The Princi bakery opened three and a half years ago in Wardour Street, the first London shop of the Princi Milan chain of three in the centre of Europe’s fashion capital. Do not be put off by its modern, cold, stone and slab architecture.
It is probably one of the very best chain of bakeries you have ever eaten in. I have been to all of the branches one by one and each is excellent.
The London shop sits improbably at the centre of Soho, not renowned for Armani slickness, but it was here that Claudio Silvestrin, architect to Italy’s most famous stylist, Alan Yau, the brains behind Wagamama and Hakkasan and Rocco Princi, the renowned baker from Calabria, set to work to create London’s most talked about panificio.
The front elevation is glass and light, because the building itself is quite dark. They have maximised the light by ensuring that the front is all window, and as you proceed further into the back of the shop, which is the bar, there is only artificial light.
To understand the philosophy behind Princi you have to understand the Milanese, and as I am one of them please let me enlighten you further. Briefly, to sum up 2000 years of civilisation, the Milanese hang their cultural hat on three words: la bella figura, which means they are quite obsessive about beautiful appearances.
The wow factor is all important, but there is substance beneath the beauty, which is to say that the provenance and execution have to match the aesthetics.
The bakery is built with natural materials, sand and earth coloured stone, bronze counters, leather seats and a great deal of glass, which adds a dimension of light and space.
On one side of the wall, where there is a long counter for customers to sit and drink their coffee, you will see recessed spot up-lighting with fountains trickling water into a little channel. Both the sight and sound of this unexpected feature are calming and therapeutic.
There is an ingenious box of glass that projects outwards from the front window, by the door, into which the bakers place bread rolls: a sort of offering to the street to entice walkers in.
What will amaze you is the sheer variety of what is on offer and the level of perfection that is achieved in the baking. Sadly the manager of the shop would not allow me in the backroom “laboratorio” where the bread is made.
The shop is open plan, however, and you can see the beautiful wood-fired ovens. Air-water-heat: the three elements that combine with stone ground flour to produce magic are all around you, your senses are inspired by the beauty of the work here.
The staff wear smart, clean, white Armani uniforms and they tend to be Italian. They are fast and friendly, cleaning up after you the moment you leave, but you can tell they are used to the repeat clientele who know what they want.
Hesitant dithering as you stare up at the food board is not the expected conduct in such a busy place. The customers are so well dressed you will feel under attired whatever you wear, so be warned. Bring your best jewellery, and if you have none, then beg, borrow or steal.
I could see filled cannoncini (crème patissiere filled little pastry horns), crostata di fragole (strawberry tart), Selva Nera (a kind of Black forest Gateau), beautiful egg glazed sandwich rolls filled with prosciutto, cheese and tomatoes as well as a myriad of sourdough loaves, mini baguettes, seeded rolls, brioches and croissants.
You can also order lasagne, cannelloni, soups, salads, pizza, focaccia and even Zuppa Inglese (English trifle) for pudding. To one side of the counter, nearer the bar, there is a big cheeseboard.
Most remarkable of all is the prices, as they are not at all runaway. Considering the level of perfection in every bite, breakfast or lunch here will not set you back any more than certain unmentionable horrendous dives in this area that serve appalling, microwaved supermarket bakery goods and pass them off as “made in house”. Princi is five star baking at three star prices.