Mangia! Italian Bakeries in the Merrimack Valley
There is a neighborhood in Lawrence not far from the Everett Mills that always smelled like anise. People came from across the valley to visit Pappy’s, Tripoli, Anna Loro’s and Fisichelli’s. Cannoli and coffee, bread and biscotti drew them in droves. It was a bakers’ row, and on any given Saturday you’d have to fight your way to the counters that were three-people deep.
Like the once-thriving textile mills, many bakeries have shuttered, their apron-clad owners having pulled their last loaves out of the ovens years ago. But a trip to the heart of the city still delivers tasty results. Tripoli and Fisichelli’s have been hanging tough for nearly 100 years, keeping alive the baking traditions of the Merrimack Valley.
Pulling into the mighty Tripoli, home of the killer cannoli, the first thing you notice is the sign. The vintage yellow and brown marquee portends the authenticity within. Behind the endless glass counter, brightly colored cookies seem to stretch for miles. “S”cookies, anise toast and cream puffs as big as cantaloupes come next. How can anybody choose just one?
When the Zappala family purchased the bakery on Common Street in 1924, bread was the top seller. Loaves were delivered by horse and buggy to the tenements where the mill workers lived. “My father would go up four flights of stairs and hang bread on a nail outside their doors,” said Rosario Zappala, whose father, Angelo, took over Tripoli Bakery when he was in his 20s.
Today, Rosario presides over the high-output bakery, where giant industrial ovens turn out hundreds of loaves — called sticks — and meat and spinach pies a day. Rosario agreed with most of the Italian bakers I spoke with, saying the cookies are the main draw, followed by bread, cannoli and cakes. Andover native, Jay Leno, comes for the pizza.
Square pizza with a buttery crust has extended Tripoli’s brand beyond Lawrence. It has found so many fans that they built an adjoining shop to handle the trade. This is the same pie with sweet tomato sauce that has fueled generations of sun worshipers on Salisbury Beach and crowds up in Seabrook, N.H. Look for Tripoli number four to open in North Andover this year.
When you crave the aroma of an Italian cafe, Josephs Trattoria Bakery Cafe should be your next stop. In the corner of the cozy Italian restaurant on Route 125 in the Ward Hill section of Haverhill, designer pastries and torte cakes are a refreshing counterpoint to the old world charm of Tripoli.
Joseph Faro Sr. started Joseph’s Baking Company in Lawrence. His daughter, Deanna Gaiero, who now owns the establishment with her father and sister Gina Brannon, would never give up the bakery, even as the restaurant continues to grow. “It’s important to keep it, to remind us of where we started,” she said.
It’s hard to improve on tiramisu —sponge cake soaked in coffee with mascarpone cream dusted in coco powder — but Josephs succeeds. The tiramisu here is a stylish, cylindrical tower. “They are beautiful, but they also taste good,” Gaiero said.
The zebra bar, a slice of chocolate cake with vanilla butter cream dipped in chocolate ganache, is the perfect indulgence at the end of a hard week. Pair it with a cappuccino at the cafe or slide over to the bar with a cupcake and Chianti.
With the rise of supermarket bakeries a few decades ago, the number of independent, family-run sweet shops has declined. But those that remain have loyal followings. “It’s better than a grocery store. This is the closest to homemade I can get,” customer Sandy Martino said at Mirabella’s Bakery in Tewksbury on a Friday morning.
Drooling over the neatly stacked rows of fig bows, macaroons and almond-crusted cookies in this busy Route 38 shop, one feels instantly like a kid. “We make over a hundred different kinds of pastries,” said Anita Mirabella, whose father started the bakery more than 30 years ago.
She now runs the cheery shop with a pair of veteran dough punchers from Boston’s North End who follow her father’s recipes. Creating rum cakes with elegant cream takes time. “Some of these recipes took me 20 years to learn,” said Armando Mottla.
Holding true to old world tastes is a key ingredient in the success of an Italian bakery, as is adapting to new appetites. Guava turnovers and flan appeal to Latino customers up in Lawrence, but fads don’t fly.
Mirabella experimented with low-carbohydrate bread and pastries when the Atkins diet craze peaked in the middle of this decade. Customers didn’t bite. “People come here for the fat. They are not coming in because they are on a diet,” she said.
They come for Napoleon cakes, éclairs, rum cake and lobster claws. And they are willing to travel. “I have people that come from the North End to buy my cannoli,” said Nina Gaffny, owner and head baker of Fisichelli’s Pastry Shop in Lawrence. “It’s my cream; it blows people out of the water.”
She is the third generation of Fisichelli to shape cookies by hand in the tradition her grandfather started in 1915. Although reality TV shows have turned bakers such as Buddy Valastro, the “Cake Boss,” into celebrities, the life of a baker is demanding. Clocking in at 3 a.m. to prepare fresh paragini and savoy is not glamorous. “It gets very tiring, especially when it’s a joyous time of year and you want to be with your family. But this is your family,” Gaffny said. “I love my customers.”
Cream is the measuring stick that sets these bakeries apart and the Piro brothers know how to top their creations. The apple cream pie at Piro’s Bakery & Pizzeria in Methuen is a decadent slice of New England via Tuscany. Baked apples in a perfect crust, smothered in homemade whipped cream, is the sleeper hit at this Merrimack Street establishment. Blueberry, pecan, ricotta, and custard pie will tease out the joy in any celebration. Is it any wonder that Joe, Paul and Tony Piro learned everything they know at their grandparents’ bakery in Lawrence?
If you haven’t spent much time in an Italian bakery, they are warm and festive places. After visiting a few, I wondered why Italian bakeries became so novel. Where are the Irish bakeries? Chinese or Dutch bakeries in the region? “That’s our heritage, that’s our culture. Our lives revolve around food,” Mirabella said.