Three years of farmers markets have been a pretty incredible experience. Overnight baking marathons, cramming an entire week of work into 2 days, strategizing how to fit everything into a too-tiny oven; I stumbled into the markets Sunday morning somewhat breathless, certainly over-caffeinated, and mostly just relieved that I made it there with baskets full of focaccia and pastries. Meeting customers was the best part, and I wish I had more time to talk and answer questions. Two questions in particular came up more than others: “Are you Italian?” and “Who is Bella?”
To the first, the short answer is no. I’m American. I was born outside of Detroit and, anyways, my dad’s family is French-Canadian. But the other half is Italian and being the larger and noisier of the two halves of my family it was the predominant environment I grew up in. If you grew up in a large Italian-American family, you probably know what this means.
To the second, well, that’s a longer story. Bella’s Italian Bakery & Market is the culmination of stories, legends, family recipes, and some pretty epic holiday parties. So if you’re interested in how it all started, and who Bella is, I’ll do my best to weave it together.
Virginia Lodico was my maternal great-grandmother. She was our family matriarch. We all called her Nonna. She was a ferocious woman. She was born in West Virginia to Sicilian immigrants working in the coal mines, but was moved back to Italy as an infant when her mother became a widow. She grew up outside of L’Aqulia, in the Abruzzo region east of Rome. My mom told me she went there as a child and the most exciting thing to happen was when the village donkey fell in the well.
As a young woman, Nonna moved back to West Virginia when she married Sabatino Nori. They had 6 children and when he moved up to Detroit to work at Ford Motor Company, she followed behind taking a train with all of the children and ran a boarding house while he worked the assembly line. She kept chickens under the porch, made pasta and gnocchi to sell to the neighbors, and could turn a leftover chicken drumstick into a meal big enough for the family. There was always a platter of ‘white pizza’ on her counter; flat, chewy bread with lots of olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary. She kept a canary in her kitchen as a reminder of the coal mines.
(Nonna making ravioli with my brother)
My other great-grandmother was Ersilia Persiani. She was from Perugia, where her husband’s family owned a salsamenteria that has become a loose inspiration for Bella’s Italian Bakery & Market. I only have three photos but they’re pretty amazing and I hope I’ve done a good job of re-creating the store in spirit – it looked like a pretty awesome place to get a prosciutto sandwich. Ersilia would make l’uovo sbattuto– the beaten egg – with sugar and vanilla to have with fruit. She picked wild dandelion greens and made little cakes with eggs, ricotta, and breadcrumbs. My mom called them grass pies, and hated them but had to eat them anyways. She was mildly horrified when I started making grass pie for the market, although I put everything between two layers of flaky pie crust and I think it’s really good. She told me not to call it grass pie because it doesn’t sound classy, but I did it anyways and that’s where that recipe came from. You should try a slice.
My grandmother Irene used to laugh at restaurants that served polenta for a lot of money because that was cucina povera – food for the poor – even though we ate it at her house all the time. She’d pour it onto a huge wooden board and we’d all carve out our portions with our spoons into different shapes. When she would roast a chicken she let my brother and I fight over the “crunchy bone” – the breast cartilage – because she told us it was a special treat. We’d use the wishbone to see who got to eat it. For years I thought it was totally normal to eat the crunchy bone. Turns out it’s not.
My mom made a lot of pies. Coffee cake. Cookies. I think she liked baking better after a childhood spent traumatized by grass pies. We would make pizzelle together every Christmas, some with anise, some without. I still use her sugar cookie recipe. We still cook together.
So who is Bella? Nonna called all the girls in the family Bella; probably because there were a lot of us and we all had dark hair and looked more or less the same and she couldn’t remember our names. Either way, it stuck and because this business has thrived on the creativity and knowledge of amazingly talented women, it seemed like a good name. And so here we are. I am looking forward to welcoming each and every one of you into the bakery. I have a bigger oven now. I hope you like the cannoli! And don’t be afraid of the grass pie.
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