From the Sky - Part V

Zia says it was Rae who started calling the bakers "the boys," but they weren't boys at all. The youngest was Carlo, in his early twenties. The oldest was Alberto, who was closing in fast on sixty but looked twenty years younger. "It's all the yeast in the air," he would say, breathing deeply and pounding his chest with both hands, "It cleans the blood."

The boys were a hardy, hot-blooded lot who would be laughing and cutting up one moment and ready to brawl the next. They always worked weekends - no time off on Saturdays or Sundays, except during a vacation. Most of the boys got one paid week's vacation each year. The exception was Alberto, who got two weeks, a nod to his forty years of devotion to the Tarentella family. Their two days off each week were decided by seniority. Alberto took whatever days he wished, the next four in line bargained amongst themselves. Carlo got whatever was left after the flour dust settled. While they fought over almost anything else, they never fought over their schedules. They worked it all out each Sunday before work. Alberto would give the week's schedule to Grandfather, who would study it carefully, perhaps rub his chin a moment, and then nod to Alberto in assent. Grandfather would give the schedule to Gio, who posted it on the wall.

"We worked them hard," Gio once told Rae. "Each day they left only when we said they could. It was the business; there was no other way. But it was their business, too, Rae. So that piece …that scheduling piece we left to them. We kept our noses out. 'Fatti i cazzi tuoi, ca campi cent'anni.'"

The boys worked hard, they were loyal, and they each got fat envelopes at Christmas off-the-books. Someone leaving the job was a very rare event, and usually meant they were going to put all their experience to work in a bakery of their own, or perhaps they had their eye on becoming a master baker. The few that left did well, I'm told.

Every summer, Grandfather and Gio would rent a tent for the Saturday after Labor Day and have a picnic. This one day only, the bakery closed early, at noon. The boys would bring their families to mingle with ours. There were tables packed with food: ziti, chicken, antipasto, lasagna, sausages, salads, meats, cheeses. An entire table of desserts. A keg of beer, and a quarter-keg of birch beer for the children. A table with wine and chilled homemade limoncello.

At dusk, Grandfather would bring out his guitar and everyone would sing, the music spilling out into the street. The melodies were a magnet, and soon neighbors drifted in. Some brought dishes of treats they'd spent hours or even days preparing. Some brought nothing and mooched food shamelessly. All were welcome. At midnight Gio would take the guitar and sing one last song to the crowd, always something in Italian, his voice ringing through the night and mesmerizing everyone. When he finished, Grandfather would rise and say goodnight, and the picnic ended. But at 2AM the lights of the bakery flickered to life and another long day began. The boys would arrive right on time, looking perhaps a little worse for wear, and start the bakes.

The first bake was always bread and rolls, followed by a small bake of pastry supervised by Gio. The next bake was more bread and rolls and perhaps some hot dog buns. After that, it varied. There might be some fresh pizza on Wednesdays, Fridays, and the occasional Sundays. The pizza was baked in a thick shell, layered with a lightly-seasoned and chunky tomato sauce, and swimming in rich, melted American cheese. A full bake of pastry was common. There would be cinnamon buns, nut or poppy seed rolls, and maybe fruit-filled rolls, apricot, peach, pineapple or cherry. After any number of bakes …Grandfather would decide how many, based on the orders …the boys would leave, but the work was not done. That was when Gio and Grandfather Ernesto would work on that week's special bakes …Italian cookies, cannolis, cream cakes and, of course, the wedding cakes.

Grandfather and Gio did very few wedding cakes …never more than two a week …but their creations were masterpieces and cost their customers a small fortune. The waiting list was long and was never compromised. If you wanted a Tarentella cake for your wedding, you were wise to order a year in advance. Less than that, and getting a cake was nearly impossible. More than once Grandfather and Gio were blitzed by prominent citizens who pleaded to have a cake for their son or daughter added to a filled schedule. All were refused, politely but firmly. "It's too late," Grandfather would say, throwing up his hands. Gio would nod and say, "There's nothing to be done."

You could get a wedding cake somewhere else on far less notice, but it wouldn't be a Tarentella. Ours stood apart. A Tarentella cake also meant that a wedding wasn't a rush affair. If a bride had her own bun in the oven come wedding day, she ordered her cake long before messing around in her kitchen.

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