Few things taste as delicious as a loaf of freshly baked bread, straight from your oven or from an artisanal bakery. Since the national revival of interest in artisanal baking dating from about 1980 out West and from the 1990s in the eastern United States, such bakeries— never plentiful in southwestern Connecticut—are now on the rise. More of them are dotted about Fairfield County (and neighboring Westchester and New Haven County) than most of us realize. This article focuses on a half dozen bakeries most of which produce breads, cakes and pastries. It also introduces readers to over a baker’s dozen more, encouraging them to sample their wares. Whether your taste is for plain white or peasant bread, French baguettes or boules, ciabatta, focaccia, sourdough, rye, pumpernickel, Russian black bread, or whole wheat, satisfaction can be found within easy driving distance.
Though bread is the most elemental of foods, composed simply of flour, water, salt and leavening, bread-making is nevertheless a complex art requiring hard work and unremitting attention to detail. Every baker interviewed agreed that the most daunting feature of the business are the brutal working hours. Bakeries are usually open daily from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., or later, the average working day lasts 12-15 hours, and it is common for bakers to begin work in the wee small hours of the morning. (Few bakers get Sundays off. ) One of the co-owners of Stamford’s Beldotti’s remarks that hours in the restaurant business are less demanding and the work more glamorous. Jeff Chandler of Julia’s Bakery employs over 50 people, maintaining firm control of a sizeable establishment, yet says he regularly works 50-hour weeks and feels “tethered to the business,” as do Michele Palanzo and Nuno Cordeiro of Michelina’s Bakery.
Delving into why Fairfield County seems unable to sustain more than a few fine artisanal bakeries and why their lifespan tends to be brief, one finds that startup costs are prohibitive and suitable premises few and difficult to find. With its high rents, labor costs and the soaring price of energy (notably electricity), not to mention taxes, it is difficult in Fairfield County to make a go of such a labor-intensive industry, particularly given cutthroat competition from supermarkets with their proliferation of cheaper, frozen, prebaked breads, rolls, cakes and pastry. Ours is not a friendly environment for mom-and-pop operations. David Brooks of Judie’s Bakery remarks on a dearth of willing and competent workers, observing that bakeries in general go out of business because “the profit margin is increasingly being eroded.” One baker explained at length that, because of increased demand for alternate fuels, costs of essential baking ingredients such as corn, wheat, eggs, milk, and whey powder have increased over the past year from 40 to 181 percent. Regrettably, higher energy costs translate into increased transportation costs, raising the price of all goods and services.
Counterpoised against all such odds is these bakers’ staunch resolve to produce quality bread. John Baricelli of The SoNo Baking Company & Café observes that commitment to the community is an essential ingredient for success. Jennifer Kohn of The Kneaded Bread & Q Restaurant & Bar comments that running an artisanal bakery is more than a business, it’s a lifestyle. Jennifer affirms it is hard but satisfying work, acknowledging, “There are much easier ways of making a living.”
Our tour of artisanal bakeries moves from west to east, from Stamford to Fairfield. Offering a full range of breads, pies, cakes and pastries at reasonable prices, Stamford’s Beldotti Bakery is located at 605 Newfield Ave.; (203) 348-9029. A family affair, Beldotti’s is run by a father and two sons—James, Chris and Michael. They are a team, James taking care of finances, Chris handling wholesale, and Michael taking charge of production, research and development. Beldotti’s produce from scratch artisanal white, wheat, cracked wheat, sourdough and pumpernickel loaves, as well as French and Italian bread. In addition, the bakery produces fruit and seasonal pies of all kinds, from blueberry through pumpkin, as well as “cool” pies with mousse-style fillings, such as banana cream, strawberry and chocolate. Cakes of all types, sizes, shapes and flavors are made to order. The bakery sells to stores and restaurants, hotels and hospitals throughout a service area that extends from Rye Brook to Westport.
Spinelli Brothers’ Bakery is located in both Stamford and Norwalk (607 Main St., Norwalk; 508 Glenbrook Rd., Stamford; ( 846-4414/ 323-5859). Their bakery is 20 years old. Owners Carmine and Leo Spinelli produce a few varieties each of bread, bagels and pastry. Having grown up in Stamford, the Spinellis went to New York City and, for a while, followed wholly different career paths: Carmine modeled formal wear while Leo learned to bake on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Carmine entered the bakery business on a temporary basis 17 years ago. Now the two brothers operate a commercial bakery, a full-service deli and two stores.
Norwalk now boasts an outstanding bakery In The SoNo Baking Company and Café. Opened two years ago, it is located at 101 S. Water St. at Hanford Place, Norwalk; (203) 847-7666. Proprietor John Baricelli has enjoyed a prestigious culinary career. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, he worked at The River Café and Four Seasons in New York, then went on to operate his own café/bakery in Brooklyn. His first position in Connecticut was at the Elms Restaurant and Tavern in Ridgefield. In the late 1990s, he worked for Martha Stewart Living Productions in Westport, developing and testing recipes and showcasing his considerable baking talents over the air.
The realization of a dream, SoNo Baking offers baguettes and épis, ciabatta and focaccia, challah, French country bread, rye, sourdough, cranberry pecan, oatmeal, olive and multigrain breads; delicious panini; and a full range of expertly made cakes, pastries and cookies. Cakes include carrot, coconut, chocolate ganache, flourless chocolate, lemon, strawberry and red velvet, while pastries run the gamut from fresh fruit galettes through lemon meringue and key lime tarts to blueberry and strawberry rhubarb pies. The bakery is also a dab hand at producing sour cherry and chocolate chip cookies. This establishment employs 30 people and both the bakery and café are open Mondays through Saturdays from 7 a.m. through 6 p.m. and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Further east, Wilton has two fine but very different bakeries: Michelina’s Bakery of Wilton (126 Old Ridgefield Rd.;  834-2253) and Wave Hill Breads (196 Danbury Rd.;  762-9595). Michelina’s co-owners Michele Palanzo and Nuno Cordeiro have occupied their present premises for five years. They are justly famous for cakes, pastries and cookies. However, they also bake several different kinds of delicious bread—French baguettes, oat bran, and six-grain loaves. Among their best-selling pastries are Black Forest Cake, chocolate ganache and fruit tortes. Cookies are sold by the pound. Special seasonal lines are popular—in October, when I visited, German specialty desserts, from Sachertorte to Apple Strudel, were on offer. You can enjoy their pastries with coffee at one of the tables in the bakery. Michele is a lifelong resident of Danbury; Nuno emigrated from Portugal to the United States as a child, and both have been in the bakery business since they were teenagers.
If you’ve encountered tasty Wave Hill Breads, you may have done so at one of Fairfield County’s farmers’ markets, where they have established a presence; in a specialty store anywhere from Bethel to Fairfield, White Plains or Scarsdale, or in a restaurant or country club. This bakery makes only bread, specializing in a few loaves, all fashioned from the same “poolish,” a starter or pre-ferment made of flour, water and a little yeast but no salt. Wave Hill Bread’s trio of loaves are what looks like a braided épi ($7.00), pain de campagne, or French country bread ($5.00), and the “pregel” ($3.00)—a combination of a pretzel and a bagel in shape. The bakery is open mornings (except Wednesdays) from 7:00-11:00 a.m.—call 762-9595 before visiting.
Proprietors Margaret Sapir and Mitchell Rapoport have business backgrounds: Margaret was involved with mergers and acquisitions while Mitchell worked in interactive media in the early days of the Internet; both have MBAs. Their reason for getting into the bakery business was the lasting impression made on them by superb bread tasted at a restaurant in Stowe, Vermont. They tracked down the baker, who turned out to be a Frenchman, Gerard Rubaud, to whom they then apprenticed themselves. Realizing the lack of good bread in Fairfield County, they decided to open a bakery here.
In Fairfield itself, take a look at Billy’s Bakery (1885 Blackrock Tpke., Fairfield;  337-5349), offering homemade bread, cakes and pastries. Billy’s has a coffee bar and also sells gourmet cheese. Owner William J. Hollis, Jr’s biography is interesting: he started out as a lab analyst in General Foods’ Control Department. After running a popcorn store with his father, he went to work for his father-in-law, none other than Stew Leonard, eventually working his way up to vice president of that company. Wife Bethy taught him how to bake. Billy’s now employs 8 full-time and 20 part-time staff.
In the inset box below are just over a baker’s dozen of bakeries specializing in breads or cakes and pastry. ■
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