Despite the fact that I am a full-blooded Italian-American who has been writing since 1982, I can’t help but feel like one of the “new fish” getting off the bus in the movie the Shawshank Redemption. Being invited to write for Fra Noi is almost as ominous as my first moments in freshman P.E. class, trembling in my one-piece gym suit and cowering as our instructor, with totally unnecessary bias, warned the entire class to be afraid of the girls from Melrose Park.
For the most part, I am proud to be a lifelong Melrose Parker, having lived among rich traditions and incredible people and businesses that have inspired many articles during my career. It seems like yesterday when we rode our bikes among Melrose Park’s local landmarks that flanked both sides of Lake Street: Cervone’s grocery store, where we bought our baseball cards; Leoni’s Restaurant; Slicker Sam’s; Come Back Inn, with its foreboding grizzly bear; Merk’s Shoe Repair; Del Bello’s Beef; and Mr. Sacchetta, the tailor, to name just a few of the community’s cornerstones. The last remnant of what that thriving Lake Street corridor once looked like now stands alone like a pillar in the ancient Roman forum. But every day that the lone Italian flag waves hello to the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 20 and the Hispanic population that now prevails, a slice of a vibrant and rich tradition that was Lake Street in Melrose Park still survives.
Scudiero’s Bakery, 2113 W. Lake, was one of my first hands-on feature stories. Henry Miller, who once wrote, “You can travel 50,000 miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread,” obviously never traveled to Melrose Park. Scudiero’s Bakery was recently recognized by the Melrose Park Historical Society — and rightly so — as it is the oldest Italian-American owned business remaining on Lake Street with roots dating back over 100 years ago when Michael Datoli was a baker in Serino, Italy; his son, Ubaldo, also became a baker and was remembered by many as sharing his bread with the troops in World War II. When Ubaldo came to the United States and moved to Melrose Park, he made his new home in the tiny storefront bakery once operated by the hard-working Mugnolo family. “The brick oven that is in use today is the same brick oven that was used from Day One,” Anthony “Tony” Scudiero, great-grandson of Michael Datoli, told the Historical Society audience. “It is a Middleby Marshall Oven built in the early 1900s, which was coal-fed until my father, Joe Scudiero, converted it to gas. In fact, the oven had to be constructed before the building could be completed as there was no way that monstrous oven — the heart of the bakery — could fit through a door.”
In 1954, Ubaldo began baking the luscious loaves that sustained the town; his death could have closed the bakery’s doors, but somehow his daughter, Lena, working alone, managed to keep the coal fires burning. It wasn’t until 1976, when her husband, Joe Scudiero, gave up his job to expand the family business in 1978, changing the name from Melrose Park Italian Bakery to Scudiero’s Italian Bakery. Walking in with my grandmother, I was barely tall enough to see into the lunchmeat case but memories of the provolone and suspended-from-the-ceiling sausages remain precious and vivid.
Once, when writing about Joe Scudiero, I quoted a line from one of my least favorite movies, “A Bronx Tale”: “Try and get up every morning, day after day, and work for a living. Let’s see him try that. Then we’ll see who the real tough guy is. The working man’s the tough guy,” Robert DeNiro’s character tells his son in the movie. I worked with Joe for one day on March 20, 1985, and never worked that hard again. He kneaded dough effortlessly, like his Datoli in-laws. While my lumpy loaves rested, more than 200 loaves and 75-100 Sicilian-style pizzas had already been pulled from the brick oven for customers hours earlier — while I was sound asleep. There’s no counting the number of loaves of Scudiero bread that were a “must” as breakfast toast, at dinner tables, at firehouse lunches, school and work lunchboxes and family get-togethers plus the next-day bread crumbs squished into meatballs during the decades that Joe committed long, grueling days to his business, his family and his neighbors. There’s no counting the number of loaves Joe gave away, saying, “Pay me when you got it.”
When Ubaldo died, it should have prompted Lena to lock the doors; when Joe Scudiero passed away, his sons, with lives and families of their own, could have understandably walked away from this changed community where many residents can be found shopping with LINK cards at the supermercado. Thankfully, Joe’s twin sons, Aldo (a fifth generation baker) and Tony, with support from their mother and brothers, opted to hoist the flag another day and a loyal following of Scudiero customers is forever grateful — as are newcomers from near and far who are salivating for a taste of the old neighborhood. The franchise-free taste of Scudiero’s bread, subs, pizza, soups and even apple slices satisfies a hunger for the past; the Scudiero’s Italian Bakery Facebook page and the website at www.scudieros.com appease 21st century cravings to know more, order faster and reach potential customers.
Tony painstakingly created a 16-minute video for the Historical Society, compiling more than 25 years worth of photos. His father took and collected hundreds of pictures taken with the “famous bread bag.” Celebrated entertainers like Frank Sinatra, sports greats, politicians and customers traveling to China, Russia, Australia and around the world who proudly posed with Scudiero bread had their photos posted in the bakery, a real testimonial to a faithful family man who often said, “You don’t judge a man by his wealth, you judge the man by the family he’s raised,” Joe often said. Clearly, Joe knew the recipe for success — and he passed it on to his sons.