Lois Scialo Ellis ’65 and her sister are rolling in the dough at their family bakery.
Inside their family-owned and operated business at 257 Atwells Avenue in Providence, R.I., the neighborhood known as Federal Hill, you will find the Scialo sisters – Lois Scialo Ellis ’65 and Carol Scialo Gaeta – hard at work.
In the shop where they grew up, the two continue a legacy of preparing everything from scratch, of baking fragrant bread in the same massive brick oven used by their father, Luigi, and his brother, Gaetano. They take pleasure in creating one-of-a-kind cakes for special events and making holidays memorable with the same treats requested by their customers year after year.
In 1914, their father, uncle, and aunt, Maria, the youngest of 13 children, emigrated from their home near Naples, Italy, and two years later started the business. “My uncle taught my father to bake,” Ellis says.
The bakery’s tidy front shop, featuring display cases on three sides, filled with shelves of temptation, is deceptive. This repository of crusty bread; cakes laden with chocolate, nuts, fruit and cream; tiramisu; sfogliatelle; Russian tea cakes; quantis; tarts and pies is a treasure trove.
While the phone rings with orders, a lot is going on behind the scenes. Large and small rooms for bread making, pastry preparation and cake decorating are a beehive of activity.
The heart of it all is the kitchen, where the massive brick oven accessed by a pair of pull-down cast iron doors hums along at 800 degrees. It has the capacity to bake 150 loaves at a time.
“The bread goes right onto the floor of the oven,” Ellis explains, noting that cornmeal coats the bottom of each loaf so the dough doesn’t stick. “Dad started with wood; now it’s gas-fired oil.”
The management philosophy at Scialo Brothers is simple: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
“We make things here like you would in your kitchen at home except the mixers and bowls are bigger,” Ellis says. Pulling out two huge mixing bowls, she says that when she and her sister were little, their mother would deposit them in the containers and go down the street to shop.
“Dad owned the whole building and he rented part of it to a lovely man who kept the door open between his shop and the kitchen so he could watch us,” Ellis says.
Those were the storied days of Federal Hill, when the family lived above the bakery and, Ellis recalls, “the fish man came around, and the fruit seller; they were the pushcart vendors. On Saturdays, we would wash the kitchen floor for mother and then our [reward] was to come downstairs for cream turnovers. This was our playground.”
Today, each sister plays to her strength. Gaeta bakes and Ellis does the books; they take turns coming in to run things. “We split the week,” Ellis explains. “The only time we’re both here is at the holidays.”
Ellis also does the cake decorating, her handiwork reflecting the recipients’ personalities. In an album featuring some of her inventions is a photo of a 16-year-old boy’s birthday cake. It is a giant sneaker atop a Nike box. “The entire thing, including the box, was edible,” she says.
Ellis also makes vividly colorful marzipan, the almond-flavored paste she uses to glaze cakes and fashion miniature fruits and vegetables. “In a different era,” she says, “I might have been an artist. In fact, when I taught history, I always emphasized art and architecture.”
A history major and retired high school history teacher, Ellis earned her master’s degree in political science from Tufts University after graduating from Salve Regina. She and her husband, retired teacher Calvin Ellis, live in Exeter, R.I., and have a son Geoffrey, who is vice president of partner marketing and business development for FTD, the flower delivery giant. Her sister, Carol, graduated from Endicott College and became a physician’s assistant and later, a baker for the East Greenwich Catering Company. Her husband is Dr. Joseph Gaeta, a prominent cardiologist.
In 1993, while Ellis was still teaching, their father died at the age of 103, putting the future of the bakery in doubt.
“We were close to selling,” Ellis explains, but the prospective buyer’s financing fell through. “We decided to stay.”
Today, as this time-honored place where the warmth of family and fresh baked goods combine, Scialo Brothers has expanded its product line and services. A website allows customers to order online or via a toll-free number; and purchases can be shipped or picked up.
And, in a way that evokes remembrances of how things were done before impersonal conveyor belts began spitting out processed bread, the Scialo sisters welcome the public behind the scenes.
“We have bus tours of 15 to 20 people three or four times a week, from March till the end of October,” Ellis says. “And yes, all the visitors go away with samples.”
- Martha Smith
Editor’s Note: For more information, visit scialobakery.com. This story was originally published in the North Kingstown Standard-Times Nov. 24, 2012.
Photo by Martha Smith.