A native of Italy, Anna Silvestri had culinary culture shock when she moved to Florida in the early 1990s.
“I felt like I was in the desert but instead of water I was looking for food,” she says. “These people didn’t know how to eat, there was no quality. You’d go to Publix for arugula and they were like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Silvestri and her family opened La Casa Del Pane, a small Italian bakery and deli in St. Pete Beach. They’ve since expanded to a much larger place, now one of the most popular gathering spots on Gulf Boulevard. But their mission remains the same: teaching people to eat food like Italians eat it, with none of the preservatives, sugars and other additives that, Silvestri says, corrupt the typical American diet.
Her husband, Giovanni, comes in at 1:30 each morning to make the bread. He uses only four ingredients — flour, fresh yeast, salt and water — to produce the long skinny loaves and plump round ones, all with a crust.
“If you want real Italian bread, it has to have a crust,” Silvestri says. “If you want soft bread, get Wonder Bread.”
Many customers come solely for the bread or to pick up pizza and focaccia, also made fresh daily. (To ensure freshness, anything not sold that day is thrown away.) As soon as the door opens at 8 a.m., customers settle in at the counter, order espressos and breakfast sandwiches and start lively conversations, often sprinkled with Italian. La Casa Del Pane is the kind of place they might have frequented in Manhattan or Jersey City.
Silvestri was just a kid in 1980 when her family moved to New Jersey from Altamura, an Italian town famed for its bread. They joined Silvestri’s brother, who had emigrated several years before and married into family that owned a bakery. In 1991, a friend visiting St. Pete Beach noticed a small building for sale not far from the Don CeSar resort.
“He said, ‘We need to put a bakery here because there’s not a good Italian bakery in Florida,’” Silvestri recalls. She, her husband and her sister Maddalena Clemente ran what they called La Casa Del Pane — The House of Bread — and bought it from the brother in 2004. But the space was cramped, with room for only a few customers to sit. Eight years ago, they moved north on Gulf Boulevard to a building they own across from the Waffle House.
Some customers were leery of the move, fearing the bakery would lose its cozy charm. “We had to make sure we didn’t go the extreme,” Silvestri says. In addition to plenty of counter space, she insisted they have a big table where customers could gather and chat while they ate. “It brings conversation. That’s what the Italian tradition is,” she says.
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La Casa Del Pane sells sandwiches, salads and many other food stuffs — Italian cookies, candies, pastries, cheeses, olive oil, ravioli, antipasto, fresh mozzarella and homemade sauces and soups including “everyone’s favorite Italian wedding soup.” There’s a large selection of wines, all Italian. The store has become such a local institution that it carries La Casa Del Pane caps and cups.
Silvestri and her sister are the public faces of the business while Giovanni bakes in the back. He likes to joke that they get all the compliments while he does all the work. Rather than entrust the baking to someone who might not be as good, the family closes the store for a few weeks every summer while they go to Italy.
“If we were ever to sell, would it ever be the same?” Silvestri wonders. “We’ve been doing this for 31 years, we love what we do and have been very successful but we are very hard working.”
She’s pleased that over those three decades La Casa Del Pane has helped educate so many people on healthy eating. Still, there’s plenty of work to be done.
“In Italy” she notes, “people are not overweight like they are here.’'
La Casa Del Pane, 7110 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. 727-367-8322. Open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.