Family of Bakers

Thanks for the Memories

Di Camillo Bakery Loses Last of Its Second-Generation Owners
Joseph J. Di Camillo, the last of the Second-Generation owners of Di Camillo Bakery, died on February 22: he was 99 years old. He remained close to his surviving sisters Angelica Di Camillo and Theresa Hargrave Di Camillo, who—now both in the 90s-- still work at Di Camillo Bakery part-time.

Born in Niagara Falls to Tomaso and Addoloratta Di Camillo, Joseph was the seventh of twelve children, and the youngest of five brothers who comprised the nucleus of the DiCamillo Bakery.
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Pandoro

Pandoro

“Nothing looks more dramatic on a Christmas table than a Pandoro.”

Some words are lost in translation: our Pandoro isn’t one of those. Literally

“golden bread” (due to both its color and amount of egg used in baking), Pandoro is a star-shaped crown of a cake-bread and is dusted with powdered sugar before serving. The sight of this cake brings to mind a snow-capped mountain in the Alps or the Apennine Mountains that kept Italy a kingdom of regions, each with its own specialty in the baker’s art.

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Biscotti and Me

Fancy Food Show 1983, Michael & Theresa Di Camillo.

There is always a moment, or a product that sets loose an entirely new trend in the marketplace. Invariably, it is on the shoulders of what came before, but there is that moment when something explodes on the scene with all the newness of new life. I was fortunate to have been there at such a moment. 

Still, to have been the first is no guarantee of longevity, profit-- or even the recognition of originality.  I have been fortunate to have experienced all of them.  

Di Camillo Storefront 14th Street - 1925

In 1920 my grandparents set in motion a humble enterprise in Niagara Falls, New York: a bakery and a grocery store.  They made bread and biscotti for their neighbors.  Against incredible odds, this family enterprise continues to this day.

Our Original Biscotti Di Vino Bag

In 1979 I took our family’s Biscotti di Vino and put them in a brown coffee style bag, tied a piece of brown ribbon around the bag, and sketched a label. With all the confidence of youth, I packed my samples and headed to New York City.  I knew what was happening in food retailing, as I had lived around the corner from Zabars in the mid-1970s. It seemed to me, at the time, that every week they had taken over a new storefront on Broadway. The vitality of “food-halls” in the upscale department stores—Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus was hard to miss. The Silver Pallet,  E.A.T., and Baldacci’s were among the most exciting. The sight of bags of “Famous Amos Chocolate Chip cookies” in Bloomingdales window stuck with me!  However, it was the opening of Dean & Deluca that made me see my future.  

Michael Di Camillo, 1982

My samples in hand I walked into these stores, and sold them on the spot!  It was from these sales that word spread.   Simply being on the shelf of these iconic stores was enough. Word spread with a rapidity I’ll never forget.   Calls came to us from all over the country without engaging any sales-force, or agents. The internet was still over a decade away. The New York Times was the first to give us national media recognition.  On Wednesday December 3, 1980 Florence Fabricant wrote:

“One of the more sophisticated cookies to appear in recent months is Di Camillo’s Biscotti Di Vino, buttery, sesame coated red wine sticks”.

Bloomingdale's 1980, Michael Di Camillo

My timing had been perfect. Before that simple bag of our Biscotti di Vino appeared in the hallowed food-halls of New York, “biscotti” was generally an unknown food outside of the Italian-American community in America.  But the next ten years saw an ever-growing recognition, and our menu of biscotti grew with it. The Fancy Food Shows spread the word with a staggering momentum. Bloomingdale’s window-displays of Di Camillo biscotti followed, and we became a fixture in the Nieman Marcus catalogue. It was a dream come true.

By 1990 the specialty food market was awash in American biscotti companies who had been inspired by our success.  Many penetrated the market more massively, expanded the category, and took the concept in different directions.  All of them helped to make this country more aware of this Italian take on a cookie. It was again the New York Times that caught the tenor of what had happened.  It was Miriam Burros who wrote the half-page article on biscotti, Wednesday October 20, 1993 which she titled "For The ‘Deny Me’ Decade, The Right Cookie”. I am proud of the fact she listed Di Camillo Bakery first.

Marshall Fields, Chicago 1982, Michael Di Camillo

This in a nut shell is how it all began, and why today any reasonably- informed twelve year old in North America knows what “biscotti” is.

Michael Di Camillo Fancy Food Show, NYC Coliseum 1982

 

The Library as a Factory

One of my favorite books of 2015 was Alex Johnson’s "Improbable Libraries:  A Visual Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Libraries." This gem includes an entire chapter on libraries brought to you, literally, by animals, including a book-delivering camel. Also present: the NYC phone-booth libraries that the “Department of Urban Betterment” dreamt up. The winner for me? A custom-built home library in Texas with—get this— a bosun's-chair suspended by a chain from the ceiling.

One group that didn’t make it into this otherwise charming book (which I recommend highly): the library as a factory of learning. There are two libraries that have played a large part in my life that were conceived of and designed as factories: The Earl W. Brydges Niagara Falls Public Library (which actually looks just like a factory), and The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh Memorial Library at Notre Dame, that still kind of functions as one.

To begin with the latter, which almost anyone who has suffered through a college-football game knows by sight: The colossal Hesburgh Library sports on its south-side a full-length 14-story multi-color mosaic known as “The Word Of Life” but which everybody know as “Touchdown Jesus.” The mosaic looms large, literally, into Notre Dame Stadium, perfectly in line with the goal-posts.

But the point of the mosaic—and the plethora of gold-leaf image-tracery of Old Testament icons (the burning bush, the root of Jesse) that decorate the exterior of the Hesburgh library: All of the decoration is kept on the outside. Inside the library is, to say the least, spartan. And that’s being generous. The classrooms inside this monolith are not only totally windowless, but painted in colors reserved for a jail-cell. The basement is a labyrinth where there are, not only very few windows, but very, very little artificial light. Even the quaint “Rare Book Room” is at best, serviceable.

If this sounds like an architectural abortion, that’s not quite it: Fr. Hesburgh, it is said, wanted “his” library (though he refused to have it named after himself until the donors threatened to withdraw the funding, and he retired as president) to be a no-nonsesnse, all-business, no-distractions, “factory of learning” for students.

After the gold-cross on the top spire of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the golden statue of Mary on top of the golden dome, the Hesburgh Memorial Library — the third tallest structure at Notre Dame, flattens out just like the former New York City World Trade Center Twin Towers used to — as if to say: “We could have kept building taller, but modesty kept us from going any higher.” Indeed, due to the flatlands of Northern Indiana, Hesburgh Memorial Library looks even taller than it actually is. When it was completed in 1963 as “The Memorial Library” (the Hesburgh moniker didn’t come till he retired from the Notre Dame Presidency in 1987) it was one of the largest academic libraries in the world.

Where the Hesburgh Memorial Library went for a functional, soaring, obelisk-esque edifice, The Earl W. Brydges Niagara Falls Public Library by Paul Rudolf, completed one decade after the Notre Dame structure, seems to stretch out like a “Hey-Look-At-Me!” computer-meets-a-factory and comes to life.

This is the library I grew up with, and to a large degree grew up in, as it housed not only a children’s library, but on the second floor a theatre where free movies were shown, and on the uppermost floors, the archives of The City of Niagara Falls — where a real live archivist worked.

The exterior of The Niagara Falls Library is “expressionistic,” which I think is another way of saying that a lot of it is simply just for show. There are four identical towers that seem to mimic factory chimneys, but functionally they let in very little light—and a lot of rainwater—and had to be revised. There are faux-flying buttresses that stretch almost to the street at strange angles that add absolutely no space to the interior of the library, but chew up a ton of the lawn in front of it. In fact, the original (and more radical) design was carried out so poorly (to walk inside the library during the rainstorm was to walk back into a rainstorm, it was so leaky), that it had to be scrapped and for several years the contents of the Brydges library was moved BACK into the original Niagara Falls Carnegie Library down the street (a modest, non-descript, smallish structure).

However, once the holes were plugged, library patrons (in a city that, at the time of the library’s construction numbered only 70,000—and now only 45,000) were treated to a first-class library that inside allowed you to see from the floor of the central reading room right up to the (now dry) ceiling—and take in the overhanging mezzanines of the second and third floors, too.

The choice of a “factory” template for a library in Niagara Falls was a bit of genius: for the better part of a century the city’s denizens were employed by major factories along the Upper Niagara River (DuPont, Hooker Chemical, Carborundum, Oxy, Sohio) and had to schlep into awful-looking buildings that not only poured pollutants into the river (and Love Canal), but into the employees themselves. 

What better way to reverse this aversion to factories that took away life than to create a one-of-a-kind (I’ve never seen another library that even resembles the Brydges) “factory of family learning.” In fact, back in its earliest days, the library also sported an outdoor series of play-forts and basketball courts by the back entrance (right where the “children’s section” of the library was).

Of course there are numerous other examples of factory-libraries that could be mentioned. And if you think about it: once you get into the stacks of Sterling at Yale or St. Augustine’s at St. John’s, the academic library in general, is pretty no-nonsense. However, these buildings (and most libraries) are built to look beautiful, not functional. Still, Alex Johnson’s "Improbable Libraries" is worth a look—and if you are visiting Niagara Falls on a honeymoon or Notre Dame for a football game, be sure to stop in their singular factories of learning.

          Kevin Di Camillo, a Niagara Falls native, is a freelance editor and writer. His work as been anthologized in "Wild Dreams: the Best of Italian American-Americana”; and awarded the Foley Poetry Prize by America Magazine. A graduate of Notre Dame and Niagara University, he and his wife, Alicia live with their twins in Northern New Jersey. 

Saint Joseph's Day Table

Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19th, is, in Italy, also Father’s Day. The feast and festival—which always falls in the midst of Lent—is especially commemorated and celebrated in Sicily.

The tradition of the St. Joseph table of food “la tavala di San Giuseppe” has its origins in Sicily legend during the Middle Ages and attributes the end of a devastating drought to a prayer-devotion that the Sicilian people made to St. Joseph. This celebration is a symbolic “thank you” and renewal of the Sicilian people’s devotion to him. It is a shared celebration with the entire community where the riches of food are given as alms to the poor: Traditional etiquette is that no one can be turned away from
this table. As it is a living tradition, it has many interpreters and many food entries have been added and deleted along the way but two constants remain: no meat and sesame-coated breads in symbolic shapes.

A St. Joseph’s Day “Table” or “Altar” is a make-shift shrine-cum-dinner-festival held in one’s home, or more recently a church hall or club hall. The host family or group creates what amounts to a kinetic work of art. This table is rife with symbolism, particularly the decorative breads. It was this part of the meal that brought the DiCamillo family to be a participant in hundreds of these celebrations. Sicilian bakers sprinkle copious amounts of sesame seeds—which resemble and symbolize teardrops—on the many different types of St. Joseph’s Day Breads which Di Camillo Bakery has been producing for nearly a century.

The breads themselves are made from the same dough that forms our famous Scaletta “curly” bread, and come in the following shapes for St. Joseph’s Day:

The Latin Cross: Symbol of suffering and salvation.  



The Bambino: The baby Jesus to whom St. Joseph was foster-father,  St. Joseph’s Staff: Legend has it that St. Joseph’s staff blossomed into a lily, a symbol both of life and death,  St. Joseph’s Purse: this symbol is a reminder to give alms to the poor during Lent.



A Sheaf of Wheat: Wheat is a reminder that, when a single, tiny grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it bears much more food at harvest



St. Joseph himself: he is always represented in profile and hunched over with a cane, symbolizing that he was (according to tradition) an old man, while Mary was a teenager,  St. Joseph’s Beard: this is actually the Sheaf of Wheat turned upside down, but young children delight when their fathers and grandfathers hold their beard up to their face. It is another reminder of Joseph’s wisdom and old-age.



Heart: a symbol of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the
Immaculate Heart of Mary that flourished throughout Italy in general and Sicily in particular in the 19th century.



The Crown of Thorns: in remembrance of Christ’s passion and that,
despite the day’s feasting among Lent’s fasting, this was still a season of sorrow—but of hope, too!



The St. Joseph’s Day altar, in addition to the breads above, contains a plethora of non-meat dishes due to the fact that St. Joseph’s Day always falls during the season of Lent, and meat is forbidden during those forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter
Sunday. The very first “greens” of springtime, dandelions and cardones (“burdock”), are sprinkled on pizza. Fish and seafood from both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, especially anchovies and sardines (from “Sardina”, another Italian island), are served on Foccacia (Italian flat-bread), and Biscotti Di Camillo (our twice-baked Scaletta bread). Other St. Joseph’s Day staples include eggplant Caponata, excellent for dipping with Italian bread; as well as Pasta con Sarde, Egg frittas, bean dishes, olives, and especially lentils. 

 

Beautiful as the Saint Joseph’s Day Table is to behold, it is a practical work of art: it is meant to feed not only friends and relatives but, traditionally, to feed the hungry strangers: those who cannot host their own Table. Stunning to behold and delicious to
partake in, the Di Camillo Family is proud to have been a part of so many Italian-American St. Joseph’s Day Tables over our 96-year history.



Ironically the Di Camillo family founded their first bakery on the same street in Niagara Falls as their parish church—Saint Joseph’s—which has married and buried, baptized and anointed generations of us. Indeed, the first bakery also served as a grocery store where many items, from tuna to tomato paste to eggplant Caponata could be picked up in preparation for St. Joseph’s table.

As no feast is complete without dessert, no Saint Joseph’s altar would be finished without the flourish of sweet items. The Di Camillo family has supplied a dessert banquet of biscotti and cookies. Our celebrated Biscotti Di Prato (rated #1 by the New York Times), our authentic Silician fig-filled Bucaletti Cucudatti, Biscotti Regina (another anise cookie, covered in those sorrowful sesame seeds); Biscotti di Vino, the venerable biscuit made with red wine (and covered with sesame seeds), Pane di Spagne (our larger, more airy biscotti), and Biscotti Amaretti a cookie fundamental to any Sicilian dessert platter.

Viva San Giuseppe!

Thanksgiving For The Bread On Our Table

I have been assured by my Aunt Theresa that it is not just family lore that her father (my grandfather) Tomaso Di Camillo arrived in Niagara Falls, New York on Thanksgiving Day in 1898. It was the end of his journey from the Italian Abruzzi hill town of Villamagana. It seems that dates, feast days, and omens had deep meaning to my grandfather who was, by all accounts, a deeply spiritual man and the founder of our family bakery. The concept of a meal of thanksgiving appealed to him. Its significance was confirmed for him by his arrival on this quintessential America holiday.

My father’s family embraced Thanksgiving Day as if they themselves had invented it. The bakery they ran became, on this day, their private kitchen. Our Scaletta “curly” Italian breads, and Biscotti Di Prato were baked early in the day and then put aside. The bakery ovens, still hot from baking our daily fare, were now in the service of the Di Camillo family’s personal Thanksgiving dinner.

The preparations eventually involved nearly every woman in the family. The men were put into service to load the ovens. What remains most vivid for those of us lucky enough to have been present at these wonderful feasts is the memory, not of the traditional Thanksgiving Day turkey, but a roasted piglet! As the years passed, capons, and then finally turkeys themselves did eventually join the Di Camillo family Thanksgiving menu. However, the main event was always a roasted piglet that our grandfather, grandmother, and their descendants lovingly prepared, and then conveniently roasted in our bakery ovens! Our parents, aunts, and uncles have regaled us with stories of our grandfather even brushing the teeth of the piglet!

This very Di Camillo interpretation of Thanksgiving Day did, in short order, incorporate one dish of the traditional American meal: bread-stuffing. Although it never actually “stuffed” the cavity of the piglet, it was always served separately as a baked, crusty, savory side-dish-- very nearly a bread pudding. Certainly the bakeries day-old Italian Scaletta bread played a part in our families embrace of bread-stuffing. Our Scaletta “curly” Italian Breads were always seen as something precious, and day-old bread was always recycled: either ground for bread crumbs or sliced and toasted and buttered for our Biscotti Di Camillo (“Italian crisp-bread”). Our grandparents were very practical-- yet extravagant—people, and bread-stuffing became an early and central component of their Thanksgiving Day meal.

And as children, we were more interested in this delicious, crusty, savory baked bread-stuffing than in the actual meat course it accompanied!

For years we have offered in our retail stores our twice-cut and twice-baked Scaletta “curly” Italian bread for this essential Thanksgiving course. We know of no better beginning for the preparation of bread-stuffing than our Scaletta “curly” Bread twice-cut and twice-baked.

Our crusty sesame-studded breads make a hearty base for any bread stuffing recipe, and we are happy to share our family bread stuffing recipe with you as well as offer you the opportunity to purchase our bread no matter where you are on Thanksgiving Day, or throughout the year.

Matthew Di Camillo's Story

Getting involved in baking might, at first, seem like an odd transition from someone trained as an opera singer who spent five years as a voice professor at a small university renown for Musical Theatre. But actually, if you went even further back, you’d find that I always enjoyed working with food-- and I was always pretty good at it, too!

I grew up watching my father cook and bake wonderful things for our family on Sunday evenings. He worked tirelessly at the bakery office, so Sunday was his day in the kitchen. His dietary restrictions (lactose intolerant, no onion, no garlic) made his food amazingly creative and delicious! In college, I would miss Dad’s “Sunday Gravy” so much that I’d call him and he’d talk me through the process so that I could make it for my roommates. Hey, at least it got me out of doing dishes!

When my wife and I moved down south, I really began to indulge more in the kitchen. I missed my Di Camillo bread and rolls so I learned to make something that I could at least tolerate south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was always a fun and adventurous process. As I got more seasoned, my results became quite good. Around this time I also began brewing my own beer. The two seemed to make sense together: yeast, grain, and water. This was where I learned one of the more important lessons: how yeast behaves – so important for any baker and/or brewer.

When my wife found a new job at the University of Buffalo, we agreed it was time to move back to Western New York. I decided to put away my professional singing and teaching and move into something closer to my roots – Italian baking.

Ironically as a high school kid, I never worked in the bakery itself—rather, I worked as a clerk in one of our stores. But I found baking was an easy fit when I returned as an adult. Over the years, I had read a lot of books on baking and I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty. Almost immediately I began experimenting with natural leaven breads, cultivating and feeding my own starter, and even nurturing a sour culture over the last year. These experiments got me to the roots of bread: simple ingredients, precise measurements and temperatures, time, Old-World molding techniques, and an intuitive spirit. In a world of mass-produced “breads” filled with preservatives and excess sugars, it’s amazing how deliciously simple good artisan bread can be.

And that’s my story of how I got into baking. If you were to ask me five years ago that I’d be doing what I’m doing now I’d say, “You’re nuts!” I guess life isn’t always predictable but it does seem to give us what we can handle. I’ve also been so fortunate to be around family and co-workers I’ve known all my life. Not a bad gig!                      

                                                                        --Matthew Di Camillo

Aunt Gorgeous's Ninetieth Birthday

Betty Di Camillo King

My father's family always loved a party, and with eleven children they never had to wonder whom to invite! 

Di Camillo Family, Circa 1934

My grandmother, who was a skillful cook, loved cooking big, elaborate meals-- and with seven   daughters, she had quite a staff to assist. Some of my most vivid memories growing up were the family parties held at my grandmother's apartment over our old store on Fourteenth Street in Niagara Falls.

Original 14th Street Store Niagara Falls, NY, Circa 1925

These repasts were fascinating events for my brothers, cousins, and me. The preparations were days in the making.  My mother, aunts, and grandmother, were totally immersed in the cooking. My aunt Angelica and aunt Theresa were always in charge of the beautiful table preparations -linens. silver  and a fruit arrangement being de rigueur!  There were always at least two meat dishes, countless vegetables, the obligatory pasta, pounds of potatoes, and, of course, an extraordinary bread assortment.

 Grandma Di Camillo with The Pig, Circa 1960    
Thanksgiving Di Camillo 3rd Generation Children, Circa 1954
The Roasted Pig was central to our Thanksgiving celebration. This meat course evolved into our family's ultimate celebratory food expression.  As children we were fascinated by my grandmother's preparation of the pig: washing it and making it dance for us before it went into the pan.

And then the final presentation: the piglet had cherries in its eyes, and a red ripe apple in its mouth. These parties we never forgot, never could forget. With three piano-players, a mezzo-soprano, and a tenor in the family, there was always a floor-show of singing and music that preceded and followed these celebrations.  My brothers, cousins and I were amazed as our aunts and uncles became a virtual vaudeville act. Our family has always taken advantage of the fact that we had a bakery. It was, as I've mentioned in an earlier blog, practically part of my grandparents' business-plan to keep eleven children employed and fed.  From the earliest times, the bakery ovens have helped to cook many a piglet (and more!) for our family celebrations.

Aunt Gorgeous looking gorgeous at 90

Recently our Aunt Angelica, one of the original eleven of my father's sisters and brothers, celebrated her ninetieth birthday.  "Aunt Gorgeous", (as she instructed us as children to call her--and this was long before Barbara Streisand!) has worked in the bakery since she was sixteen and is, to this very day, still at her desk or in the Linwood Avenue store. Every family should have their own "Auntie Mame." We hand "Aunt Angelica" our stylish, over the top aunt, who never missed our birthday parties! With only three of the original Di Camillo eleven left.

Angelica DI Camillo, Joe Di Camillo, Philip Alterio, Theresa Di Camillo, Katie Di Camillo Alterio, Barbara Di Camillo, Jerri Di Camillo 

My cousin Betty, spear-headed a family party to celebrate this milestone--and to give the new generations of Di Camillos a taste of a family tradition that we have always cherished-- A Di Camillo Party!

Di Camillo Family

From the very beginning of my cousin Betty's plans for Aunt Gorgeous' Birthday party, she insisted on a piglet-- as she said, "that's a Di Camillo thing!" I must admit I dragged my feet on that point, as my house was the where we were having the party!  All I could imagine was the difficulty of cooking a whole pig-a procedure that takes about seven hours!  However, as the pictures attest, the pig helped make it an unforgettable event. All the family joined in contributing at least a course or two. Thankfully, my brother, Tom, our master-baker,  who is never as happy as when he has an oven in front of him,  cooked the pig in my backyard.

The pig wound up serving sixty adults and fourteen children under the age of ten!  The party poster was a huge success. I have a wonderful studio photo of Aunt Angelica.  She was seventeen when the photo was taken. I have never been able to find a use for it in my chronicling of this family. This party offered the perfect venue.  I had it enlarged to poster size and hung it over the table.

But this was only the beginning of its use. I soon realized her head could be superimposed on a nearly life size, vintage nude portrait I have over my fireplace.

She loved it as the pictures attest!

Robin King, Angelica Di Camillo, Michael Di Camillo

Below is our menu from Aunt Gorgeous's party, which essentially amounted to a large family potluck.

Happy Birthday Aunt Gorgeous!

Di Camillo Family The Next Generation

Appetizers:

Di Camillo Romano Pizza

Fried Zucchini Flowers

Fresh Fried Potato Chips

Asiago Cheese

Dinner:

Cold Fresh Corn Salad

Fresh Green Salad

Tomato and Basil Salad

Fresh Applesauce with Pear

Fresh-Cut Melon and Fruit Salad

Roasted Potatoes

Vegetables:

Crudites

Meats: 

Roasted Peppers and Onions

Pork Sausage

Dinner-Sized Hard Rolls

Baquette Loaves

Di Camillo Scaletta "Curly" Bread

The Roasted Pig

Crudites

Dessert:

Di Camillo Silver Pound-Cake Petit Fours

Di Camillo Biscotti
Di Camillo Chocolate Decorated Marshmellows
Di Camillo German Chocolate Cake

History of Di Camillo Italian Scaletta Bread

Though my grandparents were one in everything they did, it was without question, my grandfather’s vision that drove them to start our bakery.  Family lore has always held that facing the reality of 11 children he is remembered saying "we will always have something to eat and a place to work."

The older I get the more I'm fascinated by the historical record of people, places and things.  Before I turned fifty it seemed all I ever read was fiction.  Now, all I seem to read is biography.  This change in my reading habits has, no doubt, fed an interest in leaving a written record of this family bakery, that I was fortunate enough to be born into, and the very distinctive bread that our family bakery has been making since 1920.

The history of our Scaletta Curly Bread is a tangled trail spanning nearly a century, two contents with many contributors and a little mystery along the way.  What is certain is that our family bakery has been making this bread continuously with very few changes ever since.

It was my grandparents Tomaso and Addolorata Di Camillo who began our bakery. They were both immigrants form the Abruzzi region of Italy and had immigrated to Niagara Falls at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.  This was, at the time, an area of exceptional industry, with the construction and completion of the hydroelectric power plant of Niagara Falls.  A flood of Italian immigrant poured into western New York from every part of the Italian peninsula, all with memories of the bread they left behind.

When my grandparents purchased the original home of our bakery on 14 th Street in Niagara Falls there was already an existing brick oven in the cellar, a store on street level, though both hand been closed, two floors of apartments (one of which they were to live in for the next 70 years) and stables in the back.  My grandfather purchased the entire property from the bank in foreclosure.  At first the cellar ovens were rented out and my grandfather continued working at The Shredded Wheat bakery (interestingly Niagara Falls is where this iconic breakfast cereal originated) and the Carborundum  Company.


My grandfather took over the bakery in 1920 with his sons and in that year The  Di Camillo Bakery  officially opened . The bread that they began making seems to have evolved both from their Abruzzi bread traditions (my grandfather had been a caterer in Italy) and the traditions of their Sicilian neighbors who made up a sizable portion of the Italian community. In all my travels in Italy  (I never pass up a church or bakery when I'm there!) I have never found it exactly.   I certainly have seen what I felt may have been the source, particularly in Sicily.  Once in Sulmona in Abruzzi I remember being struck by the similarity to our original store and bakery with the bread , rolls, pizza and biscotti in display cases and a smattering of Italian grocery items on the shelves. I had nearly the same experience in a "panifico " (a bread bakery) in Mondello outside of Palermo.  Still, for all the similarities I have found, never have I seen this exact loaf.

        

When my grandfather began the bakery it was wholesale and home delivery to the countless Italian stores, bars, restaurants and households in the city. It was two years later that my grandmother, with her daughters as lieutenants and under her own initiative, opened the store, which was until then vacant. In addition to our bread and rolls the store stocked Italian grocery essentials. With 10 children eventually in the family, the labor force was divided with the boys in the bakery and the girls running the store. There are countless stories in our family of the trials and tribulations of these early years. The bread price wars, the Mafia bombing when my grandfather stopped paying protection money. They endured it all, never gave up and we continue this family legacy of making this iconic loaf of bread to this day!

        

        

“Scaletta” means ladder, and the name refers to the back-and-forth curling of our bread’s shape. The truly extraordinary part of the preparation that is involved in making our bread is the amount of hand rolling and forming that is required in creating it.  Each loaf is first rolled out in a rope nearly five feet long from simple flour, water, yeast, salt dough.  Then each rope is curled back and forth in a curling fashion.  It is in this unique time consuming process that the distinctive texture, taste and look of our bread is created.  After being rolled and curled by hand, randomly topped with sesame seeds (a marker of its Sicilian roots) it is then is left to rest on corn meal dusted boards. Before entering the oven each loaf is flipped and split or cut open with a scalpel immediately before being slid directly on to the oven deck. As it rises in the oven a thick expansive golden crust develops and the clean taste and fibrous texture take hold of each loaf.

The finished shape is the reason for the “Scaletta" name.  The English nickname "curly” bread stems from the back and forth curl of the loaf.

This authentic Italian bread production has remained unchanged for over ninety-three years. This classic bread takes four hours to produce and is made without sugar, shortening or preservatives.  Our Scaletta Curly Bread is the quintessence of time-honored, slow-food preparation.


The origins of our bread are rooted in the early 20th-century wave of Italian-immigrants who landed on the East Coast and moved inland to Western New York. From every region of Italy they brought different but delicious bread-baking traditions.

In the end our bread is a living record of our family and something of a history of the Italian community of Western New York in the early part of the 20th Century.

 

The Father's of Di Camillo Bakery

First row:  Frank & Tom DiCamillo 1942, Tom & Betty DiCamillo 1935, Second row:  David & Frank Di Camillo 1943, Nick DiCamillo with Judy & Jimmy 1945, Third row: DiCamillo brothers & Father 1998

Father's Day in Italy is celebrated on St Joseph's Day, March 18, not on June 16 as we do here in the U.S. I always enjoy how traditions and holidays in Italy have so many layers of meaning and often some theological aspect as well.

Though my grandparents were one in everything they did, it was without question, my grandfather’s vision that drove them to start our bakery. Family lore has always held that facing the reality of 11 children he is remembered saying "we will always have something to eat and a place to work".

Coming soon...the story continues with "The History of Di Camillo Scaletta Curly Bread."