Family of Bakers

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.

 

The Father's of Di Camillo Bakery

First row:  Frank & Tom DiCamillo 1942, Tom & Betty DiCamillo 1935, Second row:  David & Frank Di Camillo 1943, Nick DiCamillo with Judy & Jimmy 1945, Third row: DiCamillo brothers & Father 1998

Father's Day in Italy is celebrated on St Joseph's Day, March 18, not on June 16 as we do here in the U.S. I always enjoy how traditions and holidays in Italy have so many layers of meaning and often some theological aspect as well.

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".

Coming soon...the story continues with "The History of Di Camillo Scaletta Curly Bread."

Bucellati Cucidati

Every Sicilian American I have ever known has a nostalgic, personal story about the Cucidati cookie. Always in their story is a mother, aunt, grandmother, or neighbor who made the most sublime and satisfying Cucidati in the world—and I believe all of them! Personally, I have never met anything made with fig that I didn't like.
Read more

Colomba Cake Adventure

In the Beginning 
My three brothers and I have been fascinated with Italian Christmas Panettone and Easter Colombo cakes for nearly twenty years.  Since our family bakery started life in 1920 as a "panifico" or bread bakery, I guess it isn't all that surprising that these cake-like breads have dazzled us.  Like our scaletta “curly” breads they are complicated, time-consuming and labor-intensive....in other words, they are right up our alley!  They also have other things in common like pure ingredients and precise procedures. Perhaps the most significant underlying fascination they have for us is that they are essentially creations of the professional baker: The procedures and equipment involved in making them are simply out of the normal range of home baking.

The special miracle of the Panettone/Colomba breads, besides the wonderfully fragrant taste and bread-like/cake texture is its remarkable longevity or “keeping” quality. This is white-magic on a high level to professional bakers!  In fact, unlike almost everything else a baker creates this peculiar bread-cake actually improves after it ages a bit. It maintains its soft texture and taste for months and months and-- miracle of miracle-- no mold!  Even more remarkable: this is all done without any artificial preservatives! What professional baker could ask for more?

Our “Colomba Adventure” began about two decades ago with various attempts to create our own leavening agent, lemons combined with raisins then a vinegar and a white-wine starter. They all delivered interesting results but fell short on keeping quality, texture, and appearance.

Next, we began then to import a “starter” (an all-natural yeast) from Germany that we had read about in a European bakery journal. This was a breakthrough for us and the results were more reliable and the keeping quality soared, along with our spirits and hopes!  We still had not reached our goal but we persevered with this imported starter hoping that we could improve our results with continued use and experimentation.  
At this point circumstances intervened and, per my brother David (in charge of all things money) decreed that it simply wasn't cost-effective for us to import Colomba cakes from Italy. However, necessity is a great motivator and it was here that I made my own contribution to our Colomba odyssey. Until this point  my involvement  was  simply selling and packaging the product-- and annoying my brother Tom the baker with a constant stream of criticisms.

I'm always looking for excuses to go pretty much anywhere but particularly to Italy!  I had been in contact with an Italian producer of Panettone starters and since we were in the January doldrums, a bleak business time for most bakers, I hopped on a plane and went to Italy to visit them.  My brothers, knowing my penchant for wanderlust, were not about to pick up the tab for this trip, but I didn't care: it was a trip to Italy!

The wonderful Italian team I met there were a fountain of information, and loads of zany fun. I still remember them offering me a glass of proseco-- before noon! When I sighted the hour, the team-leader Stefano said, “Relax, Michael, you’re in Italy"! I followed his advice (perhaps to a fault). They gave me a cram-course on Colomba-cake baking technique (which frankly I only half-understood but I trained myself to repeat it like an actor his line for the benefit of my brother Tom). They then handed me a surprisingly heavy sample-bag of starter yeast (or what is known as “mother-yeast”) which I grew to hate as I dragged it onto countless trains (there was no need to rush home: after all I was on holiday!)

One week later at U.S. Customs I was being drilled on my beat-up bag and made to feel like I was in possession of contraband! However, after a dispiriting length of time the starter and I both made it through customs and the roller-coaster ride to realizing our goal of making authentic Colomba cake in our own bakery was finally coming into sight.
That was a year ago and we have been making Panettone for every holiday we could think of since: Valentine’s day, Mother’s day, and, of course, Easter Colomba bread in the shape of doves. Every production has been a little bit better than the one that preceded it!

This year our Colomba cake has hit the bulls-eye we have been aiming at.  My brother Tom, who has overseen the production of all of our products since 1967, has without question been the man who made this a success story for us.  His skill with all that rises in an oven, combined with patience, cool judgment, his love of precision, and tenacity allowed us to realize our goal.

But the real joy in realizing our goal is that we four brothers did it together: My oldest brother, David, figures out how to pay for everything we do. My brother Skip manages the very structure of our business. And of course, Tom the master baker, and finally me: the salesman. It works for us, and we work for each other!

The Baker’s Journal : Making Colomba Bread
In reading about the history of the Italian Easter Colomba cake I am amazed and frankly a little skeptical but it is traceable to medieval times, a barbarian siege of the City of Pavia, later Frederick Barbarosa even makes an appearance into its history! For me this noble history is merely the romantic ledged behind what is the accomplishment of 19th , 20th  and 21st century Italian bakers.  Their genius was to embrace the advances in baking science without ever losing their way, without ever forgetting that it is whole ingredients and traditional methods which make this cake so delicious and possible. It is only natural that the Colomba cake is rich in natural ingredients as well.

Our Colomba Bread-Cake (and it is truly a combination of both bread and cake) begins with butter, sugar, egg yolks, flour and a highly-specialized imported Italian yeast (known as a “natural” or “mother-starter”) .This yeast is used only in the production of Colomba Bread and its Christmas counterpart, Panettone.

After mixing only a part of the above ingredients to create what is known as a “lean-dough”, the next step is to stop. And wait: the dough must ferment overnight at an optimum temperature that is cool yet not cold. In doing so, the unique flavor and natural enzymes are released.

Next day, the “sponge-dough” as it is now called, is enriched with more sugar, eggs, and butter: this is known as the “second-mix”.  For this Second or “Final mix” dried tart-cherries, candied oranges imported from Italy, and black and gold rum-soaked raisins are added. The dough then is allowed to ferment (or “rest”) for at least five more hours in a mixing bowl.

During this time our eyes are not so much on the timer, but on the dough itself: Colomba dough is particularly sensitive to the cold weather and since spring-time in Niagara Falls can go from sunny to snow-storm in less than an hour.

The dough is then cut or “scaled” on a “buttered bench”: this is a long baker’s table coated in butter to prevent the dough from sticking AND which eliminates the need for extra flour (which would overly-toughen the dough). The dough is then divided into two pieces which are joined in the baking-mold. Before baking, the newborn Colomba doves spend two-to-three hours in a steam or “proof” box, where the humidity and temperature are carefully calibrated so that the unique Italian yeast will cultivate properly.

Out of the steam-box—but still not yet into the oven!—the Colomba loaves receive an icing or “glassa” on top: this is a delicious paste made from crushed almond flour, sugar, and egg-whites. Applying the glassa to the delicate risen dough is messy and challenging, as rough treatment can de-gas (that is, collapse) the dough.  It is worth the effort as it turns into a delectable baked-on frosting.

Each Colomba bread is then studded with whole almonds and sprinkled with large-grain, white-pearl sugar, another Italian product I found in my travels in Italy.

To let the Colomba “recover” from this final adornment, it receives another trip to the steam-box for a “final-proofing”. My brother Tom hovers around it (and a million other jobs). When it actually goes into the oven is a judgment call he makes, but the timing and temperature are pure chemistry: baked for forty-five minutes to an hour and checked with a thermometer.

At this point the entire baking area is filled with an aroma that is-- well, it may sound cliché-- but it is a heavenly aroma! I personally can’t stop peaking at them in the oven as they rise and rise in their molds, higher than you would every believe them to grow. The glassa turns a shiny gold and it seems a miracle to me that that yellow sticky dough covered in greyish topping could transform into such a beautiful creation.
If your mouth is watering and eager to taste our Easter Colomba bread, you’ll still have to wait (along with our bakers!) at least another eight-to-ten hours while they cool completely. The cooling—like all the other steps in the Colomba process—cannot be rushed since the temperature must be the same throughout the bread before it can be wrapped.

However, once wrapped, the Colomba bread, will last up to six months and it will not mold!

It has been quite adventure with a happy ending as we got the Colomba bread we were after—not in Italy, but right here in Niagara Falls, New York!