World News

Pandoro Is Italy’s Christmas Miracle. Easter Is Another Story.

Posted December 24, 2017 2:17 p.m. EST

VERONA, Italy — Elena Galeotto, a longtime employee of Melegatti, Italy’s original producer of traditional pandoro Christmas cakes, scooped this season’s final mound of dough from the conveyor belt, rounded it and dropped it into a deep, star-shaped cast.

“That’s the last one,” Galeotto said. “I hope it’s not the last one.”

That there are still any loaves on the factory floor at all — or, for that matter, laborers — has made for what the Italian press has christened a “Christmas miracle.” Amid tough economic times and the bankruptcy of other iconic Italian brands, most recently hat maker Borsalino, the Melegatti saga is being greeted as a fable.

In the months before Christmas, workers were striking for their unpaid wages. The heirs of the company founder, Domenico Melegatti, who patented the “golden bread” in 1894, seemed to be running the place into the ground and feuding so bitterly that workers compared them to fair Verona’s Montagues and Capulets.

With production halted, Motta, Alemagna and other Milanese heavies started cornering the Christmas cake market with candied-fruit-filled Panettone cakes.

Then, salvation came, as is so often the case in Christmas stories, in the form of a Maltese hedge fund. It invested millions of euros for an eleventh-hour production of 1,575,000 cakes. The committed employees, working without pay, took to the internet and started a social media campaign that would make Tiny Tim proud.

“Eat a pandoro, save a job,” Melegatti supporters wrote, using SaveMelegatti and WeAreMelegatti hashtags to urge their fellow Italians to buy a cake that for them was as good as gold.

The apparently organic marketing campaign worked better than a corporate idea in 2015, which had resulted in a backlash for encouraging customers to “love thy neighbor as you would love thyself. As long as he or she is hot and of the opposite sex.” This time, pandoro lovers around the country responded with patriotic zeal, making a run on the traditional blue cardboard gift boxes and staving off layoffs. Labor activists, politicians and others jumped on the bandwagon.

Cécile Kyenge, a former government minister, wrote in support of the workers on Twitter, calling the situation a “Christmas fable with a happy ending.”

Luca Quagini, a management consultant that the hedge fund has brought in to run the company in its crisis period, struck a more cautionary tone. “So this Christmas miracle is a miracle, but it’s peanuts,” he said.

Sitting near what he called the “situation room,” littered with binders and suited consultants and a devoured pandoro, Quagini explained that Monday’s final batch of 5,000 cakes was intended to make sure Veronese customers were not left out in the national buying spree. As for November’s 1.5 million cakes, he said they had helped Melagatti maintain presence on the Italian market, which was crucial because of the spike in demand.

But supermarkets, he said, were playing the role of Scrooge.

They had already counted Melegatti out when they made their Christmas plans, and to move inventory as the holiday approached cut the cost of competitors’ cakes, which in the past have sometimes been sold for less than a loaf of bread. Because of the strict parameters of their court-approved restructuring plan to repay about 30 million euros in debt to workers and suppliers, Melagatti had less pricing flexibility.

And Easter looms. Production of the dove-shaped cakes known as colombas will need to start in days if they are going to hit the sweet spot of the Easter market.

“Let’s hope there will be Easter,” Galeotto said. “From what we hear, there will be.”

On Oct. 14, 1894, Domenico Melegatti patented his recipe and pandoro, as it is now universally known in Italy, was born. Depending on whom you ask, pandoro goes back to ancient Rome or the Middle Ages or the doge of Venice’s Palace. Melegatti built an empire off the cake, and it conquered Italy, though it never quite went global.

Efforts to crack the U.S. market, said Matteo Peraro, 36, a union representative and, since 2004, one of Melegatti’s master bakers, hit a snag when the cake’s powdered sugar set off alarm bells during the anthrax scare. Earlier this week, as the last batch of pandoro dough rose in a heated room, Francesca Massalongo, a local Verona tour guide, pointed out to a group of U.S. tourists the stately Melegatti palace, which once housed the historic bakery but now plays host to a shoe store.

“Can you see what’s that,” she said, pointing at one of the two stone cakes standing gargoyle-like atop the building. “It’s a pandoro. Believe me, it’s very strange to find a Christmas cake on the top of a historical building.”

Around Verona, there were hardly any blue Melegatti boxes in the storefronts. Instead, Bauli, the crosstown rival with recognizable pink pandoro boxes, sponsored the Christmas trees in the city’s famous piazzas.

And at Dolce Locanda, the bakery of celebrated chef Giancarlo Perbellini, the sophisticated staff sneezed at the mass-produced cakes. Their cakes used Belgian butter, glistened yellow from the finest eggs, and were hand mixed. They also cost at least three times as much.

“It’s artisanal,” said Moreno Pelligrini, who put birthday candles for a diner’s birthday in pieces of Perbellini pandoros at one of the chef’s associated restaurants, Locanda 4 Cuochi.

The workers of Melegatti had enough problems without worrying about foodie snobbery. As a machine poured 610 kilos of pale pandoro batter from an enormous aluminum bowl, Peraro, the union representative, said, “It’s a shame we can only make so few.” He started working here to pay for college, then stayed on to support his family. He spoke with a sense of awe about the days when the factory floor had more than 1,000 workers, and a constant flow of cakes marched on the conveyor belts. But as he explained how the different machines and robots work today, he hinted at a much more systemic threat to the hundreds of endangered Melegatti workers.

“There weren’t these machines,” he said.

But that is a problem for a future Christmas. These days, the company is enjoying a blizzard of interest. In the lobby, where decades-old Melegatti television commercials played on a loop (they featured scantily clad Native Americans or primitive-seeming Africans, all enraptured by pandoro) the secretary was busy referring inquiring customers to the on-site shop.

The shop, painted in the company’s yellow and blue colors, was mobbed with locals loading up on boxes full of pandoro cakes. Less desired models — chocolate chip, limoncello — were left on the emptied shelves. Behind the workers, racks full of deformed cakes labeled imperfect slumped in clear plastic bags. They were sold without the blue boxes.

As night fell in the parking lot, families loaded up their trunks and kids, with their arms full, balanced the cakes on their forearms.

Cristina Borghese, 42, filled her trunk with a half-dozen pandoros for relatives. She saw the social media campaign, she said, and wanted to do her part to make sure the workers had a merry Christmas. “It’s a good brand,” she said. “I wanted to give a hand.”