Cook’s Chat: Michael Soracco of Liguria Bakery
By GraceAnn Walden
Michael Soracco has a secret: it’s almost a hundred years old, and he’s not telling. Soracco, with his father, George, brother, Danny, and the occasional helper, create the best focaccia in the Bay Area, bar none. Other bakeries take a fly at it, some restaurants also make an attempt, but they needn’t bother.
Liguria Bakery is in a class by itself. It’s approaching its 100-year anniversary in three years. Talking to Michael, you can tell it has always been a labor of love and dedication to the product. But don’t ask him for the exact recipe. That’s a family secret and it’s staying in the family.
The baking process is accomplished in an oven as old as the business, heated with a giant gas flamethrower to 800 degrees. The mixed, soft dough is hand-stretched into metal trays, dimples installed with fingers, toppings added, and then baked in a flash.
All that artisan effort would not work without George's wife, Josephine, and his sister Mary running the retail side. They take the phone orders, cut the slabs of focaccia for customers, wrap them in paper, and tie the precious bundles with string. It is the very essence of “appropriate technology.”
The beginnings of the Liguria Bakery are as interesting as today’s business. After the 1906 earthquake, when Soracco’s grandfather, Ambrosio, emigrated from Genoa, he worked in a neighborhood bakery. In 1911, he founded Liguria Bakery at its present location, 1700 Stockton Street. After a year, he sent for his two brothers, Giuseppe and Giovanni, to come and work with him. At that time, they made bread, hardtack, panettone, and breadsticks for North Beach’s population, which was primarily immigrants from Liguria, Lucca, Calabria, and Sicily.
Ambrosio died prematurely in 1938, and his two brothers didn’t stick around very long. But Ambrosio’s widow, Mary, hired bakers to keep the business going. In this decade of the Depression, they delivered to stores and private homes via horse and wagon. Later, their son, George, born in North Beach in 1928, joined the business right out of high school. Over the years, there has been a collection of partners, both in the business and in the ownership of the building where the bakery is located.
I ask Michael how the bakery came to specialize in one product, focaccia. “When the big bread companies like Parisian got into the stores, they pushed the smaller bakeries like ours out by underselling us and giving the stores free bread for a month,” he says.
“My father used to say, we’re not gonna make it to give it away. We’ll leave the flour in the sack.”
So, Liguria began to make a product that no one else did: focaccia. The name itself comes from the Latin word for focus, meaning hearth. While related to pizza, it differs in texture and thickness.
When I began buying focaccia at Liguria, they made pizza (tomato topped with green onion), plain and green onion. Once in a blue moon, you’d see olive or mushroom. In the last few years now that Soracco, 52, is more involved in the bakery’s direction, it’s not uncommon to see six or seven different flavors offered. By far, pizza remains the most popular. I like to tell my North Beach tour-goers, with a frozen pizza focaccia from Liguria in the freezer, you are always ready for unexpected, hungry guests.
Soracco‘s entry into the business came in his late 20s. He’s been there for 25 years. “Looking back, we have it easy now,” says Michael, who lives with his wife and two daughters, Leslie and Molly, in Belmont. “I go to bed at 7 p.m., I get there at 3 a.m. and the bread [focaccia] is ready to bake at 4 a.m. Some days, we’re finished by 10 a.m.; around the holidays, we’re there late to keep up production.” But now we close down for a week at Christmas – something my wife wanted.” (The bakery’s current hours are 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., or until the focaccia is gone.)
“In my dad’s time, they worked around the clock. I don’t remember him having a hobby,” he says. “His whole life has been dedicated to this place.”
I have known the Soracco family for more than 30 years and have broken bread with them at their annual Columbus Day celebration in recent years. What a treat to be invited! At the parade, guests have front-row seats at tables and chairs set up on the corner outside the bakery. Inside, Michael and his friend, Giovanni, cook whole fish, pasta and other dishes in the bakery’s ancient ovens.
For our cook’s chat, Michael had chosen an Italian restaurant in the Mission, Bella Venezia. The owner, Salvadorian Eduardo Reina, began his restaurant career as a busboy at Caffe Sport in North Beach. “As the other guys left, he eventually became a waiter there,” Michael explains.
Bella Venezia is located in a broad storefront with views of busy Mission Street through the large plate glass windows that remind you that you are in San Francisco, but the cooking smells draw you to the memory of many a North Beach dinner. Despite its name, the food isn’t particularly Venetian, but it’s good solid Italian food found all over Italy.
For our lunch we chose from both the lunch and dinner menus. I know present and future diners will cringe when I report that I told Reina that some of his prices were too low. “After all,” I said, “you’re not selling burritos!” Eduardo agreed and remarked that customers don’t realize all the costs associated with a white-tablecloth restaurant.
We started by splitting a generous order of fried calamari, which were tender and grease-free ($7). We also divvied up an order of penne puttanesca, a Neapolitan dish. It was beautifully prepared with just the right amount of zip from the traditional anchovies, capers, garlic, and black olives ($6.75). Other pastas on the lunch menu are gently priced from $6 to $9.50; the latter features a boatload of seafood in a linguini frutti di mare. At dinner the seafood pasta is $14.
For our main course, we split a saltimbocca alla Romana, thin-pounded veal scallops topped with sage, mushrooms and prosciutto napped in a Marsala sauce ($13).
Al dente vegetables and a scattering of boiled potatoes completed the plate.
With all the food, we drank a nice Umbrian wine. The wine list is already user friendly, so I’d pass on the generic house wine available in half and whole carafes.
Over our tasty lunch, it was interesting to hear the history of Liguria Bakery and heart-warming to see that Michael Soracco, from a long-established family business, was supporting someone much like his grandfather, an immigrant working to make his way in San Francisco.
Liguria Bakery: 1700 Stockton Street (at Filbert), 415-421-3786
Bella Venezia Ristorante Italiano: 3215 Mission Street (near Valencia), 415-642-4896
GraceAnn Walden’s heart will always be in North Beach, where she conducts walking tours (visit graceannwalden.net for more information); look for her North Beach cover story in the March issue of Northside San Francisco. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org