After a hectic day, one of those where you eat lunch in front of the computer, one of those where the phone rings constantly and you just want to go home, I met Natalija Nikitina. Through that little door, the stress immediately faded, like when after a long journey you finally lie down in your clean bed, the feeling was exactly that, I felt at home. Faint jazz music embraced a clean and meticulously decorated room, and a sweet smell of bread welcomed you along with Natalija’s bright face. Natalija’s story is encapsulated within this small, carefully designed space. An exciting story that makes you realise that life can be changed and that pursuing dreams is not just the prerogative of fairytales. A mix between a French boulangerie and a kiosk on the seashore, a combination of Nordic design but at the same time warm and welcoming Signor Lievito is the place that was missing in Milan. A small corner of peace that allows you to slow down and that through tastes and smells takes you back to when you were a child.

Alice De Santis: Lockdown changed our eating habits and somehow brought us back to the pleasure of cooking, for ourselves and for others. I read that you started experimenting with the world of bread during the quarantine as so many other Italians did. But only you had the wonderful idea of opening a bakery in the heart of Milan. What drove you towards this courageous adventure?

Natalija Nikitina: I already had the yeast at home, the sourdough starter, so I didn’t have much difficulty finding it during the lockdown, but the lockdown certainly helped me to learn more about this passion. During that time I was able to dedicate myself more to the family to the art of togetherness, but I remember that when I sent my husband to the supermarket the flour was gone… there was nothing left. Signor Lievito was born step by step, before opening such a real place I started to let people around me try my products. It all started through friendships and family, a very important element that allowed me to realise my dream. Friends often asked me to make bread for them and when I noticed that my product was liked and appreciated, I decided to put myself to the test with one of the most complicated preparations: panettone. Panettone can be defined as the key to my breakthrough, the preparation that made me realise that I had to follow my dream, and that I could do it. Once I decided to start this challenge without realising it was already Christmas and I found myself making 124 panettone cakes to distribute to my neighbourhood of friends and family. Making panettone takes three days, it has nothing to do with bread or cakes, it is a separate process. I found my house covered in panettones (to my husband’s delight) and started to see my future with a clearer outlook. Besides the panettone, the real key was the people, the people I knew and those I met during my deliveries. They were the ones who pushed me towards this new adventure.

ADS: I don’t usually go to bakeries, but the few times I do, I remember it as a chaotic but fragrant place, poorly decorated but rich in products. You, on the other hand, have created a little oasis of peace where bread and design come together. What is your relationship with design? How did you meet Hannes Peer?

NN: Compared to other bakeries, apart from the environment, above all the product is different. Rye as the main material, breakfast was designed differently, I wanted to bring my own soul and roots into this project. Somehow inside Signor Lievito, I have also brought my past and my past life has been ferried in here by the design. Before that I worked in the fashion industry, I was a model for almost 15 years, 15 years in which I travelled the world. I came to know Hannes Peer because he designed both the showroom and the N21 shop and so we slowly became friends. When I told him about my project he fell in love with my dream and wanted to help me make Signor Lievito the perfect location. Thus began our wonderful collaboration. He guessed every detail, every little thing, even the material he chose reflected my story, a mixture of the Nordic countries where I come from and southern Italy where my husband comes from. He redesigned my story with objects and materials, making Signor Lievito an extension of my life. The thing that most represents me and my journey is the painting Hannes gave me. Inside this painting, there is a story about me, about wine and wheat. You can see different women who are all a representation of myself. The wine represents the phase of my life when I worked with a sommelier and then the wheat represents my present. The inspiration for this painting comes from the French painter Jean Cocteau.

ADS: 60 square metres of design that encapsulate a great passion but above all an innovative way of selling bread. What is the aspect of this job that fascinates you most? What relationship do you have with your customers?

NN: Days are always different from each other, there are days when customers arrive who convey beautiful energy, and other days customers arrive who appreciate my “different” product less and would like to buy the classic bakery product and have a less special mood than others. Surely the thing that motivates me most to get up at 4 a.m. and work every day is the energy that people transmit to me and to see that these people enjoy my food and that they experience real pleasure. The most gratifying thing is seeing my product finished, in the way and form I want it to be, beautiful and good. I have never been a morning person, this has been the biggest change in my lifestyle since I decided to embark on this path. The roles within the family have also changed, but we still manage to be all together in the evening, me, my husband and my two sons. The thing I like best about this new habit is experiencing the city when it is quiet and peaceful.

ADS: The smell of bread is one of the smells that most trigger childhood memories in me. What are the smells that take you back to when you were a child?

NN: I remember when my parents would send me out to buy things and I would come home with warm bread, that smell takes me back to my childhood. What I want to convey now is precisely this, to take my customers back to their childhood, to recreate pleasant memories. From my childhood, in addition to bread, I particularly remember the pastries that my mother used to make for me, which I now serve for breakfast. So at Signor Lievito’s, I brought sweets from my childhood.

ADS: Sourdough is an ingredient unknown to many how did you become aware of it? What importance does it have in your cooking philosophy?

NN: I use three different yeasts according to the different types of products. Behind the creation of bread and cakes is the philosophy of waiting, of the ability to wait and be patient until the product is finished. One must develop the art of patience and respect the process. The sourdough process must be respected at all stages. Bread takes 16 hours to rise in the cold, I put it in the proving cabinet. While cakes rise at a higher temperature. Knowing how to wait means loving the product and respecting it.

ADS: Why did you choose Milan for your new bakery?

NN: For love and family but if I had the choice I might have opened it somewhere else, who knows…maybe one day.

ADS: Do you have one piece of advice for all those who want to change direction in their lives but lack the courage to do so?

NN: You have to be sure of your dreams and believe in yourself, certainly having someone beside you who supports you helps, but only you can really realise your dreams. You have to be the soul as I am the soul of Signor Lievito.

ADS: What plans do you have for the future?

NN: I would like to develop new products, I already have clear ideas but first I have to find other hands that match my philosophy and can help me in this.