By 7:30 in the morning, the last pans of Liguria Bakery’s focaccia are coming out of its 106-year-old oven. Sonny Soracco wields an oven peel with an 8-foot handle to feed the pans — each longer than an armspan — two deep into the oven and then shimmy them out through its low-roofed mouth. He balances each pan on the peel, whose paddle is no bigger than a dinner plate, and ferries the steaming bread onto a table with improbable grace.
Sonny’s uncle Michael Soracco — third-generation baker, co-owner of the business — then wiggles two wooden sticks resembling children’s cricket bats into the pan to pry the bread out and carry it to the cooling shelves. It drapes between the paddles like a limp child, dripping olive oil and tomato sauce onto flattened cardboard boxes. After 106 years, so much olive oil has soaked into the concrete floor that the bakers, most of whom grew up in the kitchen, instinctively sneak a shuffle into their step.
Being introduced to the staff at Liguria Bakery is like showing up at their house for Sunday dinner. Michael’s sister, Mary, and mother, Josephine — the bakery’s 80-year-old co-owner — run the storefront. Michael’s oldest daughter, Leslie Mitchell, often comes in for a few hours to stretch the dough and spread toppings overtop before heading to her second job at a bridal shop. His brother no longer bakes alongside him, but Sonny, his brother’s 22-year-old son, does.
The Soraccos’ collective memory extends far beyond the events they’ve witnessed firsthand. When Ambrogio Soracco, Michael’s grandfather, opened Liguria Bakery in 1911 with two brothers he helped immigrate from Liguria, the shop was just another corner bakery in a crowded Italian neighborhood. The brothers baked crusty loaves and spindly breadsticks, fruited panettone and focaccia. The bakery was open 7 days a week, the bakers’ hours every day well into the double digits. Even at a time when loaves cost 5 cents, the family would deliver them to homes around the neighborhood.
That all ended before Michael, 61, even stepped foot in the bakery. Commercial bakeries that got big first — like Boudin and Parisian — elbowed Liguria out of the market, often by offering Liguria’s commercial customers a month of free bread as enticement to switch. Michael says his father and uncles refused to be swayed by extortionary tactics. They told their old customers, “Before I give it away I leave the flour in the sacks.”
What was left, then, was focaccia. The Soraccos pronounce focaccia, by the way, “fo-GA-chah,” as if the first c has been fired from an airgun. No one alive can remember the origins of the bakery’s four original varieties: plain, raisin, onion — topped, for at least seven or eight decades, with chopped scallions — and “pizza” focaccia with crushed tomatoes and green onions.
Leslie Mitchell, bottom, spreads tomato sauce on focaccia at Liguria Bakery in San Francisco.
The latter half of the 20th century has barely intruded into the bakery, with the exception, perhaps, of a now-ancient dough mixer and Sonny’s laptop. Instead of wood or coal, the oven is now heated with what looks like a portable jet engine that sprays blue flame inside for three hours. Fourteen hours afterward, the oven bricks have cooled enough to bake bread.
Over the past 10 years, Michael and his siblings have added new flavors, including mushroom, garlic and rosemary (Michael offers a “Give the people what they want” shrug when he points to it). Jalapeño and cheese appeared as a Cinco de Mayo special eight years ago. It sells particularly well on game days.
The story for 60 years, however, has been one of subtraction. Generations of the bakery’s customers have sold their buildings and left North Beach for the suburbs, returning only in the week before Christmas to wait two hours in line for focaccia. The drugstores, furniture stores and dentists that the elder Soraccos remember are all gone. Not long ago, the post-Mass traffic from SS Peter and Paul’s Church grew so thin the Soracco family closed on Sundays. Three years ago, they added Mondays off, too. Only a few wholesale clients remain.
Another new absence: George Soracco, Michael’s father, who died in 2013 after working at the bakery for 66 years. “Before he passed he said, anything happens to me, you got to go there, keep an eye on those kids,” his widow says. “So that’s what I’m doing.” Josephine comes in at 4 o’clock every morning to keep Michael company while he bakes, and stays with Mary in the front of the shop until the bread sells out, her permanent station a chair behind the counter.
Josephine has spent her entire life within three blocks of the bakery. When she married George at the age of 18, she knew that bread would keep them tethered to North Beach. “I’ve always said, if I had to move away from here it would be like putting me in jail,” she says.
Yet, says Mary Gebhardt, Michael’s younger sister, “The neighborhood’s different. The high rents are different. The neighborhood’s mostly techie people, and they leave too early in the morning. They tell me, ‘You’re never open.’ Well, your hours just don’t coincide with mine.”
Josephine Soracco (center) helps a customer; at left is Soracco’s daughter Mary Gebhardt.
The doors of the bakery open at 8 o’clock in the morning, 7 o’clock on Saturdays, and the first customers waiting on the steps for bread are middle-school students buying their lunch en route to the bus stop. Then come the regulars — deli owners, architects, firefighters, construction workers — picking up orders they’ve called in beforehand or buying stacks of bread. Mary and Josephine wrap each in a white paper packet, trussing it so quickly the string appears to fly into knots by itself. Tourists and Segway tours wander in later in the day.
The front room, with its pale blue walls and empty shelves, is rarely silent. “This is like the barbershop, in a way,” says worker James Lewis. Josephine and Mary collect all the city gossip, from the Giants’ draft picks to the status of Salesforce Tower. One woman’s story about how her dog ate her dentures ricochets around the building, each guffaw propelling the story toward the next listener.
Time is particularly stretchy when you’ve been in business since 1911. As she waits for her bread, Pier 23 Cafe owner Flicka McGurrin reminisces about the pies that used to be displayed in the front window. Mary pinpoints the memory in time: the late 1970s. James Lewis, the only non-family member on staff, says he’s been working at Liguria Bakery for a couple years, then realizes it has been more like 15.
No one greets customers with a chirpy welcome. The Soraccos exist in the bakery just as they are, the way you sprawl across a chaise lounge on your lawn on a 100-degree day, a lukewarm can of Diet Coke in your hand, watching the neighbors pass by. Mary and Josephine reserve their warmth for the hundreds of people they do know. There are so many. They are so loved.
“I’ll go even to places like Disneyland, and someone will say, I know you but I don’t know how,” Michael says. “I tell them, ‘If I put an apron on, will you know who I am?’ They say, ‘The focaccia place!’”
Just as quickly, he backs away from expressing too much pride — “It’s nothing famous, nothing like that” — but the fact is, he is famous. Or, just as significant to him, his bread is. Nephew Sonny says he has basked in his friends’ admiration for the bread since his teenage years. He gives loaves to the parents of any girl he dates. It never fails.
Michael Soracco, whose grandfather started the bakery.
The most important thing, say the second, third and fourth generations of the Soraccos, is to keep the century-old business going. Thank goodness, more than one Soracco says, they own a big enough share of the building to keep the rent down.
Yet they worry how long the bakery will last. Specializing in just focaccia, the way they’ve always made it, keeps the business from growing.
“Focaccia, everybody makes it now,” Mary says. “But they make it to last for a few weeks. Ours has no preservatives. Today is today! Tomorrow it’s just OK. There’s a big difference.”
“We’ve always thought about making cannoli, but this oven is too hot for baking,” Michael says. “You can’t make a cake in there.” For a few decades they made panettone during the holidays, but they stopped after George died in 2013.
Michael says he turns down every telephone call offering Liguria Bakery some opportunity to expand or franchise. It would require leaving their 106-year-old oven behind, perhaps building a factory. He shrugs. “We got enough with this.”