By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
PROVIDENCE – Today, let us give thanks for the Scialo Brothers Bakery, a place where heritage is embraced, the traditional way of doing things is as relevant as it was nearly a century ago and stalwart customers often say to the owners, “We remember your father.”
This repository of crusty bread, cakes laden with chocolate, nuts, fruit and cream, tiramisu, sfogliatelle, Russian tea cakes, quantis; tarts and pies is a treasure trove. It is what diabetics like me imagine heaven must be like.
Thanksgiving officially kicks off a season in which thousands upon thousands of products fly out the door. It’s a similar scene at Christmas and Easter with the biggest single holiday being St. Joseph’s feast day.
Inside this family-owned and operated business at 257 Atwells Avenue – established in 1916 by Italian immigrant brothers who came through Boston en route to Federal Hill – you will find the Scialo sisters, Lois Scialo Ellis and Carol Scialo Gaeta, hard at work. Lois, who lives in Exeter, and Carol, who calls East Greenwich home, hit the road to Providence early each morning to get a jump on the long day ahead.
In the shop where they grew up, the sisters continue a legacy of preparing everything from scratch, of baking fragrant bread in the same massive brick oven used by their father, Luigi, and his brother Gaetano. They take pleasure in creating one-of-a-kind cakes for special events and making holidays memorable with the same treats requested year after year.
In 1914, says Lois, her father, uncle and their sister Maria, the youngest of 13 children, emigrated from their home near Naples and two years later started the business. “My uncle taught my father to bake.”
Her Aunt Maria married and she and her husband opened the Old Canteen, the iconic restaurant known as much for its pink tablecloths and elderly waiters as for its mouth-watering meals.
The bakery’s tidy front shop featuring display cases on three sides, filled with shelves of temptation, is deceptive. While the phone rings with orders and shoppers struggle to make up their minds, a lot is going on behind the scenes.
Large and small rooms for bread-making, pastry preparation and cake-decorating are a beehive of activity.
Spaces hold rolling metal tiers of items either fresh from the oven or waiting to go in; tables are stacked with boxes of baked goods awaiting overnight shipment; a big bread-slicing machine seems never to stop; and things are being mixed, dough rolled out, and wrapped in cellophane.
The heart of it all is the kitchen where the massive brick oven accessed by a pair of pull-down cast iron doors hums along at 800 degrees. It has the capacity to bake 150 loaves at a time.
“The bread goes right onto the floor of the oven,” Lois explains, noting that cornmeal coats the bottom of each loaf so the dough doesn’t stick. “Dad started with wood; now it’s gas-fired oil.”
The concept at Scialo Brothers is, essentially: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
“We make things here like you would in your kitchen at home except the mixers and bowls are bigger,” she says. She pulls out two huge mixing bowls and says that when she and Carol were little, their mother would deposit them in the containers and go down the street to shop.
“Dad owned the whole building and he rented part of it to a lovely man who kept the door open between his shop and the kitchen so he could watch us.”
These were the storied days of the Hill when the family lived above the bakery and, Lois recalls, “the fish man came around, the fruit seller; there were the pushcart vendors. On Saturdays, we would wash the kitchen floor for Mother and then our [reward] was to come downstairs for cream turnovers.
“This was our playground.”
The kitchen was always action central. Carol, acknowledged as the bakery’s recipe-and-baking queen, says she learned “from the older generation” and when her two sons were young “all I did was bake.”
There is a division of labor with each sister playing to her strength. Carol bakes and Lois does the books; they take turns coming in to run things. “We split the week,” Lois explains. “The only time we’re both here is at the holidays.”
Lois also does the cake decorating, her handiwork reflecting the recipients’ personalities. In an album featuring some of her inventions is a photo of a 16-year-old boy’s birthday cake. It is a giant sneaker atop a Nike box. “The entire thing including the box was edible.”
She also makes vividly colorful marzipan, the almond-flavored paste that she uses to glaze cakes and fashion miniature fruit and vegetables. “In a different era,” she says, “I might have been an artist. In fact, when I taught history I always emphasized art and architecture.”
Lois, Carol and their sister, Susan, who lives in Florida, are Luigi Scialo’s second family; he lost the first tragically, during the 1938 hurricane. “He had a summer home in Conimicut, on Narragansett Bay. There were three children – Felix, named for our grandfather, and Carmel after Our Lady of Mount Carmel were teenagers and there was a 3-year-old.
“They were without all the [weather] predictions. Dad left his wife and the baby at home and dropped off the older two at school.” As the hurricane moved up the Bay, neighbors went to the second floor where a man tucked the baby inside his coat. He clung to a piece of the roof as the rest of house broke apart and was swept away.
He survived, washing up on the shore in Barrington but when he opened his coat he discovered that the baby had somehow slipped out. The bodies of the child and its mother were also found in Barrington, a week later.
Luigi remarried in his 50s and had the three girls. He always placed great importance on education.
“We went to Wheeler,” says Lois who earned a bachelor’s degree from Salve Regina and a master’s in political science from Tufts. She taught history at East Greenwich High School where she met her future husband, fellow faculty member Calvin Ellis, best known these days as a longtime member of the Exeter Town Council.
Their son, Geoffrey, is vice president of partner marketing and business development for FTD, the flower delivery giant.
Carol graduated from Endicott College and became a physician’s assistant and, later, a baker for the East Greenwich Catering Company. Her husband is Dr. Joseph R. Gaeta, a prominent cardiologist. One son Joe, a lawyer, is legislative director for U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse; the other, Paul, is an editor for ESPN.
In 1993, while Lois was still teaching and Carol was between jobs, their father died at the age of 103, putting the future of the bakery in doubt.
“We were close to selling,” Lois explains, but the prospective buyer’s financing fell through. “We decided to stay.” She and Carol bought Susan out and shut the place for nine months while the oven was rebuilt. Lois would finish teaching in the afternoon and rush to the bakery; Carol brought her 2 1/2-year-old grandchild to work and, taking a page from her own childhood, “sat him down” in a corner.
Today, as this time-honored place where the warmth of family and fresh baked goods combine, Scialo Brothers has expanded its product base and services. A handsome website allows customers to order online or via a toll-free number; purchases can be shipped or picked up.
And, in a way that evokes remembrances of how things were done before impersonal conveyor belts began spitting out processed bread, the Scialo sisters welcome the public behind the scenes.
“We have bus tours of 15 to 20 people three or four times a week from March till the end of October,” says Lois. And, yes, all the visitors go away with samples.
For more information, go to scialobakery.com.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is a freelance writer for SRIN.