If you are easily overwhelmed by a room full of baking, some advice for your first time at Forno Cultura: Resist, for a moment, the sugar-dusted stacks of frolle di ricotta that are made with sweet fresh cheese and raisins and orange zest. Resist the darkly crunchy carciofine pastries with their blackcurrant and almond filling and exploded strudel exteriors. Ignore the sfoglie glassate. These are puff pastry slices furled around poppy seeds and almond butter and baked to golden crunchy stickiness. It is far too early for sfoglie still.
And do not even think yet of the bakery's olive oil and chocolate mini cakes, those sweet and bitter and softly salty two-bite cylinders that come on as moist as pudding – each one of them stuffed, improbably, with a briny whole black olive. First, you need to prime yourself. A cornetto is a sensible way to start.
Forno Cultura's cornetti are great croissants, but crossed with cheese sticks, and infinitely more delicious than either one of them. They're richly flaky and buttery and also profoundly savoury, from the aged Cacio di Roma sheep's milk cheese that's rolled into the dough before they're baked. Forno Cultura's cheese cornetti bear slices of fresh tomato that punch through the decadence of that butter, that temper the Cacio's sharply saline milkiness. They are quite possibly the most exquisite oven-baked snacks in the city right now.
Forno Cultura's sourdough breads are some of Toronto's finest, also, as are its chunky pistachio cookies and its crostati topped with preserved apricot and pastry cream. At just six months old, Forno Cultura is one of the city's most essential food shops, a must-try on any Toronto food tour, run by one of its most naturally talented bakers.
And just as important, it's a symbol of how far Toronto has come as a food town. Where not so long ago it was all but impossible to find a great loaf of bread around downtown, today you can find them at Woodlot restaurant's bakery, at three Petite Thuet locations (as well as at the many shops Thuet wholesales to), at Bar Isabel (the restaurant sells its terrific sourdough boules from its front window on Saturdays), at Rahier and Brick Street Bakery, at the Terroni Company's new and very good (but not in the same league as Forno Cultura) Sud Forno on Queen Street West, from tiny businesses that bake handmade breads in brick ovens at Dufferin Grove Park and deliver them by bicycle. Quite suddenly there are too many very good to great city bakeries to list, and that's before even considering the pastry-focused spots like Nadège, near Trinity Bellwoods Park.
If I had to pick just one though, for range and originality, for craftsmanship, for sheer deliciousness, I'd make it Forno Cultura. So maybe this is my best advice for that all-important first visit: just get there.
The business, tucked into a basement a few steps below King Street West, is the work of Andrea Mastrandrea, a third-generation baker. I've been following Mr. Mastrandrea's career since 2006, when he ran the tiny kitchen at B Espresso Bar, an Italian coffee shop on Queen Street East. Where you expected doughy pastries and cellophane-wrapped salads, Mr. Mastrandrea spun complex and sometimes extraordinary flavours and textures from simple ingredients: soulful rapini and olive oil sandwiches; superbly tasty fresh pastas; rustic baked eggs with tomato and basil; basic but breathtaking pizzas al taglio.
Mr. Mastrandrea, whose formal training is in architecture, bumped around Toronto and the East Coast after leaving the Espresso Bar in 2007, helping with restaurant openings (Cabbagetown's Omi; Flex, in Charlottetown) for a few years before starting a small biscotteria that sold its wares to upmarket grocery stores and coffee shops. Most recently, he baked at Alimento, the now-closed Italian grocery on King Street West at Brant Street; it was there that he began to unpack and adapt his family's recipes, to learn what he could do.
At Forno Cultura, which he opened this past April, Mr. Mastrandrea and Laura White, a top Toronto pastry chef and long-time collaborator, have built a panificio e pasticceria – a bread and pastries counter. But the place is first a working bakery, with its busy kitchen and its enormous, stone-floored oven set front-and-centre behind floor-to-ceiling glass. "There's nowhere here for us to hide," Mr. Mastrandrea said.
The breads are at the back, set out on racks. They are nothing like the lily-white and sawdust-textured Italian breads you typically find in grocery stores and Italian-Canadian shops. Mr. Mastrandrea's filone integrale – a sourdough and whole wheat seed bread – comes studded with sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, poppy and cumin seeds. The crust is crackly and darkly baked so that you taste the oven, while the insides, glossy-crumbed and properly chewy, taste almost fruity from his sourdough culture instead of strictly sour.
The semolina filone is merely a superb, almost French-style country loaf, coloured with whole wheat. The corn and anise loaf (his grandmother's recipe) is pleasantly gritty from meal shot through with refreshingly herbal aniseeds. Forno Cultura's cacao amaro – a bittersweet chocolate loaf – is its most surprising bread. The chocolate adds only jet-black colour and sophisticated bitter – a suggestion of chocolate where you might have been expecting Cocoa Puffs. The crust is nearly black, with a purply iridescent sheen from poppy seeds and grape must, the earthy sourish skins that are left over from wine making. There's a hit of salt. The flavour goes on and on. This is bread for bread lovers, complex and restrained, unexpected and elementally satisfying.
Yet Forno Cultura's pastry counter will always draw the most attention. Its ever-changing array of sophisticated sweets and indulgent, out-of-the-ordinary savouries demands repeated visits. "I wish you'd never introduced me to this place," a colleague complained as we tasted through the bakery's product line last month. I've been hearing a lot of that lately. You're welcome, and I'm sorry, too.
If there's any theme to Mr. Mastrandrea's pastries, it's how fully he uses the flavour range. With nearly every sweet there is a countervailing and pleasant saltiness or brininess or bitter – that hit of black olive in those chocolate mini cakes, for instance, comes as a shock at first. In the few seconds it takes your brain to catch up with your palate – before the confusion and shock give way to bliss – the pairing registers as purely discordant.
The apricot crostati are baked hard so that there's an edge of oven-bittered, super-caramelized (burnt, some would say) sugar on every piece. On another tart last month, he used concord grapes that his mother had grown, so that along with the thickened cream and the sweetly savory pastry there was a whisper of wincingly sour, a breathtaking balance to make your mouth water, that made it impossible to stop eating. (Mr. Mastrandrea preserved more than 50 bushels of local fruit and tomatoes this summer. Sadly, the remaining grapes are being held in reserve for the bakery's Christmas panettone.)
I could describe a few dozen more of Forno Cultura's offerings here – the terrific lunchtime fritatti and panini, or the country pizza squares and the eggs baked in sourdough cups and the arancini – but that seems almost pointless, doesn't it?
You know what you need to do.