Obituary: Antonio Branduzzi / Embracing personality behind Il Piccolo Forno

April 26, 1949 - Jan. 9, 2007

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Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Antonio and Carla Branduzzi owned Il Piccolo Forno in the Strip District. Mr Branduzzi died yesterday.

Antonio Branduzzi, a Tuscan immigrant beloved for his sweet personality as well as the tortes and other treats he made at his Strip District bakery, died yesterday at St. Clair Hospital. He was 57.

The cause was complications from heart failure he suffered on Dec. 20, said his wife, Carla.

Mr. Branduzzi, of Scott, was co-owner, with his wife, of Il Piccolo Forno, "the Little Oven," on 21st Street in the Strip. The bakery/pasticceria was next to and open to La Prima Espresso, making for one of "the" gathering spots in the city. One of the main, warmest ingredients was Mr. Branduzzi's personality, which his wife summed up in one word: "Embracing."

Coffee shop regulars yesterday morning were somberly quiet in tribute to the man who was anything but.

Leaders of Slow Food Pittsburgh and other foodies lauded him as a force for good food. But Mr. Branduzzi was more than that. The moustached, bald and round-bellied baker -- with sweat on his brow, flour on his apron and a lot of Italian in his speech and gestures -- was one of the distinct characters in the daily drama that is Pittsburgh.

As he told a visiting and hungry National Geographic writer in 2003, "I came here from Lucca, Italy, 17 years ago, and I felt right at home. Maybe because a lot of Lucca was already here."

His wife, born and raised here, met Mr. Branduzzi on a trip to her father's village near Lucca. When her father returned there to die, Mr. Branduzzi comforted her. As she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005, "I felt it was my destiny to marry him."

While the couple lived in the village, their first-born, Domenic, was born. But they wanted him to grow up in Pittsburgh. So while she started cooking at a local trattoria, Mr. Branduzzi, who had worked as a craftsman making picture frames, became a baker's apprentice.

When they moved here in 1987, they put their new skills to work at the Common Plea restaurant, she as a line cook and he as a sommelier, before he started working nights as a baker at La Normande.

It was around 1991 that they started making mele, or fruit turnovers, and other pastries for La Prima Espresso. The goodies were such a hit that owner Sam Patti suggested they set up shop in the back. In 1992 the couple moved next door and opened Il Piccolo Forno bakery, where in recent years they also sold soups and salads and pasta for lunch.

The sauce of the day was up to Mr. Branduzzi's whim. When it was gone, it was gone. But he wanted customers to savor it, and so many did.

"You know how some people can play a musical instrument by ear? He could play food by ear," said Mr. Patti, who described his friend as "a gentle, gentle soul."

The bakery's menu brochure noted one of the rules he'd learned in the Old Country: "Fare tutto con amore" -- make every recipe with love.

His friend, Larry Lagattuta, summed up Mr. Branduzzi's way as, "Never telling. Just doing."

He recalls spending a night baking with Mr. Branduzzi at home and all the things he learned, including how Mr. Branduzzi loved American rock and soul music. Mr. Lagattuta also learned that he himself wanted to become a baker, and went on to open Enrico Biscotti in the Strip. "Here is a guy who, with his gentle way, literally changed my life." He shared everything from baking "secrets" to stories with many others in town.

"His hands were connected to his heart and his brain, and people felt it," said his friend and fellow baker Ray Werner, who frequently was comforted by Mr. Branduzzi's trademark "Hey, what you gonna do? It's OK."

Mr. Branduzzi made regular trips back to Tuscany, where he enjoyed hunting -- everything from birds to boar to porcini mushrooms. He also loved playing poker when he could, which wasn't much, since he went to work at 3:30 a.m.

Mostly, he cooked. He and his wife always made food for gatherings of the Associazione Lucchesi nel Mondo, Pittsburgh Chapter, where he was a board member.

Mr. Branduzzi and his wife also helped out at the restaurant their son, Domenic, opened in the spring of 2005 in Lawrenceville, Piccolo Forno.

With his work ethic, passion for real ingredients, conviviality and generosity, Mr. Patti said, "He just embodied everything food is."

Besides his wife and son, Mr. Branduzzi is survived by two daughters, Anna Maria, 17, and Angela, 15. He's also survived by a brother, Julio, of Corsagna, Italy.

Arrangements are by Bagnato Funeral Home in Carnegie. A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church at 21st and Smallman streets in the Strip District.

The family will receive friends afterward at nearby Il Piccolo Forno.


Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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