Tradition meets contemporary flavors at this incredible Italian bakery.
How do you keep a family bakery thriving for five generations? For the Olivieri family, the secret is putting a personal stamp on the business without losing sight of the past. “Every generation has added something new,” says Nicola Olivieri, owner and pastry chef of Olivieri 1882. “We do tradition in a contemporary way.”
That number in the business name is the year that Luigi Olivieri first opened a bakery in Arzignano, a town just outside of Vicenza in the northeastern Veneto region. In the beginning, Luigi made just bread, selling it to his neighbors. Subsequent generations of the Olivieri family have expanded the bakery business to include pastries, pizza, the Easter bread known as colomba, and panettone.
Panettone is an Italian Christmas tradition, an enriched sweet bread studded with dried fruit and other fanciful ingredients. Wrapped in a paper collar and sold in festive cardboard boxes, it’s a towering, domed round bread-cake hybrid that is sliced into wedges and enjoyed all season long, traditionally with a glass of marsala or other sweet wine. Panettone as we know it was first sold in Milan in the 15th century, though its exact origins are unclear.
Olivieri 1882’s panettone has become the star of their roster, sold in luxury shops from London’s Fortnum & Mason to Tokyo’s Isetan. It’s also where Nicola has made his generational mark, updating the family recipe for modern tastes. “We haven’t kept the recipe of my bisnonno—we adapt it for each generation.” For example, panettone they sold during World War 2 used less butter and egg, as those ingredients were expensive and hard to find. Customers have changed over the years, as well. “People understand the quality now,” says Nicola, so the current Olivieri panettone is more luxurious than its predecessors, using the best butter from Normandy, 5 crown sultanas from Australia, and Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar.
One thing that has remained a constant is the Lievito Madre (“mother yeast”), the sourdough starter that creates the bread’s rise. Olivieri 1882 has been maintaining the Lievito for 140 years, and it is the secret to the robust flavor in everything they make. If you started a sourdough culture during the bread-making boom of 2020, you’ll know how impressive it is to keep a starter going for a full year, let alone more than a century! The Lievito Madre is maintained by a special staffer called the Lievitista, who cares for it “like a baby.” And their breads are all still made by hand, using techniques that have been perfected by Olivieris over the decades.
To make sure his changes would lead to the best panettone yet, Nicola worked with food scientists at the University of Padua. They determined that the optimal fermentation time for the panettone batter was four days, not the three they had been using. (That’s substantially higher than the standard four to five hours used by other bakeries.) They also increased the amount of egg in the recipe—and they use only the flavorful egg yolk, not the whites. While his panettone is undoubtedly richer, it’s also somehow lighter and fluffier than ever, as well. Nicola says the longer resting time—in addition to creating layer upon layer of flavor—makes the panettone easier to digest. “We don’t like any compromise,” he says.
With such incredible quality and popularity, it may seem like there’s nowhere for Olivieri 1882 to go from here, but Nicola has even bigger things in mind for their future. He sees his work not just as a master baker and business owner, but as a steward for Olivieri generations to come. “It’s not my work, it’s my mission,” he says.