Antioch's Frank Giovanni hits self-imposed bread baking record on
By Lou Fancher
In case you missed the news, 2014 was "The Year of Frank" -- that's Frank Giovanni, Antioch Renaissance Man.
Facing his 50th birthday on Dec. 26 and asked by his wife, Gail, for suggestions about how to celebrate the landmark occasion, Giovanni had so many ideas that she said, "What's this, The Year of Frank?"
That is how Giovanni came to participate in setting a Guinness Book World Record earlier this year (joining 263 pizza dough-tossing folks in San Francisco), going out on a solo musical limb at acoustic guitar shows at Zachary's Chicago Pizza in Pleasant Hill, setting record attendance levels as the organizer of the annual free Antioch Delta Blues Festival, and the latest: baking 50 different crusty breads in his backyard wood-fire brick oven built-by-family-and-friends before his next birthday.
Giovanni performed his magnificent acts while holding down his day job as director of sales for Saladino's, a manufacturing and food distribution service company, and operating an online company that dispenses advice and recipes as well as sells artisan Italian cooking books and kitchen tools. Reaching the goal of baking his 50th loaf of bread in his outdoor oven on Christmas Eve morning, Giovanni says that his one regret was not setting the ambitious goal until July. The interior of his 32-by-36-inch brick, cement, stucco, vermiculite-insulated oven, built over two years, takes roughly three hours to heat. Weather conditions and the variations of yeasts and starters also add complexity to the days-long task.
"You need radiant heat stored in the back to keep the center of the oven hot," Giovanni said. "You can't just build a house of bricks."
A true wood-fired oven built for bread baking has walls 10 to 20 inches thick. Fast-burning, cheap wood like pine and cedar are best for the aggressive fire needed to heat the bricks.
"The first hour, the oven turns black. Then at about 700 degrees, the creosote (a gummy byproduct of burning wood) burns away," Giovanni said. "When the bricks bake clean, you rake the coals and you're ready to bake."
Out of Giovanni's oven this year have come such highlights as a focaccia with tomatoes that Giovanni says were picked from his garden less than 15 minutes before they went into the dough. And there's "bialy" that's made with a Jewish-style bagel dough, something he'd never attempted until this year. No less awesome are loaves of Puglese -- the inaugural bread Giovanni baked after the oven was built 10 years ago.
"It was the first bread and it showed me how much I've progressed as a baker because of how well it turned out this time," he said. "It had a great, crunchy crust and it was big -- 14 inches by 19 inches."
It's fair to say that baking runs in the Giovanni family history, and not just because his 14-year-old daughter, Natalie, had her education financed by the proceeds from his online business or because Kyle, 27, and Ryan, 25, whom he calls "my sons by way of my wife Gail," helped build the oven.
Giovanni's great uncle and aunt, Gaetano and Josephine Cardinale, were Italian immigrants who once owned Cardinale bakery in Pittsburg.
"It was successful and they always kept the recipes close to heart," Giovanni said.
He remembers ducking out of high school at lunchtime to race to the bakery.
"My uncle would give me a hot loaf right out of the oven. I loved watching him load 10-foot slats with loaves, holding the knife to score them with in his teeth," he said.
But the Cardinales were protective, especially of their Cardinale Italian bread, and Giovanni resorted to begging his mother to ask her sister for the recipe when it was eventually passed down through the family. Finally, one year at Christmas, he opened a present to find the recipe.
"When I made it the first time, I Fed Exed it to my aunt to make sure it was right," Giovanni said. "It's the obvious choice for bread No. 50."
When Giovanni posts on his Facebook page that he is firing up the oven, he says his phone begins to ring. He makes large quantities to maximize the effort involved and gives many loaves away. Baking bread has taught him patience ("The bread's the boss: when it's ready, you're on," he says) and to savor the love of family and friends, he says.