Baked to perfection
A vortex of flames shoots from the side of the century-old brick oven of the Tamaqua Italian Bakery, awaiting a deposit of dough.
Lawrence "Mickey" Padora, 83, is a master baker who specializes in only one product - Italian bread.
Born Lorenzo Guiseppe Padora, Mickey has spent over 50 years making fresh, hard-crusted Italian bread in Tamaqua's Italian Bakery. The small, white wood-frame structure clings to the hillside unannounced at 122 Railroad Street. Locals call the area Pleasant Row.
Consumers say Padora's bread is without equal.
Demand for the tasty treat has allowed Padora and wife, Carolyn, to stay in business and raise six children - Donna, Anna, Michael, Johnny, Carol and Larry, all of whom did chores and pitched in to help at the bakery throughout the years.
The shop's yield is high. Orders vary each day. But it's not unusual for the one-room outfit to produce 500 loaves a day six days a week when orders mount.
While most of the product ends up in local stores and better restaurants, the golden brown loaves also get shipped to far away places. Padora's bread has been all across the country, plus to Ireland, Wales and Canada. One family was known to pack it in suitcases for their regular trips to Hawaii.
Much of the product, however, stays in homes and eateries in Schuylkill, Luzerne and Carbon counties. Some is used to make hoagies at Padora's Six Pack House, 209 Railroad St., a side business owned by the family.
The old Tamaqua Italian Bakery has been Padora's bread and butter for most of his life.
"We only closed one year, it was during the Korean conflict in 1958," he says.
Everything about Padora's approach to breadmaking is special, from the Old World Italian recipe to his historic, century-old, open-hearth firebrick. It's fueled by buckwheat-sized anthracite coal.
"A state inspector once said he believes the bakery to be the only one of its kind in the state," says 36-year-old Larry, Padora's son and a bread baker in his own right.
Some believe the firebrick bake oven fueled by anthracite coal may be the only one in the country. In Tamaqua, the bakery is an institution and locals walk to the place to pick up their daily bread.
On June 11, 1998, Tamaqua's Italian Bakery was forced stop operations briefly when an essential piece of equipment went bad.
The bin on the dough mixer had worn through from years of use. The vintage apparatus, a motor-driven, 1913 Hobart Peerless Bread Machine from Sidney, Ohio, could no longer be used. Replacement parts were impossible to find.
"The company was still in business so we called and they were surprised to learn about the old machine still in use," says Larry.
Peerless had no solution to the problem and a new, computerized $65,000 doughmaker just wouldn't cut it.
A family friend, John "Sonny" Trudich Jr., came to the rescue. Trudich helped to remove the worn bin and directed the Padoras to a Tamaqua fabricator, Nestor's Iron Works. There, a thick steel band six feet long was manufactured and shaped to form a new bin. The bakery reopened on Saturday, just two days later.
The famous brick oven also was repaired once. Larry crawled inside the confined space to tend to the firebricks.
"You could never do it if you were claustrophobic," says Larry.
According to Mickey, the unusual dome-topped hearth measures about 21 X 20 feet. It gets its heat from a vortex of hot, fan-forced air shot from the coal fire. The fire is positioned beside the oven, not underneath. In full operation, temperatures can reach 1,200 degrees although the bread is normally baked at about 650.
Once fired, the bricks become hot and the oven retains its heat. The Padoras use about twon tons of coal a month.
The unusual oven was built around the turn of the century by George (D'Allesio) Dallas, who commissioned experts from Italy to do the job.
Dallas operated the oven for several years before 1911 then leased it to Odoriso Sozio and sons who ran the business until the 1920s.
Afterward, it was taken over by one of Sozio's helpers, Emedio Zaraca, originally from Italy, who baked bread until his death in 1955.
Zaraca's wife Anna and son Robert continued for another year before turning it over to Mickey Padora.
Mickey learned the bread making technique while assisting Zaraca, he said.
Larry picked up the trade from his father but never let on that he knew how to do it until Mickey became hospitalized. While an inpatient, Mickey couldn't understand why hospital visitors mentioned that they were still enjoying the bread. Turns out, Larry had taken over the reins but never said a word.
"I think he was surprised," Larry says.
A reserved and modest man, Mickey is proud to point out that his bread is a wholesome, homemade product that contains no chemicals, additives or preservatives.
"We use an expensive, high-quality flour."
And there's no need for an oven timer because Padora instinctively knows when the loaves are ready, browned to a turn. At just the right moment, he reaches deep into the hot cavern using oversized, wooden spatula-type tools - with handles close to forty feet long - and retrieves the fully baked delight.
The healthful benefits of Padora's sugar and additive-free leavened bread have not gone unnoticed by local physicians and heart doctors. Some have recommended the bread to their patients.
Dale W. Freudenberger, president, Tamaqua Historical Society, says he, too, is a loyal customer.
"It's the finest, unique Italian bread I've had anywhere. It's outstanding, and I know what I'm talking about. My brother is an Italian bread connoisseur and he's tried breads from all over the country. He says nothing else even comes close."
For the Padora family, the bakery represents an honest, hard-working job producing a product known as the bread of life, common to everyman.
After all, people are individuals and everybody is unique. But bread, perhaps, is the one single common denominator, as basic as air and water.
"I've met some of the nicest people in here," says Mickey.
Larry agrees, noting that the business has provided an avenue to interact with people from all walks of life.
"Everybody has eaten this bread," says Larry, "from poor people to millionaires."