It's 7 AM when I arrive at Mario, a bakery in the Italian city of Genoa where owner Graziano Bargi is waiting for me. It's still dark outside but his bakers started work three hours ago.
Mario reminds me of my grandfather's bakery. I would hear the voices of the bakers from his house on summer mornings; the smell of bread wafting through my window.
And not just any bread but focaccia, the traditional oil-laden Italian loaf—soft on one side and textured with small indentations on the other.
Except no one in Genoa would ever refer to it as just a loaf.
"A real Genoese eats focaccia putting the side with the holes on their tongue," Bargi says. "That way, you can taste the crunchy part first."
Bargi's family took over Mario bakery from its previous owner (and namesake) in 1968. Since then, other bakeries have opened in the city but Genoans stay loyal to Mario, perhaps because it's the only one making focaccia with an original, time-honoured recipe.
As Bargi shows me around, the bakers are in the last stage of the bread-making process, known as tirare or schiacciare. They roll the risen dough out on a pan, ensuring an even thickness throughout. The bakers then use their fingers to form the small holes that give focaccia its distinctive, crunchy texture.
On an average day, the bakery prepares 120 pans of the bread. The dough itself began life at 4.30 this morning, with flour, water, yeast, lard, and malt—necessary for giving focaccia its recognisable orange colour—combined in a special machine. It then rests for two hours.
"It can be more time if it's a cold winter. It can be less, during the summer," Bargi explains. "We regulate the temperature by adding water."
The ingredients and recipe behind Mario's focaccia may sound simple, but the proportions are a well kept secret and what Bargi says sets their bread apart.
That and the skill of the baker, of course. With one hour spent kneading the dough, one for resting, and then two to four hours on the pan, focaccia is not something to be attempted by an impatient baker.
"This is not as fast as pizza," says Bargi. "The baker has to predict the best timing to sell a hot and tasty product all day long."
It's a difficult job, especially in a family-run bakery like Mario.
"My father only started to call me with my name when he was 70 years old," laughs Bargi. "Before, he used to call me with any kind of epithet because I was always doing something wrong."
At 8 AM, Genoa is waking up and Mario's first batch of focaccia is almost ready to be baked. Customers will soon start to arrive, ready for their traditional Genoese breakfast of coffee and hot focaccia.
And I'll definitely be joining them.