When the phone rang at Palermo Bakery last week, Erasmo Aiello picked up the call at Mickey’s Toontown in Disneyland while loading his kids onto a ride. “The guy wanted to know where his bread was,” Aiello grins. “My driver was a little late, my partner was in a meeting and had his phone turned off, and here I am, doing business in Disneyland!”
It seems that the way people do business has changed over the last couple of centuries. The baking tradition in Aiello’s family began with his great-grandfather in the town prettily named Isola delle Femmine, a few miles outside of Palermo, Italy. Translated, the Isle of Women takes its name from the island just off the coast of Palermo where women were imprisoned under Arab rule, the Arabs being just one of Sicily’s many conquerors who made their mark on a rich culinary heritage.
Not the least of which is the bread from the region. “In Italy,” Erasmo explains, “the people expect fresh bread in the morning and fresh bread at night, and would come to the bakery to take it right out of the ovens!” So, day and night for the last 200 years, bread has been made in Erasmo Aiello’s family. In fact, just to get a day off, Aiello decided to move to New York.
“I started in the bakery when I was 6 years old,” Erasmo recalls. “My father would call me to come sweep the floor when I got in from school. By the time I was 8 or 9, I was a master at shaping the dough and loading it into the ovens, off of the big wooden peel.
“Then, at age 13, you have the choice between school or work,” Aiello continues. “I chose work. And in Italy, they don’t believe in taking a day off when you work with your family.” After several years of apprenticeship, New York held an irresistible allure. “When I left, I said, ‘That’s it–I’m not going to touch flour! I’m not going to eat bread!” he laughs.
“So, I went to New York and that’s where I met my partner, Rosario [Zito]. The only job that was available was in the pizza business. For me, it was fun–working eleven hours a day, with two days off, it was like a vacation! Rosario had a pizza business of his own and we’re both from the same place in Italy, so we became friends and we end up marrying two sisters, my wife, Cathy, and his wife, Maria Rosa,” Aiello recounts.
As it turned out, Erasmo’s father had some qualms about New York and, after a trip to Monterey to visit relatives, convinced his son to move West. “It’s the best thing we could have done. Rosario sold his business and we all came out. We started with one oven, a mixer, a molder, a table and a scale over on Munras Avenue. Bert Cutino came to try the bread, John Pisto–we never even had to advertise. We’ve grown a little step every year.”
The little steps became a quantum leap since first opening in ’85, a success story that may be measured in pounds: 4,000 to 7,000 pounds of flour are transformed into bread on a typical day, supplying wholesale accounts all over the Peninsula and into the San Francisco Bay Area, the name Palermo being synonymous with fresh, high-quality, and authentic. With Erasmo overseeing the baking and Rosario in charge of the administrative duties, the partners plan to expand again, “but only if we can keep the same quality,” they insist.
“Sometimes I might be mowing the lawn and my cell phone will ring,” Erasmo laughs. “But what the heck, I still get to take a day off!” –Catherine Coburn