Fifty Favorite Places #22
In 1928, when Nicolo Mazzola opened a bakery at the corner of Henry and Union streets in what was then called South Brooklyn, the neighborhood was well into its transition from Irish to Italian. Both groups were driven by hunger – the potato famine, the almost feudal poverty of the Mezzogiorno – and drawn by the lure of jobs along Brooklyn’s developing waterfront. Today, the area has been re-dubbed Carroll Gardens, and it’s pretty thoroughly gentrified. Judging by what one sees and hears on the street, intimidatingly stylish and attractive young families from France are now the biggest immigrant group. But traces of older waves remain. There are the fig trees brought as seedlings from Sicily or Campania, replanted in Brooklyn gardens, wrapped and coddled through half a century of harsh winters, and still bearing fruit today. There are old school barber shops and funeral homes with unmistakably Italian names. There’s the Cittadini Molesi social club, the last of its kind. There’s the church where Al Capone was married. There are front yards like the one pictured below.
And there’s Mazzola Bakery – still in its original location and still family-owned, though since 1980 that family has not been the Mazzolas but the Caravellos.
Enter the bakery (just three customers allowed at a time these days), and the first thing you’ll smell, I’m sorry to say, is the overpowering aroma of hazelnut coffee, which I’ve always found mildly repulsive. But don’t be deterred. You can buy all manner of baked goods here, both savory and sweet – bread and muffins and small, dry cookies and gargantuan, cake-like black-and-white ones. However, I only go for one of two things.
If I want something sweet – as a treat after a long run, say – it’s sfogliatelle. For the sadly uninitiated, these are flaky pastry leaves, layer upon layer upon layer, encasing semolina-thickened ricotta fragrant with candied orange peel. They transport me to rocky Mediterranean shores where the scent of gorse and orange blossoms replaces that of hazelnut coffee . . .
Mostly, though, I want something savory, which means I want lard bread. The lard worked into the dough makes it rich and tender, like a porky brioche, but that’s just the start. Cubes of salami go in there, too, and nuggets of sharp provolone cheese, and lots and lots of black pepper. You have to be careful carrying the loaf home, because it has a tendency to buckle and crack under the weight of so much deliciousness.
Lard bread from Mazzola is a holiday tradition in the Ewing-Brooks household, fueling our pre-Christmas road trips to Toledo and Detroit. I try to pick up a loaf the morning of our departure, but if that’s not possible, I’ll refresh a day-old loaf in the oven before we head out. Discipline and self-restraint being important qualities to cultivate, Katie and I have agreed that no lard bread is to be consumed until we’ve left the city. Somewhere in New Jersey, we tear off the first corner. If the loaf lasts us past Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, we’re doing well.
I don’t know if there’ll be a road trip this December, or if Katie will be able to fly in from Chicago the week before and drive back with us. I hope so; surely 2020 can grant us that small mercy. But if the virus flares or the country blows up or something else smashes our plans to smithereens, I’m pretty sure lard bread will be one of the things we salvage from the wreckage.
Like those hardy Brooklyn fig trees and Mazzola Bakery itself, lard bread endures.