An African immigrant's pizza wins global raves — and overcomes Italian prejudices
After immigrating to Italy from Burkina Faso at age 12, Ibrahim Songne tasted pizza for the first time. His reaction?
"I'd never even heard of pizza before I arrived in Italy. I took a bite and found it gross and completely tasteless."
Despite that inauspicious start, Songne went on to take out a loan to open a pizza joint — and in late 2021 the 30-year-old's pizzeria was named one of the top 50 in the world. 50TopPizza.it calls Ibrahim's dough "perfectly leavened" and the recipes "imaginative."
Ibrahim christened his restaurant, IBRIS— an all-caps hybrid of his first and last name. Before he opened the small shop in downtown Trento 3 years ago, he says that locals warned him, "A Black man behind the counter will drive every customer away."
These fears seemed realized when on the first day open, Ibrahim stood behind the counter and a middle-aged couple entered. Silently, the pair surveyed the pizza on display, he remembers. Then, he says, they likely assumed that someone of African descent didn't speak Italian, remarked, "This pizza looks amazing. Too bad they let Black people work here" and left.
In 2022, it's a very different scene. With only three small benches for seating, lunchtime patrons pack IBRIS' narrow storefront, shouting orders over the Afrobeats soundtrack.
A recipe for success
Ibrahim's success is hardly due to lack of competition. Two other pizza places sit on the same block and another seven are within minutes' walk.
He says his pizza distinguishes itself due to the "intensity, texture and sense of experimentation."
Over the past decade, "crunch pizza" became a trend in northeastern Italy — Crunch pizza customarily has a lightweight but multi-layered dough— that is sometimes fried— and makes a loud crunching noise when bitten into. Ibrahim has created a subtler version of this crispiness.
As for the experimental toppings, they reflect Songne's belief in Italy's zero kilometer food movement, using locally and seasonally available fresh ingredients whenever possible. Working side-by-side with his younger brother, Issouf, he changes the pizza menu daily and includes non-traditional ingredients like purple-potato cream, saffron and ceci bean (chickpea).
A rough start to a new Italian life
Today, Ibrahim lives within Trento's picturesque cobblestoned center. One of the nation's wealthiest cities, it is frequently ranked high for quality of life.
It's a great contrast to his younger years. Growing up over a 4-hour drive from Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou, Ibrahim and his parents lived without electricity or running water. In search of work, Ibrahim's father immigrated to Italy; the family later followed.
Upon arriving in Italy's mountainous north in 2004, Ibrahim says he was the only Black student in school and became further isolated due to stuttering.
His desire to undergo speech therapy spurred him to take on part-time jobs as a teenager, a path that led to working in a pastry shop. It was there that he developed a passion for baking.
In the years following, Ibrahim taught himself how to make pizza. Having worked at the pastry shop, he'd tired of sweets and decided to pursue salty flavors. His roommate served as "guinea pig" and Ibrahim grew "obsessed" with developing the consummate pizza dough recipe. He knew he'd found it when he landed on a formula featuring lievito madre — "mother dough, " a natural yeast where the same sourdough starter is used perpetually. Ibrahim has used the same mother yeast for over five years now.
Today, Ibrahim defines himself as 100% Italian and Burkinabe, "but most of all, I am resilient."
"Once I'd overcome my stuttering, I was free. After that, I knew I could face anything."
Helping others with 'suspended pizza'
He's not forgotten his roots. En route to the airport on the day Ibrahim left Burkina Faso for Italy, he entered the city for the first time and witnessed a small boy standing naked, begging on the streets. A passing Burkinabe businessman tossed a candy onto the ground "as if the boy were a dog" and the child scurried after the candy. At that moment, Ibrahim says he decided he would devote himself someday to helping others who are hungry.
After witnessing so many people struggling to make ends meet during the COVID lockdown, pizza and Songne's charitable urges merged. Like other pizzeria owners inspired by the Neapolitan tradition of caffè sospeso ("suspended coffee") — where cafe clientele pay for an additional coffee that bartenders later give anonymously to those in need — Ibrahim expanded the custom to pizza. He's encouraging pizza sospesa.
Rising up despite racism and anti-immigrant feelings
Ibrahim's success is all the more notable given the history of Italy – and his home province.
Racism is part of the country's past and present.
During the renaissance, young African children referred to as mori ("the dark ones") were used as household slaves in wealthy Venice households. In recent years, Italians have hurled bananas at Italy's first Black governmental minister, Cécile Kyenge, and Italian-born and -raised soccer star, Mario Balotelli. In 2021, the national television network, RAI, refused to officially ban Blackface following an uproar over Blackface impersonations of Beyonce and other musicians.
Anti-immigrant sentiments also run strong.
Filomeno Lopes, one of the first and most prolific Italian African authors and a host on Radio Vaticana Italia (Vatican Radio), states, "Ibrahim dared to get out of the kitchen — where behind closed doors immigrants clean dishes and furtively prepare the meals — and instead to lead in a field that Italians consider their own. By doing so, he's forged a new path to citizenship."
Trentino presents its own challenges.
The current president of the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region is a member of the far-right, anti-immigration Lega Nord political party. The IBRIS storefront signs have been vandalized, and photos have appeared on social media of teenagers standing outside the restaurant and making obscene gestures.
Nonetheless, Ibrahim's contagiously positive personality and his speaking fluent Italian with what locals describe as a "perfect" Trentino accent has helped endear him. He has even mastered Trento's regional dialect – and of course – as his new pizza honors prove – he's a maestro of the Italian pie.
A pizza fan club
On a recent Thursday afternoon, 52-year-old Alessandra Gelva sat huddled excitedly on one of the pizzeria's benches with her two teenage children and a friend.
"This pizza is beautiful. It is the only place we ever come for pizza. The toppings are so original. The pistachio is one of my favorites."
Another regular, Giuliana Passamani, 60, describes IBRIS' pizza crust as "superlative."
35-year-old Maria, who declined to give a reporter her last name, gushed that she "comes here three times a week from over an hour away. He is famous."
"Big things start little," says Ibrahim. "If given enough care and value, food can change the world. It's a bridge between people — a way to pleasurably experience something new. That experience then can lead to greater tolerance and understanding.
"Once they taste my pizza, all judgment disappears."
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer (Zomba Prison Project, Tinariwen, The Good Ones) who has recorded 37 records by international artists across four continents. He is the author of seven books. His latest, Muse-$ick: a music manifesto in fifty-nine notes, was published last fall by Oakland's PM Press. He has lived in Italy since 2009.
Photos, translation and additional reporting by Marilena Umuhoza Delli, an Italian Rwandan photographer, author and filmmaker. She has written two Italian-language books about racism and growing-up with an immigrant mother in Italy.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.