Last Bread Baker In Little Italy

January 16, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

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."

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