By Emily Leclerc
BU News Service
CHARLTON – Gianna Manzi is making macarons. With dark hair swept up neatly into a bun, she gathers the necessary ingredients. Macarons are temperamental cookies, but Manzi approaches them with an ease born of extensive practice.
The small table mixer hums loudly as it whips the meringue into a white froth. Manzi combines the other ingredients, checks several loaves of bread in the oven and takes care of a customer while the mixer whirs. Finished with the recipe, she tucks the pink sticky note it’s written on into a battered binder, stuffed with plastic-coated recipes and wads of colorful sticky notes.
With the meringue whipped to perfection, Manzi gently folds it into the rest of the batter. Her strokes are firm but not heavy. Deflated meringue is the death of macarons. She folds until the batter ribbons off her spatula, then scoops it into a piping bag. The macarons begin to take shape.
It’s easy to tell that Manzi is exactly where she’s meant to be. If she got cut, she’d bleed flour instead of blood. She fits seamlessly into the bakery around her: Flicking from one task to the other, checking the ovens, frosting this batch of cookies, filling out a cake order for a customer.
“This is definitely what I want to do forever,” she said with conviction. “I never want to do anything else.”
She pipes the batter into rows of small circles. The tray crashes to the tabletop several times as Manzi drops it to pop all the air bubbles in the batter. The cookies, dyed yellow to emulate foil-wrapped chocolate coins, get a large dollar sign piped onto their tops with extra batter. Manzi rushes them into the top oven to bake for 12 or so minutes, checking them frequently.
Finally, Manzi pulls out the tray and inspects the finished cookies. Smiling, she holds up two bottom to bottom.
“They look good,” she said.
Manzi is poised to take over Francesco’s Italian Bakery, a staple in Charlton for over 20 years, from her father, Frank. At almost 24 years old, she already essentially runs the place, with her father stopping by a few days a week to lend a helping hand.
“He’s stepping back a bit and just taking time off. He’s worked long enough and all the hard hours already, so now it’s my turn,” Manzi said with a laugh.
She says she brings a freshness to Francesco’s. She’s constantly in creation mode, churning out new ideas and making up new recipes to try, like red velvet cookie dough brownies or cheesecake filled snickerdoodle cookies.
“I love experimenting and trying new things, and I feel like, with baking, it’s never-ending new stuff,” she said, her green eyes lighting up. “There’s always a new recipe to try. There’s always something to perfect. It’s never boring. And people are so happy when you feed them baked goods. What’s better than that?”
Built on family
When she was younger, Manzi would often sleep in the bakery’s industrial-size mixing bowl. She would watch TV on the storage bins, draw with the different colors of cake frosting and be constantly underfoot. After school, instead of being dropped at home, she said the school bus would bring her to the bakery.
Her father opened Francesco’s when Manzi was three, and in those early years, he was a constant presence at the bakery. She loved being there, not only because she could get into everything, but because it was the best place for her to spend time with her dad. She began actually working at the bakery in ninth grade. It was just a first job, she thought. At the time, she wanted to be a therapist.
As time passed, Manzi realized that her passion was at the bakery. She spent all the time she could at Francesco’s, learning from her dad as well as the talented bakers that worked there. As an 18th birthday present to herself, Manzi got a small cupcake tattooed behind her right ear. Her grandmother, to this day, does not know about it.
She then attended Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, for two years. There she took culinary classes to hone her skills and learn how much she hates sugar work. Sugar work is the process of cooking down sugar to create large intricate show pieces.
“Sugar makes me want to die. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said. “Definitely not doing that ever.”
Francesco’s does not create pieces or sculptures out of sugar.
After college, with pitstops at other bakeries and in Montana, Manzi ended up back where she’d started, her home-grown bakery in Massachusetts.
Lynn Fields, a cake decorator with Francesco’s and a friend of the family, has watched Manzi grow.
“I’ve known them forever,” Fields said.
“Yeah, Lynn trained me when I first started and I was 13,” Manzi pipes in.
“I’ve got so many good memories of her,” Fields said.
“Oh, I don’t know if I want to hear them,” Manzi interrupted with a laugh.
“I would come in and she would always want to draw with the cake batter,” Fields said, a wide grin lighting up her face. “We’d have all the colors all ready and lined up, and she’d come over with the paper and start drawing with them like they were crayons.”
It is not just the enjoyment of baking that keeps Manzi hooked, she said it is the fact that the bakery is family. Many of the employees, like Fields, have been with the company for a long time, watching Frank Manzi build up the business, and now Gianna Manzi is beginning to step into her father’s role. Customers walk in the door of the small red-sided building and are greeted with smiling faces and the warm, comforting smell of baked goods.
Many of their customers have been returning to the bakery for decades, saying they know the family will take care of them. Manzi takes great pride in Francesco’s atmosphere, wanting every customer to feel like just another member of the family.
Francesco’s is the only locally owned bakery in town, and they celebrated their 20th anniversary last year.
“We’ve been around so long that so many people have been getting their birthday cakes from us since their kids were little,” Manzi said. “So much community grows from here. People know they can rely on us for stuff.”
Fields said she can’t wait to see how far Manzi is going to go.
“I think the coolest thing about working here and knowing the family for so long, is watching this one,” Fields said, gesturing at Manzi, “come from a 13, 14-year-old shy little kid and just owning it.”
Road trips and Jeopardy
Jeff Barrett and Manzi have been inseparable best friends since they met as high school freshmen in the culinary track at Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School in Charlton. The two bonded over how their parents both own and operate food businesses. Barrett’s family owns a chain of pizza shops in town.
After the two graduated from Johnson and Wales, they decided to go on a month-long road trip. Barrett said he needed some space, time to clear his head and get his thoughts straight, and Manzi was ready to ride with him.
Manzi said she loves road trips: The freedom, the open road and sleeping in a tent.
“I like living in my car,” she said. “We usually make an outline of the places we want to hit, but then we just kind of go.”
They spent 30 days out on the road, traveling from coast to coast, becoming as close as family.
“Our boyfriends will never understand, but they get a kick out of it,” Barrett said. “They’re like, ‘when we’re together we can never really chat, but when you and her are together [on road trips], you and her probably just didn’t shut up at all for 30 days straight. Did you even sleep?’”
The two couples are a little close knit family.
Barrett said he finds inspiration in Manzi and that they’re constantly feeding off of one another’s energy.
“That girl does not know defeat; she knows inspiration,” Barrett said. “She’s just like, ‘Okay well, it didn’t work this way. That’s great to know because now I know how to perfect it.’”
Manzi’s favorite tv shows are cop dramas and “Jeopardy!,” which she watches with her grandmother every Tuesday. Many of her grandmother’s recipes are still used at Francesco’s, like edible family heirlooms.
“I can’t imagine myself anywhere else,” Manzi said, “or doing anything else but working in a bakery.”