Balistreri's: Making Bread
the old fashioned way
By Philip Nyhuis
Bread, for most gravy-swilling, cholesterol-chocked Americans, has usually meant the soft white stuff packaged in cellophane (if you cut off the crusts, you could squeeze the entire loaf into a glutinous lump the size of a baseball). Except for those lucky enough to have a bread-baking mother or grandmother, most non-ethnic, white bread Americans grew up ingesting some version of Wonderbread or “enriched bread” plastered with peanut butter, mayo, brown sugar, or Spam.
Woodstock generation bakers introduced kids to “natural” bread, hearty whole grain loaves made without preservatives and often sold in healthfood stores next to the Birkenstock sandals. Now another generation is opening bakeries and selling designer breadspesto, olive, tomato, walnut, etc.for up to three or four dollars a loaf. But through all the bread trends, one Buffalo bakery has been baking the same wonderful bread since Harry Truman took his morning strolls down Constitution Avenue.
For more than 50 years, generations of Buffalo bread lovers have been flocking to Balistreri’s Bakery on the lower west side. Hidden away at the end of an alley between a huge warehouse and a tall, faded Gothic/Victorian house, Balistreri’s Bakery is located across from a thruway entrance on a busy commercial street. There’s no parking lot and customers sometimes double park their cars or leave them running across the street at the thruway median while they dash into the bakery for a hot-out-of-the-oven loaf. On Sundays, customers sometimes pull into the parking lot of the muffler shop next door. It’s about as far away as you can get from Elmwood Avenue chic.
In 1948, Natale Balistreri and his brother Tony opened Balistreri’s Bakery at 49 Busti Avenue. The brothers had emigrated to Buffalo in the mid-1920s from Aspra, Sicily, with their father, Francisco, a bricklayer who helped build the Statler Towers and City Hall and later worked on the docks for Pillsbury.
In the first half of the century, the lower west side was the heart of the Italian and Sicilian immigrant communities. In High Hopes, his social history of Buffalo, Mark Goldman notes the way the Italian community was regarded by the ruling class with this quote from the official guidebook of the Pan American Exposition:
The Italian residents are quite a numerous body and have their place of abode principally on the lower west side near the Canal where fruit vending, peddling and other minor occupations comprise their daily avocation. Both [Poles and Italians]...live isolated from the rest of the city each with their own markets, stores and places of worship. The docks and railroads depend almost entirely on these two classes for their labor.
Before opening his own bakery, Natale Balistreri worked as an apprentice baker on Dante Place, in the heart of the old Italian neighborhood. In 1956, he and his wife, Giovanna Maria, bought the old Victorian house and the bakery at 307 Niagara Street. Two years later, Buffalo mayor Frank Sedita announced that, except for the church of St. Anthony of Padua, the entire Italian neighborhood west of Niagara Street between City Hall and Columbus Hospital would be demolished in the interests of “urban renewal.”
The Balistreris were lucky. Their home and bakery were on the east side of Niagara. And the destruction of the neighborhood that began in 1966 at the rate of 100 homes a month, scattering its residents to other areas of the city and the suburbs, did not destroy anybody’s need for Balistreri’s wonderful bread.
“I’ve been coming here since I lived in the neighborhood,” says Jean Grande, who now resides in the Lovejoy area. “I work downtown and I still go to Holy Angels church. I go to church, I come to Balistreri’s and get my bread and go home. They still have the best bread in Buffalo. You can’t beat it.”
The secret of Balistreri’s bread seems to be the fact that hardly anything at all has changed over the years. “It’s still just flour, water, yeast, and salt,” says Mary Antoinette Balistreri, who runs the bakery with her brother Frank. Their father, Natale Balistreri, died in 1997.
When their father bought the bakery, the bread was baked in a big brick gas-fired walk-in oven. Originally coal-fired, the brick oven was replaced with a revolving oven in 1965, but the bread recipe remained the same.
According to Mary Balistreri, the only significant difference in Balistreri’s bread over the years is that Natale baked the bread with a harder crust than most of today’s Balistreri bakers, who use a little more water for a softer crust. However, when Mary bakes, she makes her bread more like her father’s. But what gives it that unique Balistreri’s taste?
“Every bakery uses different flour and everybody does things a little differently,” says Mary. “We used to use a little cornmeal to slide the loaves off the oven boards and onto the oven racks. That made the bread slide easier and also seemed to impart a certain taste to the bread. But we don’t use the cornmeal since we bought the new oven.”
The new oven arrived four years ago after a fire in the former oven closed the bakery for three months. “The oven went up almost 30 years to the day that my father bought it,” Mary recalls. “The fire shot up through the floorboards and into the second floor storage area. The bakery was closed from the end of November until the middle of February of 1996. We lost the Christmas, New Year’s, and Super Bowl business. The new oven had to be specially ordered, specially built, and then hauled in from the state of Washington.” Like the previous oven, the racks of the new oven revolve for even baking. Each rack holds 36 loaves.
John Karl, a baker who has worked at Balistreri’s for three years, has his own ideas about why the bread tastes so good. “It’s all in the way the bread is baked. Other places have tunnel ovens and bake their bread quicker. They’re like assembly line conveyors with a door in front and a door in back. After working for another bakery for nine and a half years, I can tell you this place has the best bread in the city.”
The Balistreris know that stubbornly clinging to the old way of doing thingscarefully, lovingly, and by handis the secret to their continued success. It’s why sometimes on Sunday morning the line into the bakery stretches halfway down the alley to Niagara Street. But the line moves fast and it’s pleasant talking with your neighbor or somebody from another parish you haven’t seen for awhile. Most of the customers have been coming for years, and once you come you’re never a stranger.
I first came after moving to Buffalo in the mid-70s. In those days you went to Balistreri’s on Friday night for scanato. According to Mary Antoinette, “scanato was a drier, harder-crusted Sicilian bread. At one time, it was the only bread the Sicilian bakeries made around here. And Friday night scanato bread was a tradition. You’d come down anytime between 8 and 10 for scanato.”
With its hard crust and very light, almost cottony texture inside, this bread was also popular with the many Hispanic families that began moving into the neighborhood in the fifties and sixties. Today, the bakery continues to have many Hispanic and black customers, reflecting the greater diversity of the neighborhood following the Italian diaspora. However, the demand for scanato bread gradually diminished over the years and the Balistreris finally sold the machine that kneaded the dough.
Most of the other Balistreri traditions are still going strong. Every year during Lent, Mary and Frank’s wife Christine make singe for St. Joseph’s Table. This traditional Sicilian cookie is made from fried egg batter with cannolli filling or just powdered sugar. “You could make those all year long because people go crazy over them,” says Mary. “Every Sicilian woman has her own variation of these cookies.”
St. Joseph’s Table is the busiest time of the year at Balistreri’s. The bakery fills orders for individuals and groups for dozens of loaves, all braided or crowned by hand. The Balistreri pastry menu also includes cream puffs, cannolli, pastry hearts (frosted puff pastry made in the shape of a heart), frosted cinnamon rolls, and cucidati (Italian fig cookies) for Christmas.
In the old days, there were other houses next door and a bowling alley where Midas Muffler now stands. There were bars and grocery stores and more houses in the park-like median between the Virginia Street entrance and the Niagara Street exit to the NYS Thruway. There was a daily stream of customers from the neighborhood that flourished where the sprawling Shoreline Apartment complex and other urban renewal housing now stands. Visitors to Columbus Hospital stopped in and bought bread. So did the Columbus staff. Columbus Hospital was demolished this March.
Today, about all that’s left of the old lower west side Italian neighborhood is St. Anthony’s, Holy Cross, and Balistreri’s Bakery. But walk into Balistreri’s anytime and inhale the aroma of rising dough and baking bread, notice the weathered proof racks, and savor the sweet, shy smile of Giovanna Maria as she moves among the trays of rolls and bread and pastries and pizza. You could be in Buffalo in 1927, the year Natale arrived. Or in Sicily in 1913, the year he was born.
After the city tore down the neighborhood, many Italian families moved to North Buffalo and the suburbs. Today, the second and third generation of people who used to live in the neighborhood still come to Balistreri’s for the bread they grew up with. The bread that smells and tastes like family, home, and the old neighborhood.
“My grandfather used to bring me here all the time,” says Cheryl Nice, a West Side resident. “It’s always been a Sunday tradition in our family. We used to come here every Sunday after 9 o’clock mass and get bread and then we would go home and eat the bread with our Sunday dinner. Then in the afternoon we would visit our great grandparents and other relatives and bring them bread. We went to mass at Nativity on Herkimer and Albany. I still remember when I was a little kid and would walk in here Mr. Balistreri would give me a free roll because he thought I was too thin. Nowadays, I always get a pizza. It’s just like eating homemade pizza, the kind my great grandmother used to make.”
In addition to its individual and family customers, the bakery also sells to specialty stores and restaurants such as Mothers, Chef’s, Gino’s, and the Towne Restaurant. Balistreri’s also caters events for the Federal Reserve, City Hall, the Post Office, and other offices downtown. Is the bakery worried about losing business to the new designer breads?
“We know our customers like to try other breads,” says Mary. “But they always seem to come back to Balistreri’s. We have no plans to compete with the new bakeries. We will continue to do what we do best: bake good traditional Sicilian and Italian bread.”
In addition to their bakery business, the Balistreris all have other important interests in their lives. Mary is a teacher and assistant principal at a suburban school, Frank and Christine breed and show prize-winning German shepherds, and Giovanna raises beautiful flowers in her well-tended garden.
Natale Balistreri came to America in 1927, the same year the Prince of Wales arrived for the dedication of the Peace Bridge. While the Prince went back to England, became king, then threw it all away for Mrs. Simpson, Natale stayed and created a family, a bread, and a business that endures to this day.
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