LAST BREAD BAKER IN LITTLE ITALY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The spirit of a horse-drawn bread wagon bangs around Baltimore inside a dented Dodge van with "M. Marinelli & Son" hung in the window.

Behind the wheel sits the "son" -- 81-year-old Anthony Marinelli, last of the old-time Little Italy bakers still making bread at his house. Just about the same age as his business, Tony Marinelli's entire life has been mixed up like flour and water in golden loaves of "pane."

"There were four or five Italian bakers around here in the old days," says Mr. Marinelli, whose earliest memory is hanging on his father's bread wagon when deliveries were made door-to-door. "I'm the only one left."

At the turn of the century, when nearly half the families in America had stopped making bread regularly at home, bakers began landing at the head of the Patapsco River on waves of German, Italian, Jewish and Polish immigration.

In rowhouses, storefronts, backyards and basements throughout the city, the newcomers made bread reminiscent of the old country with some concession to American tastes. Dependent on their own neighborhoods for business, Baltimore's ethnic bakers ventured out along cobbled streets for new markets, wagons piled with loaves.

By World War I, when it was still a sin to have bread sliced at the store, at least five families in Little Italy were turning out bread from brick ovens in their homes: Marinelli, Scelsi, Giordano, Maranto and Impallaria.

Scelsi, convinced that wood heat blessed the bread with exquisite texture, burned wood in brick ovens long after others had switched to oil. Maranto threw stale bread in the oven when fuel ran low and delivered door-to-door from wicker baskets.

Pasquale "Joe" Impallaria moved his wife and 11 children into second-floor bedrooms above the ovens every winter to save money on heat. During the Depression, his wife, Polisetta, gave cotton flour sacks to homemakers who sewed them into sheets, pillowcases and clothes for their children.

And, according to Anthony Giordano, 67, when the family bakery closed for four days after his father Sam burned his hand, "people thought it was the end of the world."

He marvels: "People still stop me on the street and ask: 'When you gonna make that good bread?' "

Having tried in vain to duplicate Giordano bread in the Magic Chef oven at his Tunlaw Street home, he just smiles and shakes his head. "It's not the recipe, there's not much to dough. It's the oven that makes the bread."

The brick-oven bakery that his grandfather, Giovanni, ran closed in the mid-1960s. In 1961, the Scelsis went out of business. And the Slemmers Lane ovens that operated for most of the century under the names Impallaria and Gramigna went cold in 1981, at a time when a loaf sold for 45 cents.

Maranto still bakes 14,000 loaves a week -- supplying small accounts like Apicella's Grocery as well as Giant supermarkets. But it moved to West Baltimore in 1916.

Only Tony Marinelli and his Thai bakery crew are still making wholesale commercial bread in Baltimore's original Italian neighborhood.

He is Little Italy's last direct link to the old-country bread men who started bakeries right off the boat. Never married, Mr. Marinelli dotes instead on his seven-day-a-week business. None of his six sisters or their college-educated children is interested in taking over.

"He said he was going to sell the business to me a couple of times, but always he change his mind. He just can't let go of it," says baker Niwattra "Nina" Rukki, 43, a Bangkok university graduate who has worked for Mr. Marinelli since 1976. "I'm looking at other [prospects]. It might take him forever to sell to me. And I don't want to be baking bread when I'm as old as Tony."

Without the bakery, counters the stubborn Mr. Marinelli, he wouldn't have lived this long.

"You gotta do something. Ain't no use hanging on the corner like all the retired guys, worried about when you're gonna die," he says.

About 800 loaves a day roll out of the cinder-block bakery behind the Central Avenue rowhouse where Mr. Marinelli eats, sleeps, and labors to sustain the business his father started a few years after arriving in Baltimore from Italy in 1910.

"It ain't a hell of a lot," he says of production. "People think it's a lot, but it ain't."

Compared with the 370,000 rolls an hour that pop out of H&S; Bakery's $450-million-a-year operation in nearby Fells Point, Mr. Marinelli's bakery is a quaint way to pay the bills.

"He's still around, huh? When I was young, he was already old," said H&S; chief John Paterakis, 64, who started out as a boy on his father Isidore's bread truck. "Tony's still making it by hand? Nobody makes it by hand anymore."

Yes, essentially by hand.

"With the big guys, it's all push-buttons, and the bread comes out soggy-like," says Mr. Marinelli. Customers from all over town seem to agree, making their way to 321 S. Central Ave. for a fresh, crusty, 80-cent loaf, which Tony promotes as "cheaper than wholesale."

"He's got the best," said Morrell Park's Lester White, trading a handful of coins for a bag of Marinelli bread. "Whenever we have spaghetti, I come down here, about 20 years now. His bread's got that old-time flavor -- crisp on the outside, like velvet inside. It's a dying art."

Hardly.

The metropolitan Yellow Pages lists six columns of retail bakeries. From the Greek Town Bakery on Eastern Avenue to Brown's Caribbean Bakery on Park Heights Avenue, many ovens still produce fresh bread.

But in Little Italy, only Anthony Marinelli continues.

"You can see him running around delivering bread in that little van at all hours," says Nick Vaccaro, who runs a neighborhood pastry business. "He's working day and night."

Mr. Marinelli delivers to about 20 restaurants around town.

He sells day-old loaves cheap for garlic bread; helps St. Leo's when the Roman Catholic church puts on spaghetti dinners; and sells his childhood parish hundreds of pounds of raw dough that is deep-fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar at the St. Gabriel festival.

But that's just crumbs compared with the bread traffic along streets named Stiles, Exeter, Fawn, Trinity, Albemarle and High in the days when Mary Scelsi DeNitti's father sold his business to Anthony Marinelli's dad.

"My father, Salvatore, and his three brothers started baking bread on President Street when they came over from Italy in 1906 . . .," said Mrs. DeNitti, 89, the daughter of bakers and a baker's widow. "They had two wagons on the street with the horse, selling bread. They used to ship it to restaurants and grocery stores in burlap bags and hand-deliver it to doorsteps from baskets."

By 1913, the Scelsi brothers took a separate path to prosperity.

Believing more money was to be made selling bread in the growing town of Pittsfield, Mass., Joseph Scelsi left the family's President Street home.

Up in Pittsfield, Joseph Scelsi made good and soon sent for his brother Salvatore.

"That's when we sold to Marinelli, Tony was just a couple of years old when we sold to his father," recalls Mrs. DeNitti. "His father said: 'I don't know nothin' about bread,' and my father told him, 'I'll teach you. . . .' "

As Salvatore Scelsi taught Michael Marinelli, Michael taught his son Anthony, and Anthony has taught Sombut "Nick" Poosiri, Pichayut "Too" Vickyanont, and Ms. Rukki, who live in a house Mr. Marinelli owns next to the bakery.

"Tony's a good guy, he still serves most of the restaurants down here, but his bread today is not the bread my father taught his father," says Mrs. DeNitti. "It's not like years ago. Times change."

In an art dating back to crude cakes baked in the Stone Age, times change.

While Anthony Marinelli manages his business from the house where he has lived nearly all his life, makes deliveries, and sells loaves at the front door, he doesn't really make the bread that bears his family name anymore.

The fingernails with dough beneath them belong to Mr. Poosiri, Mr. Vickyanont and Ms. Rukki.

Whether a baker has landed among the potholes and railroad tracks of Central Avenue by way of Sicily or Bangkok, they still get up before dawn to make the dough.

The first shift of Mr. Poosiri and Mr. Vickyanont moves through a silent, flour-dusted choreography in a room the size of a suburban kitchen.

Dented trash cans filled with sugar and salt stand in a corner. A refrigerator with glass doors holds Fleischmann's yeast and Esskay lard. Stacked against one wall are 100-pound sacks of Con-Agra flour.

In front of the wall that separates Mr. Marinelli's bakery from his kitchen stands an automatic mixer made in the 1940s by the U. H. Day Co. of Cincinnati, a white metal monster caked with dried dough. "You grease it and oil it every couple weeks, you got a dough mixer for life," says Mr. Marinelli.

Mr. Poosiri pours buckets of water into the machine's gaping jaw to moisten the flour, yeast, lard, salt, and sugar already inside. He hand cranks the jaw shut, hits a button, and the mixing begins.

Later, the machine spits back 300 pounds of dough that rises from the hopper like a frozen white wave.

One man chops 16 clumps of fist-sized dough per minute from a large mound on the work table; the other rolls the 1 1/8 -pound clumps on the table and tosses them into wooden trays. The clumps are "punched" two or three times to get air into the dough. After they are fed into a machine that shapes them into loaves, the dough is arranged on baking trays sprinkled with corn starch.

By the time the sun is breaking, an electric oven set between 325 and 350 degrees is turning dough into the staff of life. The oven, which has six revolving trays, turns out more than 200 loaves every 50 minutes.

Just up is Anthony Marinelli. Shirtless after washing -- a blue towel over his shoulder and a religious medal hanging from his neck -- he walks a few steps from home to bakery to see how the LTC day is shaping up.

He says: "I gotta make sure they make the bread right, like I tell 'em too."

Replies Ms. Rukki: "It would be easier if he had better equipment."

Such a legacy might have passed Tony Marinelli by, if he hadn't hurt his back at Bethlehem Steel Corp. in 1945.

"I started riding on the truck full time then, running bread in and out of the restaurants," he says. "My father left me the business when he died in 1979. He was 95 and walked with two canes, but he kept going. He used to dunk 2-day-old bread into a big glass of wine in the morning, and that was breakfast. He came to this house from President Street in 1914 with a horse and wagon. We used to sell all over the city in them days."

The good old days of Scelsi, Marinelli, Giordano, and Impallaria.

Some crust was thicker than others, some more tan than brown. Each bakery tapered its loaves a special way. And individual marks -- a long part near the side or four lines across the top -- were cut into each loaf for identity; richer in character than "American bread" sold in grocery stores.

"Fresh hot bread with good Italian oil, salt and pepper, and grated cheese! We waited for it like it was steak. You always had a piece of bread to eat," recalls Jenny Impallaria Cremen, 67. Such simple treats made the Depression pass more easily for her family than others.

And, of course, an Impallaria loaf was the best in Little Italy.

Unless you ask Anthony Giordano, whose grandfather would sit down in front of the oven after making the day's last loaf, break out a jug of wine and his clarinet and play Italian songs for hours.

"This ain't just me saying this," says Mr. Giordano, "but ours was the best."

Unless you ask Mary DeNitti, whose mother, Maria Scelsi, worked the oven for nearly 30 years after her husband died in 1934.

"The older ones down here, they were all raised on my mother's bread," says Mrs. DeNitti. "You ask any of them -- it was good."

Good, but not quite as good as Marinelli bread, according to Anthony Marinelli.

"Everybody knows our bread is good -- delicious, like my father made it," he says. "You make the bread right, it's good."

Little Italy's bakeries

(1) Marinelli Bakery, 321 South Central Avenue, 1914-to-present.

(2) Scelsi Bakery, 311 President Street, 1906-to-1913;

(3) southwest corner of Bank and Eden Streets from 1913-to-1914;

(4) 315 South High Street from 1914-to-1918;

(5) 317 South High Street, 1918-to-1961.

(6) Maranto Bakery, 257 North Exeter Street, from 1914 to 1916 (At 248 N. Pearl Street since 1916)

(7) Giordano Bakery, southwest corner of Bank and Eden Streets, about 1914 through the mid-1960s.

(8) Impallaria/Gramigna Bakery, 806-808 Stiles Street at Slemmers Lane, 1906 through about 1981, closed for about 18 years through the mid-1960s and 1970s.

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