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.
- Michael DiCamillo