“I like to imagine that it was fate that brought us together, and that is exactly how it went. My work is my passion, everything is perfectly intertwined.”–Anna Belmattino, on how she came to be the baker for Forno Gentile.
Gentile is not exclusively an artisanal Pastaficio. Forno Gentile (Forno meaning “oven”) features refined baked goods made by pastry chef Anna Belmattino who works alongside “Mama” Maria Zampino, the matriarch of the family, to create some of the most traditional, high-quality baked goods you could imagine. (Spoiler alert: you won’t have to imagine; I’ll tell you later).
But first, more about Anna.
Anna Belmattino recalls being a child standing on a stool beside her grandmother in the kitchen as she prepared the classic Neapolitan Christmas sweets, zeppoline and struffoli. Born thirty-two years ago in Scafati in the Campania region of southern Italy, Anna learned how to bake from her paternal grandmother. “Each gesture was the result of intense sharing, the warmth of the family and the joy of being together,” Anna says. “It is thanks to her that I started to love cooking and specifically pastry.”
Anna has traversed a long and rich path of experience since she once stood on that stool beside her grandmother. She first attended the Professional Hotel School followed by an internship at the prestigious Boscolo Etoile Academy, and then worked for several years in France learning the trade of baking.
“I understood that the world of leavened products [would] be my future,” Anna says. “I began to experiment, to ‘adopt’ dozens of years old mother yeasts, refresh them and in the meantime work in the pastry shops of important Campania catering companies.” Anna gives thanks to many professionals whose teachings she followed over the years. “I learned and then [gave] life to the unique products that I imagine today, and produce for Forno Gentile.”
And the oven products of Forno Gentile are many, including breakfast breads and pastries, cookies, biscotti, and Christmas and Easter. Rogers Collection will carry Diamantini Classici (handmade butter biscuits) and Diamantini Cocoa made with fine bitter cocoa. And Tozzetti classici alle mandorle–a traditional cookie from central Italy embellished with candied orange and almonds–and Tozzetti Cocoa. And Occhi di Bue con Marmellata Arancia and Occhi di Bue con Marmellata Limone—ox-eye biscuits handcrafted with a base of crumbly shortcrust pastry filled orange marmalade or lemon jam, respectively.
Giuliana Galati of Gentile’s Export Department says, “Each product, sweet or savory, has been designed to brighten a moment of the day with its authentic flavor, the result of a careful selection of raw materials and careful craftsmanship.”
Anna echoes this sentiment: “Breakfast in the morning is perfect if accompanied by a good coffee with occhi di bue. After the meal, a few diamantino, and then I imagine a table set with a hand-painted teapot and some wonderful cups, in a small cake stand the tozzetti, perfect for the mid-afternoon tea.”
I imagine it, too, and the baked goods sound not only delicious but each its own experience. And what are those special raw materials that make Gentile’s baked goods premium?
“Normandy butter, strictly natural flavors (orange, lemon, vanilla),fresh eggs, top quality flours and Belgian chocolate,” says Anna. “Respect for the raw material is rigorous. Just think of the jams, which are the unique and excellent ones of Conserve Gentile.
(Oh, yeah, Gentile has an entire line of preserved items like San Marzano tomatoes grown in Mt. Vesuvius soil. Click here to see all the products).
Of the ingredients used for Gentile Forno, Anna adds, “It is a constant and obsessive search for the best raw materials. In my opinion, it is essential that the consumer knows the origin of what they are eating, the excellent quality of the raw material, the care I have for the mother yeast, and the respect for the land from which it originates.”
And although Gentile Forno makes classic Italian baked goods, Anna’s experience with French cooking merges seamlessly with her Gentile products. She says that creating a balance in flavors while using a low amount of sugar are techniques adopted from French influence and style.
Many years have passed since little Anna Belmattino stood on a stool beside her grandmother in Scafati making zeppoline and struffoli. Now she stands alongside Mama Maria creating Gentile’s oven goods. The two women spent much of their time together in the Gentile laboratory where they candy the fruit for the baked goods–oranges, lemons, apricots, and percoche (peaches)– a process that you can’t rush or cut corners with.
“I love spending time working with Signora Maria,” says Anna. “She is an invaluable source of experience and wisdom.”
When I ask Anna what a typical day looks like for her at Forno Gentile, I sense her mind goes full circle, back to the kitchen with her nonna, making classic Neapolitan Christmas sweets.
“I’ll tell you about a typical day of preparation in the period before Christmas,” says Anna. “I guess you would like to immerse yourself in a magical atmosphere.” Yes, I would! She goes on to explain the steps in making Panettone, a rich Italian bread typically eaten at Christmas time. “The preparation of my Panettone is developed in essential steps: a first dough that rises for twelve hours, a second dough that involves passing into baking cups and a further eight hours of leavening,” Anna says. “For good luck, every year, I always start the production of panettone in the same way, organizing every detail of the work. Fundamental to my product is the goodness of the mother yeast, which I treat and nourish every single day of the year. This is what makes the difference, the recipe is important, but the mother yeast more.” The starter is a whopping 150 years old! In 2020, the Forno Gentile Panettone was awarded 2nd place in “Best Artisan Panettone” by Gambero Rosso.
With all of the time, perseverance and commitment to making authentic Panettone, it is no wonder the smell of baking Panettone is above all Anna’s favorite smell. Time. Perseverance. Commitment. These attributes are the bedrock of both Gentile and Anna’s approach to baking.
And what does Anna do when she’s not baking? “I study new recipes and research raw materials; when passion coincides with work you never stop working,” Anna says. “This does not prevent me from dedicating time to my family, of course.”
Anna’s life path and passion for pastry making was set in motion from a young age–her trajectory seems almost destined, taking her from the kitchen of her childhood to the kitchen of Forno Gentile, with many rich learning experiences along the way. “Since I was a child, I let myself be overwhelmed by the charm of my grandmother’s skilled hands who, with love and naturalness, juggled in the kitchen,” Anna says.
And now Anna does the same at Forno Gentile.
Written by Leska Tomash