How to Become One of Italy's Top Bakers

Rocco Princi changed the way Milan ate bread—and now he's heading to Seattle, Chicago and New York City

In Italy, bread isn't simply something to consume, but an experience to savor from beginning to end. There's the evocative scent wafting from village panetterias, the iconic image of fires burning in wood ovens, the comforting warmth of a just-baked loaf, the sound of crackling crust and, most importantly, the flavorful crumb made possible from using the best ingredients.

For Rocco Princi, Milan's foremost baker and the visionary behind the famed Princi bakery and café, making bread that evokes the senses comes down to one element: famiglia. Raised by a family who made everything by hand, in a village where townspeople gathered to bake at the local panetteria (no one had ovens in their homes), Rocco saw how bread brought people together—and learned how to create transcendent loaves.

Bread shaped Rocco's career from the moment he opened the doors of the first Princi in 1980 near his hometown of Villa San Giovanni, Calabria, to his latest decision to bring the concept to Seattle, New York City and Chicago. Despite being well-known in Milan and Europe, he's not a household name in America—yet. Here's what you need to know about Rocco before the secret's out.

He became famous in Milan, but didn't grow up there.

Rocco was brought up in the southern Italian village of Fiumara, in the province of Reggio Calabria. The countryside village exists in stark contrast to cosmopolitan Milan (where he went on to establish the Princi brand); townspeople would line up to fill water buckets at the public fountain. During his earliest days in Milan, he'd actually say his name was Osvaldo, since "Rocco" sounded too much like a southern Italian name. "[It was] a type of trick, like 'Italian sounding,' but in this case, 'Milanese sounding,'" he says.

His career started really, really early.

Early experiences visiting Fiumara's one panetteria ignited Rocco's passion for baking. He apprenticed before opening his own bakery at Villa San Giovanni at the young age of 21. By 25, he was off to Milan to take his passion to the next level. Between that time? He got married and had two kids.

His unique bakery format revolutionized the way Milan ate.

Princi was different than other bakeries at the time, pioneering the combination of full-production bakery and café. The first Princi was open late into the evening, offered samples and was even open during August (when stores in Milan typically close).

His work ethic is nothing short of amazing.

Rocco sprinted at a pace that would make even workaholic Americans take pause, working 10 years nonstop at Princi—and his family joined his pursuit. Rocco worked 18 hours at the oven, while his wife manned the counter for 12 hours and their children slept on flour sacks. Previously, at his Villa San Giovanni bakery, he would work around the clock during summer and found rest only in quick afternoon naps under an overturned boat by the sea.

He waited until the right time to expand to America.

Rocco expanded Princi in Milan but didn't stray beyond Italy in the beginning. His first Princi outside of Italy was in London, which he opened with noted restaurant entrepreneur Alan Yau, who shared his vision of authenticity. In 2017, he brought the concept to Seattle—and this year to Chicago and New York City. The deliberate pace is to ensure the Princi name stays true to his Italian vision.

There's a reason visiting Princi feels like being in Italy.

It's not just about the authentic recipes and Italian traditions like aperitivo (Italy's answer to happy hour). Each Princi celebrates the Italian ideal of La Bella Figura, the uniquely Italian way of life that centers around the company of family and friends, a sense of place, and a menu that engages the senses. Gathering with loved ones around a table at Princi creates a memory that will linger.