Along Burke Avenue in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx is a 4th generation bakery that has roots in Santa Caterina, Sicily. “My great-grandfather Calogero made loaves of pane di casa in his home there and sold it to the people of the town,” says Joseph Nicosia who runs the 35-employee Nicosia’s Original Bronx Bread Co along with brother Charles Jr. The original Nicosia’s was solely retail, opened by Joseph’s grandparents in 1925 and then run by his father starting in 1981. Wholesale operations began in the late 1960s.
As a young man entering the work world in the late 90s, Nicosia did help his father driving routes part-time but his main job was a stockbroker. “I didn’t want to get involved in the bakery at first,” says Nicosia. “That changed when I starting doing some actual baking. Manipulating dough and flour, scaling and proofing it and the way you could affect the presentation and color. I developed a passion for it and also saw potential to grow the business.” By 2003, Nicosia left Wall Street and was full-time at the bakery, overseeing the production of everything from dinner rolls, focaccia, and heroes to baguettes, panini, and brioche hamburger buns.
He closed the retail store four years ago (“the neighborhood changed over the years so our base customers weren’t there any longer,” explains Nicosia), but many of those customers moved north so they can yet get their crusty Italian bread fix at delis, markets, and restaurants around Westchester. La Manda’s in White Plains uses the seeded Italian bastone and French baguette; Westchester Burger Co, with multiple county locations, a custom brioche bun; Candlelight Inn, the Kaiser role, seeded bastone, and Italian hero. DeCicco’s is the bakery’s biggest client.
We sat down over a few loaves and talked with this bread expert about the bakery business, why Bronx bread is so stellar, the challenges of his business, and more.
Your website repeatedly mentions “original Bronx bread.” What does that mean?
Joseph Nicosia: “The Bronx, most famously the Arthur Ave area but really all over, is known for staples of the Italian food culture. As one of oldest companies in the Bronx, we’re proud of that tradition.”
How much bread do you make in a day?
20,000 pieces in all varieties. We use 6,000 to 7000 pounds of flour daily, and after the water is mixed in, that’s 15,000 pounds of dough.
According to you, the market for quality bread is high in Westchester. Why?
“The close proximity to the Bronx is an obvious reason but also a lot of older baby boomers moved to Westchester from the Bronx. A few of their kids even opened up places that are a tribute to Bronx foods: Fortina, Village Social, Wood and Fire. They know good bread! I always say there are four things a good restaurant is built around: décor/ambience; dessert, wine, and the bread. It sets the stage.”
People always talk about the water being the reason for the good bread that comes out of the Bronx. What do you think?
“The water is heavy in the area, and heavy water gives bread a certain moisture level that ends up with a final product that exudes flavor. Also we use old dough [a starter] to put back into mix, which helps with the final product structure.”
What is the most challenging part of being a bread baker?
“We make a lot of bread so I can’t do it alone. My workers do a great job, but I still want to get in there and do it myself.”
And the best part?
“I walk into a sandwich place or restaurant and the owner says they sell out of my bread daily. Love it!”
What would your grandparents be most proud of if they were alive to see the business today?
“They’d appreciate how high quality the product still is. That would put a smile on their faces.”
Do you have a favorite product?
“The pane di casa is the perfect balance of crumb to crust and is versatile, fitting in at a fine Italian restaurant, high-end steakhouse, or in a deli as sandwich bread. I like to eat it with honey and provolone cheese. Or, of course, dunk it in sauce.”
Nicosia’s Original Bread Bronx Co
781-779 Burke Ave, Bronx