Family of Bakers

A Mother's Day Biscotti Story: From Niagara Falls to Wichita Falls

“Miss Dvorken, circa 1936 in a dress she designed and sewed herself for her violin recital at Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas”

 In the near-century of our existence we have served, literally, generations of families, but Margaret Dvorken holds a place of honor at the Di Camillo family table.           

In the early 1980s, Margaret Dvorken, a Texan, was introduced to Di Camillo Bakery’s biscotti by her friend Carol, a Niagara Falls native who had relocated to Mrs. Dvorken’s town of Wichita Falls, Texas.

“Everyone in our office knows Margaret Dvorken—she’s ordered so much so often we thought she had a retail store in Texas!” recalls my uncle Michael Di Camillo.

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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. 

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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. 

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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

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.