Volume 73, Number 5 | June 2 - 8, 2004

Rising costs and Atkins Diet spell end for Bleecker bakery

By Albert Amateau

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

Seen here at Zito’s last Thursday, Mary Mokhtar, right, worked behind the counter the past few years, while her daughter, Alia Dahhan, 16, left, worked part time.

The nostalgia was thick and fragrant at 259 Bleecker St. a few days before A. Zito & Sons Bakery closed its doors for good after 80 years of operating in the same location under three generations of the Zito family.

Village residents, former residents and regular customers who traveled from the far reaches of Long Island and The Bronx lingered to say goodbye last week after they made their last purchases of crusty white, wheat or semolina.

“This is a disaster,” said Mary Ann Holawarty, a customer who was raised in the East Village and now lives in The Bronx. “I come down to get this bread and I don’t know where I’m going to go now. Arthur Avenue? [a Bronx street noted for Italian food specialty stores] Maybe, but it’s not as good as here,” Holawarty said.

Jim Conti, who lives in Floral Park but works in Manhattan, comes back to his old neighborhood to buy bread at Zito’s on his way to work. “I grew up on Grove St., went to Our Lady of Pompeii and graduated in 1955,” he recalled on Thurs. May 27, while waiting in the queue for his bread in the shop across from his old parochial school. “I stayed in the neighborhood until the ’70s when there were still a lot of food shops on Bleecker St. I’ll try to come back on the weekend to say goodbye to Anthony,” Conti said.

For about a week, Julio Zito, 80 — born in the back of the shop two weeks after his father and mother moved the bakery to Bleecker St. in 1924 — Julio’s wife, Elaine, and their son, Anthony, who manages the bakery, were sadly letting their retail and wholesale customers know that the ovens would soon go cold.

The closing was prompted by a combination of rising costs, Anthony said on Friday morning, May 28, two days before the last day of business.

“We weighed our options again a couple of weeks ago and the numbers didn’t add up,” he said. “It wasn’t rent. We could have handled that. I have a great landlord. Our lease was up last December and he told me, ‘Take your time. We can work something out.’ It was energy and all the other costs. We use coal-fired ovens here and the price of coal doubled in the past two years. Flour went up. Gasoline and insurance for our two trucks are way up and we’re a union shop — that’s had an impact on our bottom line,” Anthony said.

“The Atkins Diet hurt us a lot,” he went on. “I thought it was just me, but I was just reading that Interstate Bakery — the company that produces Wonder Bread — was skipping its quarterly dividend for the first time in 40 years. And Krispy Kreme is off too,” Anthony said.

A graduate of New York University with a masters degree in biology, Anthony, now 51, spent most of his working life managing the bakery for his father, Julio, and his uncle, Charlie, who died in 1998. That has meant getting up at 2 a.m. for the commute from home in New Jersey to Bleecker St. in the Village.

Julio and Elaine (a Village girl who married Julio 57 years ago at Our Lady of Pompeii) have lived around the corner on Cornelia St., for more than 50 years. “They’re not going anywhere,” Anthony said. “We tried to get them to New Jersey with us, but they wouldn’t consider it,” he said. “My father still gets in at five or six in the morning seven days a week — he’s out on the truck helping with deliveries right now. My mother thinks he should sit down and do nothing for a while,” Anthony said.

Angelo Carazzo, a simple and cheerful man of 83 who lives above the bakery, has long been part of the neighborhood scene, helping in the shop and trundling bread carts to nearby retail customers. “My mother has a plan for him,” said Anthony, regarding Carazzo. “She’s his legal guardian.”

Matt Umanov, owner of Matt Umanov Guitars, a Village merchant for 39 years and a near neighbor of Zito’s on Bleecker St. for 27 years, said last week that he will miss Zito and the rumbling roar of coal being delivered down a chute at the bakery. “There’s no sound like it,” Umanov said. “We’ll still hear it being delivered to John’s Pizza on Bleecker St. — They’re the only other place I know of that still uses coal-fire ovens.”

John Onderdonk, a Village resident for 12 years, also came by on Thursday to bid farewell to a neighborhood institution and to Mary Mokhtar, working behind the counter at Zito’s for the past few years, and her daughter, Alia Dahhan, 16, a student at Millenium High School on Broad St. in Lower Manhattan, who works part time at Zito’s.

“They know my son, Max — he’s 4 — and they greet us like family,” Onderdonk said. “I came to pick up those little semolina rolls, the perfect size for a sandwich. It’s one of the things that you come out for on Sunday morning — the smell of Zito’s bread.”

Anthony’s grandfather, Anthony Zito, who emigrated from Sicily with his wife, opened their first bakery on W. Broadway in 1919 and moved to 259 Bleecker St. on Dec. 1, 1924, Anthony said. The family lived in an apartment behind the bakery where Julio was born on Dec. 14, 1924.

The oldest son, Charlie, eventually took over the bakery with his brothers Julio and Jimmy. Zito’s bread became the stoutest staff of life for neighbors and visiting celebrities. A story that Charlie, who died Sept. 25, 1998, liked to tell was that Frank Sinatra banged on the door early one morning in the mid-1960s to get a freshly baked loaf.

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