When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Or — if you’re Pierluigi Mazzella — make sourdough bread, focaccia, panettone, biscotti and pastries.
That’s the life he knows. Pierluigi began baking as a 12-year-old, on his native island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples.
He apprenticed with a world competition winner, then came to the US. He worked hard at bakeries in Darien and New Haven (where, at Atticus, he became the lead bread baker).
He married a woman from Connecticut. They moved in with her family, in Monroe.
When the pandemic struck, neighbors wanted fresh food. Pierluigi began baking once a week, in his in-laws’ basement.
Customers loved his goods. They asked for more.
He took a risk. Pierluigi quit his job, to bake full-time. Working at his tiny oven — as a permitted Connecticut Cottage Food operation — he sold his items at farmers’ markets in Westport, Monroe and Trumbull.
He named his business Fatto a Mano (“Made by Hand”). Italian ex-pats — especially those from Ischia, many of whom live in the Norwalk area — told Pierluigi that his food brought them instantly back to their childhood.
Others — many of whom had never tried some of his creations — became fans after their first bites. He uses fresh, natural ingredients, creating products full of flavor and personality.
Last year, Connecticut Magazine named the 28-year-old to their “40 Under 40” list. They wrote:
To make the wildly popular panettone … Mazzella sleeps at most 4 hours a night. His panettone eats like a sweet cloud, a dreamlike and addictive creation. Although a loaf stays fresh for weeks, it rarely survives a day before it gets devoured….
He never stops researching and honing his craft in the pursuit of an even better product. His energy and positivity are infectious.
Pierluigi earned another honor last year too: Baker of the Year, from the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
That was especially meaningful. The other nominees were from real, brick-and-mortar bakeries. Pierluigi still worked with basic equipment, in his in-laws’ basement.
That may soon change.
For a year, Pierluigi searched for commercial kitchen space in Westport. Most of his customers are here. They assured him he could find plenty of opportunities, with a kitchen of his own.
In December, Manna Toast closed. Its kitchen — behind Cycle Dynamics, on Post Road East — was available.
This month, he took over the lease.
The space is shared with Pop-up Bagels. Like that other baker, he has no storefront. He loads his van with his food, and meets customers at other sites.
It’s a perfect spot. Pierluigi bakes fresh sourdough, authentic breakfast pastries, focaccia, traditional biscotti, and his mouth-watering panettone — the sweet bread and fruitcake traditionally associated with Christmas — all year long.
He can bake much more, too. He can sell to local restaurants. He can cater. He can offer baking classes.
Investors have helped customize the space to his needs. Now Pierluigi needs just $25,000. That’s the cost of key items, including a deck oven and mixer.
“Many people don’t realize how difficult and expensive opening a food business is,” he says.
But Pierluigi has created a community that loves, appreciates and supports him.
They’ve already contributed over $10,000 to his Kickstarter appeal. He has less than $15,000 to go to reach his $25,000 goal — and 3 weeks to get there.
Donors’ pledges will be good only if the project is fully funded by February 10. (Click here for more information, and to help.)
Contributors at various levels receive “grazie” rewards, ranging from free food and cooking classes, to a catered meal.
Pierluigi hopes to be fully operational by Easter. That’s an important holiday for any Italian baker.
Just think of all the pastries, biscotti, panettone and more he could make for you then!
(Hat tipi: Louisa D’Amore)