“My mum was crying!’ recounted Maia. “My mum was crying and saying, ‘after all these years, after all you have studied, you’re going to open a BAKING CAFE? Are you crazy?!’ ” Maia waved her hands in front of her in a classic Italian fashion to pantomime her mother as I stifled my laughter.

Italian-born Maia and her oldest friend, turned business partner, Alessia, will be opening the doors to ‘Donna Fugassa’, in the cafe in Dalston library in January 2016. The new joint is replacing the library’s previous cafe that served cups of Starbucks branded coffee, which didn’t prove very popular with the indie-centric locals.

The pair were both born in Milan while Maia’s family are from Liguria in Italy, the region where focaccia was born. Maia had the idea for Dona Fugassa when she couldn’t find authentic Italian focaccia in London.

“I was sad”, she explained “I hated my job and I wanted comfort food. And there was none in London. I know that sounds ridiculous but I’m being serious. I wanted food that reminded me of my childhood in Italy. And I couldn’t find focaccia anywhere.”

“I’m serious” was a go-to phrase for Maia. Because she was serious, clearly. She was working for O&G Consulting and was yo-yoing between London and the Emirates. But everything in her life seemed to happen in a haphazard sort of way. She lacked direction, but never determination.

Neither Maia nor Alessia had an ounce of experience running a cafe. They were both in corporate jobs but had a feeling they shouldn’t be.

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Maia and Alessia’s Italian side creeping out. Photo by Teresa Madeline

“Alessia was working in Rome, and she’s even crazier than me, so she threw in her job before me and came over. I never wanted to open a cafe, and yet, here we are…”

For the next year, they stayed in London and perfected their recipe for focaccia dough. “The air, the water, the humidity, are all different here” she explained.  “We had to get it absolutely right, and that takes time.”

The ingredients had to come from Italy. They got their coffee from a supplier in Turin called Costadoro – the first time it has been brought to the UK. Maia and Alessia visited the factory, saw the entire process and made their own blend to bring to Dalston. “English tastes are a little different from Italian ones”, said Maia “it needed a little fine-tuning”.

The flour was another thing that had to be perfect, and so after lots of research the pair settled with Agugiaro & Figna. They chose the exact line they wanted; Le 5 stagioni. “Our flour comes from a family who have been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years. We really liked that” said Maia.

“We will make all our focaccia on site. And we will be open eight till eight, seven days a week… I’m also CEO and the cleaning lady. I’m tired just thinking about it!” she said.

The cafe is being re-done a the moment. It’s hard to get an idea of the space at this stage, but Maia happily showed off their most recent design purchase – the interior features of an old ship, “Focaccia is from a seaside town in Italy and our investor kept telling us they wanted to ‘feel the sea’ in the interior design, well, now we have the inside of a ship!”

The pair are confident the interior will be finished a couple of days before Christmas and will return home for Christmas, “otherwise our mothers will kill us. I’m serious! They actually will” Maia added. Her earnestness was worrying.

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In the midst of a building site, Donna Fugassa is on it’s way to Dalston. Photo by Teresa Madeline

“The community here feels so strong” said Maia, “that’s one of the reasons we chose Dalston. It was a toss-up between here and Shoreditch, and I’m so glad we ended up here. I cannot feel at home in Shoreditch. I don’t know… Shoreditch feels like somewhere people come to hang out. People live here in Dalston. They really want to pass their time here.”

Getting the community involved is all part of their project, and Maia said she loved the idea of being attached to the library building. “We wanted to create a beautiful, welcoming space for everyone”.

The pair are going to run classes called “Baking is the new clubbing”.

“We spent so much on the oven- so we want people to share it. We want to run classes for mums and kids too. The idea is to show kids that focaccia doesn’t grow on trees- it’s made from flour and oil. If you’re a kid watching it rise is just so magical.”

I find it weird that Maia used to be a consultant. I couldn’t imagine that life suiting her at all. Her chin rested on her hands and she kept looking out towards the building site that would soon be her new cafe.

“I’m so happy. I never never thought I would end up doing this. Life is extremely strange” she mused.

Written by: Phoebe Weston

Read more about the colourful story of Donna Fugassa in this comic strip by Sara Pittaluga

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