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Some grocers sell dozens of varieties of panettone now and even started making their own panettone when shipments were late, or vendors couldn't meet demand around the holiday season.Eataly

Panettone’s popularity in Canada has surged in recent years, quickly evolving from a seasonal staple at independent Italian delicatessens and bakeries into walls of colourful boxes confronting you in the checkout aisle of most grocery stores.

Since 2020, Italian Trade Agency initiatives to promote food made in Italy by small and mid-sized producers have done their part to increase awareness of the Christmas cake in North America. Add the charming aesthetic of panettone packaging and designer fashion brands collaborating with traditional bakeries on their own versions, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a holiday luxury.

At Calgary specialty grocer Lina’s Italian Market, panettone accounts for about 60 per cent of holiday gift and gourmet sales. The traditional Italian sweet bread, which is often studded with dried fruits and flavoured with citrus or chocolate paste, is so important to the store’s bottom line that its offerings have swelled from 10 to 30 varieties over the past decade. When shipments were late or vendors couldn’t meet demand during the pandemic, Lina’s started making its own. “There’s chocolate boxes, there’s candied walnuts and chestnuts, but panettone is the Cadillac of your sales during the holidays,” general manager Matthew Rai said.

Five years ago, Lina’s started importing a few cases of panettone from Loison, a third-generation bakery in Vicenza, about 60 kilometres west of Venice, that has been baking the traditional treat since 1938. The order has since grown to six pallets, or 700 panettoni, priced at about $45 each. Rai attributes some of the growth of such higher-end options to realtors and other professional customers looking to “upgrade” their holiday business gift programs by treating their clients to a boxed Loison.

Each panettone is shaped by hand, making it the perfect holiday luxury.Eataly

The brand’s elegant packaging is as important as its high-quality ingredients. Every year, artist Sonia Pilla refreshes Loison’s gift wrap and carton designs with botanical illustrations or drawings that play up motifs from Roman antiquity. “It’s a sense of occasion,” Rai said. “And that’s what Italian culture is about.”

Last year, Lina’s also brought in triple-Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura’s coveted seasonal panettone collaboration with Gucci Osteria, packaged in striking, limited-edition Gucci-designed tins. They retailed for about $300, and Rai marvels that they immediately sold out. It speaks to how style, not only graphic design, is now tied to panettone’s success.

Luxury fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana creates a whole panettone collection with Fiasconaro, which was established in Sicily in 1953 and is known for its chocolate flavours. They come in an array of tins that feature D&G’s baroque swirls. The flavour variations have a regional flair, such as candied citrus peel or local Marsala and Zibbibo wine. D&G versions cost at least double the regular Fiasconaro offering. “The Sicilians have gotten their gloves on and are now sparring with the northerners over who makes the best ones,” Rai said of the fierce regional rivalries at play in the industry.

For these premium retailers, holiday planning begins at least six months before the season. By May they’ve forecasted quantities, and over the summer they prepare orders for when production begins, usually in September.

Soon after the clock strikes midnight on Halloween, the grand escalators at Eataly Toronto are flanked by walls of festively wrapped bread by brands such as Bonifanti, Balocco, Borsari, Vergani, Galup and Tommaso Muzzi. Panettone has been one of the gourmet supermarket’s bestselling categories in Canada since the Toronto store opened in 2019.

Eye-catching packaging helps add to the popularity of panettone.Eataly

The uptick in interest since then has been overwhelming, not only in Toronto but nationally – and particularly from out west, through Eataly’s online store, says Alessandro Fucile, the director of grocery for Eataly North America: “The consumer is more sophisticated and knows what it is.” Last year in particular saw exponential growth, with the retailer selling more than 20,000 units of panettone (and its plainer counterpart, pandoro) over the holiday season.

Fucile recalls that for the Toronto store’s launch, it initially boasted 30 different varieties from eight brands. That, too, has exploded. This season, it has 12 different brands and more than 45 varieties. “Our key point is to offer a lot of varieties and a lot of brands, some not [generally] available in the Canadian market today,” he said of mixing storied brands from Milan and Venice with small-batch craft producers new to the export market, such as Italo Vezzoli (by an award-winning pastry chef from Bergamo), which ship by air closer to Christmas for maximum freshness.

Fucile says the pandemic reminded everyone of the importance of gathering and sharing a meal, so shoppers see panettone as an ideal gift. “The standard is a 750-gram size loaf – for sharing, the typical Italian way.” But increasingly, he says, in order to reach new customers and cover different price points, retailers also offer smaller “panettoncino” and “pandorino” formats that retail for about $5. This year, Eataly is also carrying gluten free and vegan versions, as well as a few of the deluxe five-kilogram size from Brera Milano. The supersized loaves cost about $300 and, according to Fucile, “the bigger they are, the more fluffy inside.”

Flavour-wise, panettone purveyors agree that the market has begun experimenting more over the past couple of years, with regional variations such as chestnuts or limoncello but also combinations that veer away from traditional Italian recipes, such as apricot and salted caramel.

What’s inside your panettone’s wrapping often has a beguiling backstory. Sicily’s Antica Bronte, for example, makes pistachio its specialty because of the bakery’s proximity to a region that specializes in growing the seeds. Famed across Italy for its delectable panettone, Pasticceria Giotto’s Christmas cake is produced at Padua’s Due Palazzo prison bakery through a project that trains inmates to become pastry chefs.

The pandemic reminded everyone of the importance of gathering and sharing a meal, so shoppers see panettone as an ideal gift.Handout

But the value of eye-catching packaging shouldn’t be discounted. “Brands are trying to preserve the iconic graphics of their house, and if they opened in 1944, that aspect is what they keep. Some are hand-decorated. More and more and more,” Fucile said. “Next to the quality itself, it’s about display.” As a result, most of Eataly’s assortment comes hand-wrapped rather than in the protective cardboard box you might find at the supermarket.

When we chatted in September, David Mattachioni could tell me without hesitation the date he planned to start the intense baking schedule for this year’s 1,000-loaf batch of panettoni, which he’s selling for about $40 each at his two eponymous Toronto shops. “I have terrors starting in April thinking about panettone season,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. We’ve already got our schedule, ordered our flour, butter and eggs … everything!”

It’s his fifth season of small-scale but elaborate production, with each panettone shaped by hand. Clever packaging was part of the strategy early on. When he enlisted graphic designer Bartosz Gawdzik to create his visual identity, Mattachioni already had a panettone carton in mind: “If it’s just in cellophane, I can’t stack it,” he reasoned of the delicate rounds. The idea was for a signature colour – in this case a versatile, nonseasonal orange (“so like a Tiffany’s blue box, you know what it is and that it’s from us”). The graphic design is of a sans serif “M” that, when massed in the window display, creates a geometric pattern.

Last December, popular New York trattoria Via Carota sold out of its seasonal panettone when acclaimed New York graphic designer Louise Fili posted the packaging design to her Instagram feed. In addition to her brand identity work, Fili is an authority on all things Italian and design. She collects vintage Italian fruit wrappers and hand-lettered pasticceria papers, as well as archives of local signage and letter type that she applies to her work.

“If it is a well-designed package, it is more than just a panettone,” she said of the emphasis on aesthetics. “It is a gift and an objet to save and continually admire.” Even if they’re brand new, panettone wrappers convey some idea of Italian heritage in their visual identity. “The consumer will first buy a new product for the design. If it ends up tasting good, they will return to purchase it again,” Fili said. “Every food product needs to convey a little romance and of course appetite appeal – especially when it’s Italian.”

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