Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear a couple of times each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
Often, when I was out walking in my Northside neighborhood someone would yell out, “Hey Joey, can you go to the bakery for me?” It was usually a friend of the family. “The arthritis in my knee, it’s acting up today.” They always had a reason. “Yeah sure, can I keep the change?” was my usual reply. Bread was 24 cents a loaf, so I got to keep a penny. Believe it or not you could actually buy something for a penny in the 1950’s. I usually got a baseball card. I always anxiously opened the plastic wrapper hoping I would find a Mickey Mantle or Moose Skowron card.
There were many bakeries on the old Northside and they each had their own specialty. When I was going to DiLauro’s I always enjoyed going with my father, Armondo. He and Nick DiLauro had been boyhood friends. My father insisted that Nick had the fastest hands on the Northside. They played baseball together. Dad would pitch and Nick would catch. According to my father, Nick DiLauro could catch any pitch. Fastballs, a curve, a knuckler were never a problem. But the most impressive thing was how fast he got the ball out of his glove hand and threw it back to the pitcher. A base runner with a long lead and the intent to steal didn’t have a chance against Nick’s arm.
My Dad and Nick had a ritual they went through every time he picked up a loaf of bread. As we walked through the door Dad would yell out, “I need a point”. Nick would instantly grab a white paper bag and with the flick of his wrist pop the bag open. Simultaneously he would grab a pointed loaf of bread off the rack and tossed it perfectly into the bag. Then he would shuffle pass the loaf of bread to my father as he flipped Nick a quarter. DiLauro would snatch the quarter out of the air with one hand and fling a penny with the other hand. “That’s fast, man.” Dad would say, and both men would laugh loudly.
One thing is certain, the Northside bakeries have endured. In addition to DiLauro’s, Columbus Bakery, Biscotti’s Café and Nino’s Bakery all produce excellent breads and pastries. Each bakery has its own specialty and sampling each one is a mouthwatering adventure. Aroma, crust and taste are a signature of the Northside. While the neighborhood has changed in many ways, certain elements remain. Smiles and friendly banter always accompany a visit to any of the specialty shops on the Northside. Even though so many of us have moved to other neighborhoods, or even other cities, the Northside is home. Not so long ago I ran into an old school friend who now makes his home in California. “I’m back for a visit”, he said, “I gotta get a couple loaves. You just can’t get crust like this in California.”
Some wish for the old days and can’t see a future for the Northside. Human capital and sweat equity have a limit. True investment is needed to jump start a new era of growth. I never imagined the old New Process Gear plant becoming a residential address. Armory Square was a rundown warehouse district in the 1970’s; today investors find the square attractive enough to build not one but two hotels. The embers of a once creative spirit still smolder in our neighborhood. The right investment can spark a rebirth that will make the sons and daughters of the Northside proud.