A Place to Bring You Back
Written by Allie Pizzemento
Washington Award Winner Vol 52.
The bell jingled in greeting above our heads when my aunt pushed open the door. The seal against the outside was broken and hot air blasted against us. The air was scented by the countless confections being made, and for a moment I felt as though I was stepping back in time.
Straight off the boat from Naples, Italy, John Mainella opened a bakery in 1957. Rapidly, Bella Napoli became a Sunday staple for the Italian community of Albany, New York. Patrons flocked to the store from every corner of the upstate to get a taste. My family had been regulars for the 10 years I had been alive, and then some. If my relatives couldn’t make the baked goods themselves, they picked it up from Bella Napoli. Like their slogan says, “Selection to bring you in, taste to bring you back”.
That Sunday, my aunt and I had come to pick up some bread and sweets for tonight’s Christmas Eve dinner. She firmly believed that a family dinner called for the best bread money could buy, and the best bread came from Bella Napoli’s ovens. And we had to be there by 6:30 a.m., before the best of the best loaves were gone.
It was an Italian grandmother’s Thunderdome. Dozens of women were crammed into the 20 foot by 20-foot space, all vying to get closer to the glass display cases. They shouted at one another and spit while they did it. Like bulls, they forced themselves past anything, or anyone, in their way. There was nothing, and I mean nothing, that could stop an Italian woman from getting bread for her family.
The large cases, stuffed with treats and draped with garland, stood like sentinels against three walls, protecting the employees from the horde. Shelves loaded with bread of every shape and size covered the walls behind them, staying warm under an orange light. Spools of twine were placed at various points along the wall, ready to be unraveled to tie their signature white boxes securely. A revolving tower of decorated cakes divided the bakery from the café on the other side.
As we moved deeper into the crowd, the fragrant air intensified. Chanel no.5 mingled with the smell of baked goods, making my nose scrunch. I stepped closer to my aunt, who smelled like Chanel no.9 and Aquanet.
She was busy examining the mounds of cannoli’s before her. Chocolate, pistachio, chocolate peanut butter, birthday cake, red velvet, any kind of cannoli imaginable. There were at least a dozen varieties. On top of cannoli’s, there were cheesecakes, Jeanette’s, donuts, cupcakes, pizzelles, biscotti, panettone, cinnamon rolls, brownies, half-moon cookies, the whole nine yards. Cupcakes were frosted to look like crimson Santa hats and emerald holly wreaths. Cakes were intricately iced with white lace and fuchsia roses. Luscious fruit rested a top creamy torts and Panna Cotta cups.
I wished that I was back in bed and away from the bedlam, but I still counted myself lucky. I could be getting ready to go to church like my cousins, where they would be choking on incense rather than perfume and baked goods. Instead, I was here, surrounded by delicious treats and shrieking nonna’s.
“Sei scema! No, non quello, quell’altro!” a woman shouted at one of the girls behind the counter.
I didn’t speak much Italian, but I knew she was saying the something along the lines of “Shut up! You’re wrong.”
The girl wasn’t fazed, it was nothing she hadn’t heard a hundred times. She handed the old woman the proper loaf of bread and moved onto the next customer.
Italian words mixed with English forming a thick stew of gibberish. Some words I knew, most I didn’t. Shouts from the kitchen in the back added to the chaos. From the cafe, I could hear the clatter of dishes and clanking of cups. The hoarse ring of the 50-year-old cash register gave some variety to the din. I tried my best to tune into my aunt’s conversation with an employee.
“-We have a few left of the chocolate cannoli, but I’m sure there will be more-,” the employee started to say, the bell on the end of her elf hat tinkling.
“I’ll wait for the fresh ones,” my aunt interrupted. The fresh ones always have a little more crunch.
“Sure thing, anything else?”
“Allie, what do you want, doll?”
I started at my name. I peeked up at her, seeing nothing but thoroughly fluffed curls and violently pink lipstick.
“You want a cinnamon roll, hun? They just came out,” the employee asked.
“Yes please,” I mumbled to my shoes.
“You got it,” the employee whose name plate read “Hi! I’m Nina,” winked at me and moved away to gather the goods. My aunt followed her closely, distrustful. Her flats squelched on the wet tiles. Brown, muddy water was collecting in the uneven spots on the floor from tracked in snow. The long black mats they had laid around did little to absorb the water. A light dusting of crushed rock salt covered the mats and the bottom of everyone’s shoes. I saw a larger granule and moved to crush it under my foot. It gave a satisfying crunch.
The sun was beginning to rise, spilling in through the large glass windows. Splotches of red and green danced along the walls and floors from where the light passed through the transparent, Christmas themed stickers. Sunlight glittered along the snow outside and the icicles clinging to the gutters began to drip. Condensation was climbing up the windowpanes, the warm air inside clashing with the frigid air outside.
I gazed eagerly as Nina fished the biggest cinnamon roll out of the case and popped it into the small oven in the corner. After what seemed like a thousand years, there was a shrill ding. She pulled out the steaming pastry and slipped it into a white paper bag that read “Bella Napoli” in curly red font and bore a picture of a green, snow topped mountain on it. Then she called me over. With haste, I squeezed through the sea of wool coats and scarves. Someone grumbled something under their breath as I pushed past them.
Finally, I reached the massive case. I was eye to eye with dozens of magnificent cakes. I could make out the smudgy fingerprints left behind by poking fingers and grubby hands.
“Merry Christmas,” she said, smiling down at me.
I stood on my tippy toes to take the white paper bag from her outstretched hand. At last, I had my treasure: a cinnamon roll the size of my head.
“Thank you!” I beamed, “Merry Christmas!”
I scurried over to the dining counter lined with tall, red leather chairs. I hauled myself up and lifted the pastry from its confines.
It was nearly too hot for me to hold, so I dropped it on top of the paper bag. I pulled some brown paper napkins from the mouth of a silver tin in preparation for the carnage about to take place.
The dining portion of Bella Napoli was calm compared to the bakery area. Only a few people were sitting around, eating breakfast, sipping coffee, and reading the Times Union newspaper they had grabbed from the rusty box just outside the door. Dean Martin’s “Let It Snow!” played softly from the battered juke box in the corner. A synthetic Christmas tree decorated with handmade ornaments from customers past lounged beside the door. The sounds of eggs and bacon sizzling on the grill reached my ears and my mouth began to water.
The bar stretched almost the entire length of the cafe. It was constructed out of grey, speckled ceramic that was worn around the edges from generations of patrons resting their forearms against the edge while they chowed down. A gray wall with a pink stripe ran along underneath it, dented and scuffed from decades of swinging feet. Hundreds of water rings covered the bar top, some from coffee mugs, other from red Coca-Cola glasses.
After what I deemed to be a sufficient cooling time, I peeled off the first layer of the cinnamon rolls swirl. The gooey icing stuck to my fingers and dripped onto the counter. I shoved it into my mouth greedily, swinging my feet beneath me. The cinnamon sugar melted on my tongue and filled my nose. For a moment I forgot what Chanel no.5 smelled like.
I was almost completely finished when my aunt sat on the stool beside me, setting a box of pastries and a bag filled with steaming bread on the counter. She held up a finger and without uttering a word, a coffee, some little creamer cups, and sugar appeared in front of her and an orange juice in front of me. I offered her the last bite of my cinnamon roll.
She shook her head and smiled, taking a sip of her coffee while I popped the last bite into my mouth. When she set it back down, there was a pink lipstick mark on the edge of the cup. A ring started to form beneath my glass, and I smiled, knowing that my mark would be joining the legions of others that had sat here before me.