Whatever happened to the African-born pizza chef who won over biased Italians?
In January, we profiled Ibrahim Songne. As a kid, newly arrived in Italy from Burkina Faso with his family, he took his first bite of pizza. His verdict: “Gross and completely tasteless.” But he had a change of taste buds and as an adult started his own pizzeria in Trento. He ran into anti-immigrant prejudices but his pizza prevailed and this year, IBRIS, his eatery, was named one of the world’s top 50 pizza places by the website 50TopPizza.it. We caught up with Songne this summer to see how he’s been faring.
The media response to Goats and Soda’s January article about pizza maestro Ibrahim Songne was so strong that ultimately he was forced to call a moratorium on interviews.
“The requests got to be overwhelming. I am just a pizza maker,” Ibrahim states. “I continue to personally prepare every slice of pizza we serve and so already almost every hour of my day is spoken for. My girlfriend kind of put her foot down. And she is the one who has had to do all of the translations into English.”
Nonetheless, his appreciation for NPR’s coverage was so heartfelt that he created a “Goats and Soda” pizza in our honor.
It’s composed of goat cheese, dried figs, Trentingrana cheese shavings, rocket salad, pine nuts and spicy oil — quite a radical recipe by local standards. He couldn’t quite bring himself to actually put soda on the pizza, though. So the pie is paired with soda instead and was an instant sensation as a rotating special.
The NPR story also gave a boost to his practice of asking clients to pay for a second pizza, which he donates to a hungry person. “I didn’t realize what a huge thing NPR was until I started getting donations from around the world,” he says. “I’ve had people calling-in to contribute from Canada, Ireland … all over.”
His pizza charity was inspired by the Neapolitan tradition of caffè sospeso (“suspended coffee”) — cafe clientele pay for an additional coffee that bartenders later give anonymously to those in need. Like some other pizzeria operators, Ibrahim expanded the custom to pizza at the start of COVID lockdowns.
And even though the pandemic put some local pizza joints out of business, the demand for Ibrahim’s pizza is so great that he has secured a lease and started work on a second location that is more spacious and provides seating. It is due to open by year’s end.
Meanwhile, his passion for baking continues. In perpetual pursuit of “perfection,” he’s refined his dough recipe with a longer rise and is also close to developing a pizza crust for the gluten intolerant.
Having just celebrated the fourth anniversary of his IBRIS pizzeria, Ibrahim has become a community fixture in his hometown of Trento. A local theater company has plans to stage a play about his life — detailing his story of immigrating from Burkina Faso at age 12 without knowing a word of Italian, overcoming a stutter and then becoming a self-taught pizza chef who has garnered international acclaim.
His achievements have impressed some Italians with African roots to make a pilgrimage to the pizzeria.
Francesco, age 9, from the Piemonte region recently visited with his family, who emigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They drove close to 6 hours east to visit IBRIS. The boy seemed shy but lit up when it came time to pose for a photo with Ibrahim.
“I’ve never seen a Black pizza maker before,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was possible. And this is the best pizza I’ve ever tasted.”
Anna-Maria, age 5 and like Francesco a second generation Italian of African descent, traveled with her mother on a 3-hour train ride from the Emilia-Romagna region to sample Ibrahim’s slices.
She declared, “Now that I’ve met Mr. Ibrahim, I know exactly what I want to be when I get older: a pizza maker …. but also a doctor, too.”
Ian Brennan is Grammy-winning music producer (Zomba Prison Project, Tinariwen, The Good Ones [Rwanda], Witch Camp [Ghana]) who in the past decade has recorded in the field forty records by international artists across five continents (Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Asia). He is the author of seven books and his latest, Muse-$ick: a music manifesto in fifty-nine notes, was published last fall by Oakland’s PM Press.