When you think of baking in Italy, you might envision cannoli and rustic loaves of hearty bread. But Giovanna Coni’s Muffins & Co. is not your typical Italian bakery.
In fact, except for its location in the Northern Italian city of Tortona, Muffins & Co. isn’t an Italian bakery at all. Brimming with cupcakes, brownies and of course, muffins, the shop is an American-style bakery in the heart of Italy.
In honor of World Baking Day, we decided to highlight this unusual bakery, where an Italian baker’s love for all things American translates to a tasty testament to the universal appeal of dessert.
How long have you had the bakery and what kinds of items do you sell?
Muffins & Co. opened on November 20th 2010, it was born with the concept to be a copycat of an American bakery, with only homemade products, made from scratch, without using prepared stuff or mixes. We sell only the typical homemade products of the American tradition, such as muffins, pancakes, cheesecake, brownies, cupcakes, simple bars and similar items.
What was your job before opening the bakery?
I was a Marketing & Communication Manager and worked for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council in Milan. I have always had the passion of baking and cooking and, in the back of my mind, wanted to open a shop or a restaurant.
In 2003 I opened my own PR and communications company selling Italian products worldwide. My company represented several foreign organizations such as WTC in Dubai, International Home and Housewares Association based in Chicago, several fairs in Hong Kong and China as well as Brazil and Turkey.
Then in 2008 I met my husband, Marcello Serrano, and we came up with some ideas as both of us were in love with baking and cooking.
Why did you choose to open an American-style bakery in Italy?
As a start, we thought about a chocolate place, then after a long research we turned to an English/American style bakery (I lived in UK for a few years and got a university degree there). We wanted to target the younger demographic…I switched to an American bakery because US is still the tomorrow land for everybody.
How did you decide what items to bake and where did you get your recipes?
We decided to bake the “most wanted” and famous American items: muffins, pancakes, cupcakes, cheesecake, red velvet and different kind of bars and cakes. Recipes were supplied by old books I had and as for cupcakes many were supplied by Susan Tingley who, at the time, owned a cupcake shop in Terre Haute, Indiana. We met on Facebook, and exchanged recipes, giving Muffins & Co. original American recipes.
Are there some flavors that were unfamiliar to Italians?
Not really, though we live in a small city (around 35,000 people); a lot of clients are already familiar with the items we bake. But we were the first to spread the different kind of American products locally. A few months after we opened the bakery, most local traditional bakeries and bars started to sell muffins and a “sort of” red velvet cake or cupcakes without much success. People who really want a true American product come only to Muffins & Co. People come also from far away, Milan, Turin, Florence, in addition to those around the area.
Which items have been most popular?
Best selling items are muffins, cupcakes and cheesecake. But actually most of our homemade bars (brownie, mint brownie, coconut brownie, chocolate ganache brownie, lemon and lime bars, shortbreads, etc.) are really doing well.
Are there any items that you give an Italian twist to an American favorite?
Our thought is to have the original American baking recipes, we are not using prepared stuff or prepared mixes, the concept is to give our clients an American product absolutely far away from that of a fast food–fresh ingredients, eggs, milk, fruit—instead, a “slow food” concept providing good quality and best taste.
Has it been difficult to find certain ingredients? Which ones?
We found it difficult to find items such as the pure vanilla extract. Here, the aroma (artificial vanilla flavor) is more available, because in the Italian baking tradition vanilla is not used at all. The one we use comes from Madagascar and is prepared in France, from the most important vanilla seller in Europe. Cost is very high, 75€ per 1 liter (about $100 per quart) plus transportation.
Jelly to make the marshmallow bars comes directly from the USA. We only use Knox gelatin. We can find gelatin here, but it’s a different kind and not good for our purpose. It is difficult to find sugar cupcake toppers for different events (Halloween, St. Valentine, 4th July, etc.) but we can get them from UK.
Also packaging is difficult to find for cupcakes and bars. We can get the packaging here but unfortunately the cost is far too high. This is due to the fact that cupcakes are still not common here.
They started to be known after the “Sex and the City” series a few years ago, but since Italy has a very strong baking and cooking tradition only those “open minded” try new things. Fortunately our formula is a winning one.
It’s a question of choice. Good ingredients = good products.