quasi ghost town was built in 1920 by Baron Ignazio La Lomia for the peasants of his estate, who over time acquired ownership of the houses. The village shares its name with the church, after the local patron saint, Rita, which was dedicated by the baron to his wife in 1935.

"This is my home," says Spinello, introducing his mother, father, and his children Salvatore and Marco. "Leave here? Never!" say the kids, who go to school in the next town.

"There used to be a school here," recalls the baker, "there were also a police station, a tobacco shop, a small grocery. It was full of families of farmers and shepherds. But in the 1960s, the exodus began. My father had his 40 cows, which provided us a living but it was tiring. So my mother, to make up the wages, began to bake bread and sell it to the people passing by with a little bit of milk and some eggs. That bread has become my life."

The turning point came in 1999, when Spinello got a license to open a bakery, and soon afterward convinced the branch manager of a nearby bank to give him a loan: "When I spoke to him about the project, he was moved."

A door opens on the street and a nimble elderly lady comes out. "Good morning, Signora Gina!" She is 90 years old yet she looks 20 years younger. Still, she is the elder of the village and the head of the one other family that stayed behind. Her son Vincenzo is a farmer.

"But I'm the only one who has official residency here, so I can be the mayor," she reminds Maurizio with a wink.

An organic discovery

We visit the bakery's first premises, and then to the new, bigger one that Spinello opened three years ago in what used to be the horse stable. Behind the shop is a workshop of 140 square meters where he works from 5pm to 4am, often alone, but sometimes helped by his parents.

In the middle of the shop is the oven, fueled by olive and almond wood. "A lot of sacrifices and effort. But I think about those who went into the city and are now unemployed. I remember the smiles and the teasing."

Spinello's first approach was to sell to a chain of supermarkets and shops in the surrounding towns. "I almost had the monopoly," he recalls. "I made 250 kilograms of bread every day and spent the whole day driving around with my truck but we did it that way because I was selling at such low prices."

Seven years later, he met people who introduced him to organic flour. "It opened a new world to me and became my world," Spinello says. His days are are now full of ancient Sicilian grains: "They're called Russello, Tumminia, Perciasacchi and Senatore Cappelli. They are less conventional varieties, but the quality is incomparable."

He also "searched half of Sicily" to find the right mill stone. "The modern ones warm the grain during milling. Then I met another fool like me, Filippo Drago, and his mill, just outside the village of Castelvetrano. I have come full circle. "

The loaves are ready to be baked: There is no shadow of yeast, so the bread stays fresh for 15 days. There is only flour, water, salt and a raising agent taken from sourdough that has already risen. "Every time I make the dough, I take a piece and keep it for the next batch, it's a chain that never breaks."

The quality, certified by AIAB, the Italian association of organic farming, has translated into requests from shops and markets throughout Italy to stock his products. "I have reduced my output: 150 kilos per day and I am proud of every bite. Taste it."

It tastes of hay, earth and wood, of the joy of having made it.

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