Once the work day ended, the sidewalks were filled with men and women visiting the meat markets, corner grocery stores, and bakeries that lined the streets of “Little Italy” over 100 years ago. At that time the neighborhood was saturated with bakeries that made loaves with their own signature characteristics. “In the Italian heritage,” Paul Waverchak, current owner of Di Lauro’s Bakery explains, “dinner was one of the most important parts of the day and bread was the mainstay.” It was this high demand from bread eaters that originally inspired Di Lauro’s founder, John Di Lauro―a man who had never made a loaf of bread in his life―to open a bread shop.
Originally called Venezia Bakery, the Di Lauro’s building continues in the same location at the corner of McBride and East Division Streets. The business houses both the retail store and the bakery in its 1200 square feet, using every corner to prepare and bake the dough for 4:00 AM deliveries and then fill the display cases for walk-in customers. In the very back of the building stands a large gas oven specially designed to cook the loaves at different temperatures to assure nothing is overdone. Originally built in 1955, the oven can fit 46 full-sized sheet pans and 240 loaves of bread at one time. Aside from the oven, Di Lauro’s has only a few simple machines that are used, preferring artisan methods over factory-like production.
The lack of major machinery, as well as ingredients like yeast accelerators, are what makes their bread part of the “old world” tradition in which the business began. “Our dough sits in the mixer for three hours,” Paul explains, “before we even start working on it. That gives our bread its own identity. We work the dough much more slowly. It creates more air in the bread and the aroma is still there.” The end product is fresh, crusty, but still airy and, at the end of the day, when you use that same bread to make a sandwich, it tastes the same.
Baking bread is an art form. Paul describes it as a process of “feel and touch and experience.” He began in the bread business in much the same way that Di Lauro’s founder did—initially knowing very little about bread. He was working at Westinghouse, an electric supply company, as a management trainee. A year before his marriage to Valerie Di Lauro, Paul was offered a transfer to New York City and, at the same time, his fiancé was offered a teaching job in Syracuse. As circumstances converged, Paul decided to leave his job and become involved in Valerie’s family business. Paul recounts the conversation he had with his father-in-law: “I said, ‘Would you like me to be part of your business? I can start from the bottom and see where it takes me.’ He tried to persuade me. He said, ‘It’s not a glamorous business.’”
Many years later, Paul is still at the bakery making sure the integrity of the Di Lauro’s product remains the same, even as the neighborhood itself has changed. Fallen into blight over the last few decades, it’s long-standing businesses like Di Lauro’s that can understand what the Northside once was, what it has become, and where it’s headed. “There’s positive communications coming out of the Northside,” Paul explains, “It takes time, stabilization, the expansion of St. Joe’s and Destiny, maybe, to establish a better quality of life here. It can’t happen overnight.” Although there’s not the same bustle of Italian families buying their bread before dinner, there’s still much foot traffic in and out of the bakery, whether it’s for a loaf of Italian bread or a slice of pizza. “We’re a neighborhood bakery,” Paul says, “that is something I never take for granted.”