At Della Fattoria, bread making is an art form
Family-run Petaluma bakery makes sublime loaves

Cynthia Wollman
Friday, February 28, 2003 Back to Press

Growing up in Santa Rosa, Kathleen Weber had no inkling that her life's calling would be to bake delicacies such as aromatic rosemary and Meyer lemon bread for customers such as The French Laundry. Weber's Della Fattoria bakery makes a dozen types of bread each day, averaging 400 loaves except on Saturdays, when 850 loaves are baked for the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market.

"It's our most popular artisan bread," said Caryl Chakerian, store manager for Oakville Grocery's flagship store in Oakville. "It is one of the last family-run, quality artisan breads."

In Kentfield, Woodlands Market's deli manager, Steven Schaefer, finds there is "a very loyal following for this bread." And chef Ken Frank, owner of La Toque restaurant in Rutherford, gets right to the point: "The Bay Area is full of great bakeries, but Della Fattoria is just the best -- it's the best of the best."

Della Fattoria, which means "From the Farm," is a reference to Weber's 14- acre homestead in Petaluma, originally a commercial chicken ranch owned by husband Ed's family.

Weber's mother was a proficient cook, but not averse to using Hamburger Helper.

"My mother did baked beans in a can," she said. In contrast, ever since she married into an agricultural family, "I've never had packaged food in the house." The Webers raised lambs and chickens and "my kids worked in the garden as soon as they could walk."

In fact, her son Aaron became a chef and cooked at Babette's in Sonoma and the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa before becoming the head baker for Della Fattoria. Weber herself was initiated into bread baking by her father-in-law, who made heavy German black bread once a week.



Originally a premed English major at Santa Rosa Junior College, Weber was bitten by the acting bug and met her husband doing the campus production of "The Music Man."

"We had a bohemian lifestyle early on," she said, with parts in community theaters and a small company in Colorado. Upon their return to the Bay Area, Weber worked as a patient coordinator at a cancer clinic in Santa Rosa from 1973 to 1988. She then managed a couple of dress shops in Marin for about four years, which taught her how to run a business and honed her eye for presentation and style.

She doesn't know why she worked at these places, but recalls a deep-seated longing to be more domestic -- "I was homesick the entire time." When she worked at the dress shop in Corte Madera, "I spent all my breaks at Williams- Sonoma." And upon her first visit to Il Fornaio bakery in Corte Madera, "When I saw all those free-formed breads, I thought I was going to die. My heart stopped." That inspired her to read Carol Field's "The Italian Baker," which became her culinary bible.

After reading Field's book, Weber began baking in the Italian style and started bringing her pugliese bread to parties. For her 50th birthday, family and friends worked with renowned masonry oven builder Alan Scott to build a wood-fired oven in her backyard.

Weber slowly accumulated a roster of 15 customers who would buy her bread out of the back of her Volvo. She landed her first commercial account in 1995, with the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa.

Schaefer finds her bread to be "nice and complex in flavors -- a true country bread." Fine ingredients, including Brittany sea salt, organic Canadian flour and Californian extra virgin olive oils, such as McEvoy and Sciabica, are the foundation for these incredible loaves. Yet Weber's special touch and mastery of her craft is what sets her product apart.

The original backyard oven has been replaced with two bigger ones, but the baking process remains unchanged. Before the bread is laid on the hearth, the brick ovens are heated with wood fires that burn for about 12 hours, then left to rest for six hours for the heat to disperse evenly.

"I love her breads," said Field, Weber's mentor and idol. "I think she does a very good job with them. I particularly like the campagne bread. I always buy it when I see her at the market. I think she's a very careful, thoughtful baker."

As with operating any startup business, Weber accumulated a tremendous sleep deficit. For fear of compromising on quality, she did practically everything herself the first few years, from mixing dough at 11 p.m. and shaping bread at 3 a.m. to making deliveries during the day.

To add to the load, she was also the caretaker for her and Ed's ailing parents. Aaron started helping her on weekends and became full-time in 1997, but it was not until a couple of years ago that Weber could lead an almost normal life.

Della Fattoria is a family-run operation. Aaron is assisted by wife Linda and two other bakers, as well as externs from the Culinary Institute of America's Hyde Park campus, who rotate through 18 weeks at a time.

Weber remains at the helm and manages the spreadsheet that determines how much of each dough to mix for the day. She and Ed also make the deliveries. In addition, Ed fires the ovens, daughter Elisa handles the Web site and son-in- law Yunker does repairs and steps in to help when needed.

Weber's parents have passed away, but she herself is now a grandparent, and three generations of Webers continue to live together on the farm. Aaron and Linda's 2-year-old, Jakob, can be said to be a product of Della Fattoria -- Aaron originally hired Linda as a baker. Her first day on the job was Valentine's Day in 1998; they married a couple of years later.

"My grandson can already shape a loaf of bread," Weber boasted.

Ever cautious about expansion, Weber's goal for the near future is to uphold the quality of her product and expand the delivery radius to include more of San Francisco. What she enjoys about making bread is the challenge of the process being "never the same." Yet what her customers like is that the quality remains consistently magnificent.

Finding the bread

-- Della Fattoria breads are generally available at the Oakville Grocery, La Toque in Rutherford, Woodlands Market in Kentfield, Whole Foods in San Rafael, the Cheese Shop in Healdsburg, the Mill Valley Market, the Sonoma Market, Dean & Delucca in St. Helena, and Caf La Haye in Sonoma. You can also find them at the Sonoma Farmers' Market in the spring, and the San Francisco Farmers' Market on Saturdays.

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