Until Friday morning, I had never set foot on Pearl Street in Baltimore, and, truth be told, I didn't even know we had one. I also somehow missed the fact that on this Pearl Street, tucked behind Lexington Market on the west side of town, there is an Italian bakery, and this Italian bakery has been operating in Baltimore since the year World War I broke out in Europe.
That would be 1914. That would be 103 years of warm, crusty, dusted-with-cornmeal bread coming out of 244 Pearl Street: Vienna loaves and kaiser rolls and sub rolls in five lengths — six-inch, eight-inch, 10-inch, 11-inch, 12-inch, plus a three-footer on demand.
F&S Maranto might be the last family-owned, standalone Italian bread baker in Baltimore. It has been at the same location, near the corner of Pearl and West Saratoga streets, since two brothers from Sicily, Frank and Salvatore Maranto, established their business with coal-fired brick ovens.
There was once a large Italian immigrant community — apparently, mainly Sicilian — around Lexington Market. According to Bill Maranto, grandson of Frank, the Maranto brothers took over a bakery business from the Fava brothers, owners of the Trinacria grocery store on nearby Paca Street. (The Marantos and the Favas were from the same city, Cefalu.) The Favas wanted to get out of the bread business and concentrate on making pasta.
The rest is history, except we in the local press recorded only half of it, until now. The Trinacria story has been oft-told. But the Maranto one, not so much.
"We like to keep a low profile," says Bill Maranto, when I ask why we had not heard much about his family business, even when it turned 100 a few years ago.
If you happened to wander into the 200 block of Pearl St., you might miss the place altogether. There's just a small, blue-lettered sign for F&S Maranto on the white door of a white cinder-block building. There is no storefront for sales.
Once upon a time, there was.
Frank and Salvatore Maranto sold bread from their storefront, then they went door-to-door with a horse-drawn wagon, then with a single delivery truck. Today, the bakery has six trucks that deliver to more than 350 restaurants, sub shops and grocery stores. Your favorite cheesesteak or Italian cold cut sub might be served on a Maranto roll.
Way back when, several families of Italian immigrants baked bread in Baltimore; at least five of them were concentrated in Little Italy. But they closed years ago.
You can get Italian bread — or what passes for Italian bread — at several places now. But Maranto stands out because it bakes bread exclusively in the Italian style, and pretty much the Old World way. Over the past 103 years, various Marantos — fathers and brothers and uncles — baked thousands of loaves and rolls on pans. They also baked them in the classic hearth method, too. That tradition continues.
"We make our products from scratch every day," says Lauren Maranto Blanchet, Bill's daughter and the first woman to be involved in the bakery. Blanchet, with her brother, Brian Maranto, and sister, Jennifer Osborne, represent the fourth generation of the family business.
"We make dough every day, except Saturday," Blanchet says. "We have no freezers on site. We do not use preservatives. Our bread has a shelf life of just two or three days."
Blanchet says Maranto produces more than 4,000 hearth-baked loaves each week and another 10,000 dozen sub rolls and kaiser rolls.
Friday is always particularly busy, says Matt Blanchet, Lauren's husband, who joined the business in February and works the floor as operations manager. "The sub shops want their sub rolls fresh for the weekend," he says.
So the ovens run from about 6:30 Sunday morning through Saturday, at between 2 and 3 a.m., when there's a break in the baking for 27 to 28 hours. Maranto has about 35 employees, and many of them have been with the bakery for 20 years or longer.
While there is plenty of modern machinery in the bakery, the white-garbed bakers on Maranto's floor straighten loaves and rolls by hand.
Then they push racks of loaves into what they call the "brown room." (The room was for many years enclosed in brown curtains, and the name stuck.). The loaves stay in the "brown room" for one to two hours, depending on the season, the weather, the air temperature. "We want to give them time to bloom," Blanchet says.
The loaves then go into a steam room for a few minutes, then into one of three revolving ovens constantly set at between 350 and 400 degrees. The baking takes about 19 minutes. The ovens can handle anywhere from 60 to 120 dozen loaves or rolls at a time, depending on their size.
It's a beautiful, and aromatic, thing — 103 years of it, on Pearl Street.