27 November, 2022, 02:03

Holy Focaccia: Bread so good it achieves near divinity

Off the eatin' path

In scriptures past, those of the faith have traversed the sand sea for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years in order to reach destinations promising absolute rapture of both the physical and the spiritual. In these times, the common form of sustenance was bread, for it could travel well in extreme climates on foot. Or perhaps they were traveling on the backs of beasts as they achieve pilgrimage, scorned by the sun and punitive elements.

Okay, now let’s cut to 2022. Here in Tucson, you only have to log onto Instagram and drive downtown to get bread so tasty you’ll eat half of it in the car before you get home.

At least that’s what I did.

We are lucky to have so many incredible bakeries representing various cultures and styles that at times it can get a little daunting. Those of the true bread faith do not mind traveling across town, to the various Valleys, or even beyond *shudder gasp* the 520 area code to get baked goods. All of which is swooned by either word of mouth or overly perfect pictures seen online and salivated over.

Holy Focaccia

Holy Focaccia (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Those two means of discovery apply to Holy Focaccia.

I mean, how did you hear about them? Was it at brunch when you dipped their fig-infused bread into honey and exclaimed, “This is the best focaccia I’ve ever had. Where did you get it?” Or did it happen when you were thumbing through social media and found a photo of their black pepper, lemon zest, and parmesan variety with an animated image of a squirrel drooling?

Or are you uninitiated with Holy Focaccia?

Here, take my hand kind reader, and allow me to introduce you to your new bread benediction.

Holy Focaccia began in New York around 2019. Rachel Colasanto, who hails from Long Island, made some for her partner Zakaria Boucetta and a party he was throwing. Not just any party. It was a cheese party.

Holy Focaccia

Rachel Colasanto and Zakaria Boucetta of Holy Focaccia (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

“It was a very simple recipe,” said Colasanto. “Just olive oil and some salt. It went over really well, everyone loved it. I’ve always enjoyed baking focaccia because it’s the perfect bread; crispy but also soft. It’s like working with a blank canvas because you can literally add anything to it and it will most likely be delicious.”

After the infamous “cheese party” success, a few orders for Colasanto’s focaccia began coming in but not enough for her, or Boucetta, to quit their jobs. In fact, that’s what brought the couple to Tucson in the first place. Not focaccia. Jobs.

Boucetta, an architect, received an employment offer that he could not pass up and after a trip to Joshua Tree, Colasanto knew that she had found a kinship to her new home here in the Sonoran Desert. Being Moroccan himself, Boucetta, too, felt an immediate bond with the Old Pueblo. The weather and mountainous landscape reminded him of his hometown of Marrakech.

After settling in Tucson in late 2021, Colasanto again made her delicious focaccia for Boucetta, this time for an office function. They didn’t specify, but cheese may have been involved. Just like New York, the response to her bread was so positive that a collective Easy Bake Oven lightbulb blinked over their heads.

Without any permits or licenses, with code limitations on what she could do, Colasanto started baking focaccia in their two-shelf, four-burner stove and began selling to friends and neighbors. As demand began to grow, so did the need to make their business official, which meant a lot of paperwork, county requirements, health inspections, and final city approvals.

Earlier this year, Colasanto procured a cottage license to bake, sell her fantastic focaccia, and thus Holy Focaccia was created and blessed upon us.

Holy Focaccia

Holy Focaccia (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Having full-time jobs, both of them spend their off hours going to markets of all backgrounds, sizing up the spice aisle for inspiration. One week it might have a Middle Eastern vibe, the next could go Asian, and maybe a feisty Southwestern melody could make the cut at one venture. The point is that each week Holy Focaccia posts about their creation it may not be repeated again. In fact, it usually isn’t. So, essentially you’re getting a unique taste experience in puffy, crispy, square pan bread form.

Here is how it works:

Every Wednesday, Holy Focaccia posts on their Instagram stories, sharing what they are offering that week. You then direct message them explaining what and how much you want. Then, that Sunday, between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., you can pick up your order from their home. Now, I’m not going to divulge their address because that’s on them, but I will say it’s somewhere downtown.

The day I hung out with the two of them was their busiest day to date. “I just baked 45 focaccias,” explained Colasanto, looking elated, if not a little worn out.

That meant prepping the day before, proofing the dough, getting up before the sun to start baking, and then having orders fresh and ready for customers when they arrive. This is all the while making plans for new spice combinations and inventive flavor scenarios in the coming weeks.

Then they get up and go to work on Monday.

Holy Focaccia

Holy Focaccia (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

My first order with them was the Everything Focaccia, which involved garlic, sea salt, dried onion, various seeds, and a bit of that Holy Focaccia magic. I was handed a bag that was slowly seeping with that beautiful olive oil anointment, and I immediately had to take a bite when I got in the car. Then I had another. Then more as I drove. By the time I got home at least half of my order had been consumed.

This was easily the best focaccia I had ever eaten. It might even be worth getting Tucson a fourth James Beard award. Pure bread addiction. Just an eye-rolling account of virtuous seasoning on bread that had been carefully considered and perfectly baked — in a small home oven, by the way.

All of that effort and labor is done out of love. Colasanto and Boucetta have found a community that supports them and what they do and they embrace them right back.

Holy Focaccia

Holy Focaccia (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Every once in a while, a neighbor will stop by their house with some fresh herbs and vegetables from their garden, which may make it into their recipe that week. When they are not working their 9-to-5s, they’re spending their time taste testing and thinking up interesting combinations. Many of these combos are inspired by their background and upbringing, Colasanto being Italian and from New York, and Boucetta growing up in Morocco and living in Canada for a while. Sometimes it’s whatever their new southwest home provides, which is a lot, they both confess.

Holy Focaccia has paired up with a food truck doing breakfast sandwiches and is starting to branch out by doing beer and bread tastings with local brewhouses. As you read this, they are working on getting shelf space in local markets, that is if they can find the time and a possible larger oven to accommodate such demand.

Holy Focaccia

Holy Focaccia (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

For now, all you have to do is log on, send a message, and then pick up with a knock at their door.

“It’s a little weird that people just come to our house to buy bread,” Colasanto laughed. “And to be honest, some first-time customers are a little freaked out by it. But I think it adds to the hominess of what we do and the focaccia itself.”

Boucetta just looks at me, smiled, and said, “Yeah, but I’d rather have weird than ordinary.”

There is definitely nothing ordinary about Holy Focaccia. If we keep insisting on “Keeping Tucson Weird” then the two of them embody that notion with aplomb and a whole lot of heavenly dough.

For more information, follow Holy Focaccia on Instagram and sign up for their newsletters.

It was a Sonoran hot dog that made Mark switch from music journalism to food writing when he moved to Tucson from San Francisco in 2006. He hasn’t been the same since.