Food/Drink

100-year-old Bloomfield family Bakery sold but the ovens will keep on cooking

Co-owner John Sanchioli making bread crumbs (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

Finding Sanchioli Brothers Bakery is a lot like gaining entry into an underground club: you have to know where to look, because it’s hiding in plain sight. Though it’s tucked into a nondescript garage on Juniper Street in Bloomfield, the regulars know where to go to get the freshest bread in town. Of course, Sanchioli’s golden brown loaves of Italian bread can be purchased at many area grocery stores, including local shops like Donatelli’s, but there’s nothing quite like the bread purchased directly from the source.

That source, a nearly century-old oven built by a German immigrant, has never been turned off, according to John Sanchioli, co-owner with his older brother, Alex, until this week. The bakery was sold out of family hands on January 18, with John and his son, Nathan, staying on to bake. Together they represent the third and fourth generations of the family business.

John’s grandfather, Alessandro Sanchioli, started the bakery after immigrating from Northern Italy in the early 1900s. “They knew all these Italian immigrants were coming here,” John says of his grandparents. Alessandro had been trained as a baker in his native country, and with an investor who financed the oven construction, he and his wife Dora set up the bakery operation in 1921.

According to Melissa Marinaro, director of the Italian American program at the Heinz History Center, this was a common setup for immigrant food businesses. “Once you have a community, there’s a need there,” she says. “Once Italian immigrant communities formed, we see them importing or recreating the goods they had in the old country. With a bakery, the raw ingredients are inexpensive and aside from the oven, startup costs are low,” she says. “So you start to see many Italians go into the bakery business.”

In addition to their bakery, the Sanchioli family also opened a storefront out of their house, just behind the bakery, facing Lorigan Street. A set of stairs led from one property to the other. “My dad used to say, ‘I’m the only kid that grew up eating filet mignon during the Depression,’” John says. The family would buy an entire cow for stock, but no one could afford the pricier cuts, so the family ate them at home instead. His father, Isadore, known as ‘Izzy’, took over the bakery with his brother, Guy, after Alessandro’s death in 1956. By then, the grocery operation had closed.

Izzy became just as much of a Bloomfield institution as the bakery itself, affectionately known as the “mayor of Lorigan Street.” My family has known the Sanchiolis since the mid-1950s, when my mother, Amy Lombardo Linn, immigrated along with my grandparents and, later, great-grandparents. My mom remembers him personally delivering bread to the family home on S. Matilda Street.

“He used to deliver to people’s homes and leave bread in baskets inside their foyer or whatever the arrangement was,” my mom says. “He spoke a little bit of Italian and he smiled when he saw you. For my grandparents, it was a bright spot in their day to see him.”

At that time, in the 1950s and 60s, Izzy would sell day-old bread to his customers at five cents a loaf. My grandmother, Dina Lombardo, used to buy some occasionally. “It was a good way, when [Bloomfield immigrants] were all struggling, to stretch those incomes,” my mom says. My dad, Jack, adds, “knowing Izzy, there were plenty of people who probably paid for a day-old loaf but got a fresh one instead.”

John and Alex took over Izzy’s share of the bakery on his retirement. On a recent weekday morning, the affable John Sanchioli was filling customer orders as he talked about his work day. He arrives at the bakery at 1:30 in the morning and spends four hours shoveling dough for bread loaves, dinner rolls, hamburger buns and pizza shells in and out of the oven. Once the day’s deliveries are parceled out, it’s time to make bread crumbs out of yesterday’s bread.

John grinds the day-old bread in one of his mixers and then passes scoopfuls through a fine-mesh sieve. Some of the resulting breadcrumbs are sold to customers, but the majority are used to keep fresh dough from sticking to the bottom of the gas-fired hearth oven.

He then starts mixing tomorrow’s dough. John estimates he goes through about 200 pounds of flour a week making bread, though that is just one of the bakery’s products. It takes about five hours for a loaf of bread to go from raw ingredients to finished product, including two proofings.

Sanchioli preparing to mix the dough (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

With his brother ready to retire, John can’t manage alone. “I wouldn’t do it myself without my brother unless somebody came in and helped,” he says.

“These aren’t easy businesses,” Marinaro says. “It’s long hours, it’s odd hours, and it can get difficult.”

Just as bread is a staple of the Italian diet, family seems to be a staple of Italian bakeries. Though Sanchioli’s will be sold, both John and his son, Nathan, will stay on to continue baking each day.

“You don’t have too many examples of neighborhood bakeries like that anymore,” says Marinaro. “I think of Sanchioli’s as being a Bloomfield thing, an East End thing; it just has such a fan base in those communities. I think because of the great quality and history, people didn’t deviate too much from getting their bread there.”

It’s a sentiment my family and I know well. “It was on our table at every meal,” my mom says. “We didn’t waste a crumb. If it got stale, it was grated into breadcrumbs; it was the whole culture of ‘don’t waste a thing’. Five generations of my family have eaten Sanchioli’s bread, from my great-grandparents to my own young children.

We couldn’t have a family gathering without it.

One Comment

  • ELLEN FOREMAN says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is not only the best bread in Pittsburgh but the family is the best. This post brought back memories of the neighborhood smells and the warm, caring feeling of having the bakery as a part of my childhood.

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