True Delicious is baking health-conscious cookies in Petaluma

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Like so many of Petaluma’s hidden gems, True Delicious is a baking company born of passion and based on the idea of using healthy ingredients to produce a superior product.

Italian immigrant Antonio Russo found a home in a local commercial kitchen, tucked away in an inconspicuous building along Payran Street’s industrial corridor. He not only shares space, but also collaborates with Pilar Mcgoldrick Bernard and her Mariposa Ice Creamery, developing and producing the cookies for their ice cream sandwiches, as well as passing along his lemons and oranges once he has zested them for his biscotti and cakes.

When coming up with the name for his new company, Antonio Russo wanted to pay homage to both the ingredients that are the foundation of his brand, as well as the flavor of his finished product.

Antonio’s initial product was Italian cakes, marketed directly to restaurants who either did not have their own pastry chef or did not want to serve previously frozen products, and a growing line of biscotti.

Antonio grew up in Torre Del Greco, near Naples. He has loved to bake for as long as he can remember. As early as 4, Antonio was given the excess dough and his own spot to experiment, which is where his love for baking was born. Both of his parents are excellent cooks, with his father being a world famous baker.

At a certain point, Antonio became unsure if he wanted to go into the same business because he saw that while everyone else was out having fun on holidays and weekends, his father was working hard to make the baked goods that enhanced those festivities. So Antonio struck out on his own, moving the New York City in 1998 to study advertising at the famed Fashion Institute of Technology.

He picked classes that he thought would help him best in the marketing world and ended up landing a job at a prestigious advertising firm in Rome. He parlayed that experience into a position with a firm closer to his home of Naples where he worked on marketing for major national brands.

In 2009, Antonio met his American wife, a San Anselmo native, who was on a month-long culinary study trip in Italy. Antonio says with pride that his American wife stands side-by-side with any of his Italian relatives in the kitchen. The two were married in 2011 and moved back to the U.S. in 2012.

When Antonio and his wife first moved back from Italy, they settled in Altadena, which is outside of Pasadena, where Antonio picked up a job marketing for an Italian equestrian company. The job required quite a bit of travel, so when the news arrived that he and his wife were expecting a baby, he decided it was time for a change. In 2015, the young family decided to move back north to be closer to his in-laws, who still live in Marin County.

“I have always been a business guy,” says Antonio, “but I had to get back into food because that is where my passion lies.”

Looking for a new challenge and not wanting to travel so much for work, Antonio found a commercial kitchen in Petaluma and set out to introduce local diners to his Italian cakes. He knew from experience that he could quickly make a living supplying local restaurants with fresh cakes, and within a week he already had his hands full with plenty of orders.

His Italian sponge cake was an instant success due to its superb fluffiness, which comes from the beating of the egg yolks and because it uses no yeast or baking powder, which can cause a cake to feel heavy. If you have had an excellent Italian sponge cake at a restaurant in the North Bay, it was likely one of Antonio’s.

The trouble with cakes is that they are not easily scalable. Within one month of starting, Antonio’s orders had already doubled, but cakes are labor intensive and with a very short shelf life, he decided to expand his product line into shelf-stable biscotti. In short order, he would launch True Delicious with 15 accounts he had secured on his own with no outside sales help. To be honest, Antonio is charismatic enough to sell anything, so thankfully his products are also excellent to boot.

“My dad does fresh baking so I never did wholesale before,” says Antonio. “Scaling up from 1 to 100 presents many challenges.”

Scale up is exactly what he had to do, and quickly because within just his first month of production he jumped from 15 to 50 accounts, which is a testament to just how good his food is and how good he is at marketing it. Naturally, Petaluma Market was one of his first customers.

In barely over a year in operation, Antonio’s biscotti are already being stocked in over 100 California supermarkets, including Petaluma Market.

By definition, biscotti is simply something that is twice baked and in Italy covers a wide variety of baked goods. As I learned, what Americans think of as biscotti is actually called cantucci, which indicates a little piece of bread with lots of crust, such as the cut off ends of a loaf of bread. It was first created in Prato, about 10 miles north-west of Florence and although Americans like to dip ours in coffee or tea, Italians are also fond of dipping theirs in Vin Santo, which is an Italian dessert wine.

Antonio said that what Americans seem to prefer is a biscotti that is more like shortbread and is slightly harder than the Italian version.

As with many immigrant chefs, Antonio is not stuck in the ways of the old country. Instead, he innovates while always paying respect to the history and culture of where he came from. Antonio has embraced this culture, even using “biscotti” on his packaging, knowing full well that when marketing to Americans familiar with that term, it would be a mistake to try to force the proper cantucci name on us.

Antonio started True Delicious with the traditional almond biscotti, using a 50-year-old family recipe. He quickly added three flavors – cranberry, orange chocolate chip and salted pistachio, knowing that in order to secure the proper amount of shelf space and visibility, he was going to need more than just one product. Each of True Delicious’ biscotti flavors easily stands on its own.

Unlike some purveyors, where their product can be affected by weather conditions, Antonio’s recipes are more sensitive to changes in ingredients. He did have to adjust his recipe due to small changes in the butter and flour compared to back home, but for the most part did not have to adjust much.

Antonio produces roughly 500 pounds of biscotti a week, starting the dough with some fridge time before molding them, kind of like how spaghetti is processed. They are then first baked for 30 minutes, after which they are cut and laid on their sides, before receiving another 20 minutes of bake time. When he does run into trouble, his fixer is only a phone call away.

“Dad can just see a photo and know exactly what is wrong,” says Antonio, with clear admiration for his father.

Antonio, like his father has a knack for cooking, but it is his natural marketing abilities where he had to learn to think like an American.

“I love to listen to the market,” he says. To that end, True Delicious just introduced a variety pack, which includes all four flavors of biscotti and has a photo of Antonio’s father on the front.

True Delicious uses no preservatives, no high fructose corn syrup, no artificial colors or flavors and most importantly, they source local and support local businesses as much as possible. Antonio gets most of his ingredients from Giusto, which is a local bakery supplier and is able to use around 80% organic ingredients.

He uses Clover butter and when it comes to quality and flavor, nothing beats Guittard Chocolate out of Burlingame, which is what he uses for the orange and chocolate chip biscotti.

Antonio is also currently experimenting with a savory line of biscotti and has already started selling gluten and dairy-free biscotti, to much fanfare.

“We are looking to meet the new demands of the ‘functional’ food market, such as weight loss and energy sustaining foods,” says Antonio. “We are keeping our base, but need to target new markets in order to sustain success.”

Interested parties can contact him directly through his website: www.truedelicious.com.

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