It is Saturday morning, the week before Thanksgiving. The Strip District is even more crowded than usual, with shoppers mobbing the sidewalks and clutching their Thanksgiving grocery lists. My husband and I snake our way through the throngs to a small storefront just to the right of Wholey's: Mancini's McKees Rocks Bread Company.
Inside, close to the window, there is a young, dark-haired man deftly shaping rolls. We can smell the bread baking in the back: a slightly sweet, slightly yeasty aroma mixed with a hint of cornmeal and oregano. The space for customers is narrow, about 5 feet wide, with a line of people nearly to the door. While we are waiting, we browse the selection: foccacia, rye, European whole grain, raisin, Italian, pepperoni roll, cinnamon rolls, hoagie sticks. When we have finally made it to the front counter we try the free samples, plunging fresh bites of Italian bread into oil, spices and hummus. I order a cinnamon roll. It is dense, tender and juicy.
Nick Hartner, who owns and runs this store, is a third-generation bread baker. His mother, Mary Mancini Hartner, owns the original Mancini's McKees Rocks Bread Company, located on the newly named Mancini Way in McKees Rocks. Her father, Ernie Mancini, started the bakery 80 years ago.
Nick opened the Strip District store four years ago as a separate business, and has been steadily growing his customer base. When the store first opened, and business was a little slow, he started making whimsical bread sculptures to put in the window. The most-requested sculpture is his 6-foot bread alligator. He also makes seasonal items, like turkeys, snowmen and Christmas trees.
At first, Nick says, he had a hard time establishing his store as a recognizable part of the neighborhood. "When people come into the store, I ask them, 'Where else are you going today?' The same people always have the same answers. It's hard to become part of everyone's routine when they've been shopping in the Strip District the same way for so many years."
After four years, however, it appears that Hartner has helped bring new recognition to one of the oldest bread companies in the Pittsburgh area. But how did baking bread get into the family's blood? Nick's mother, Mary, remembers that she didn't spend a lot of time at the bakery when she was a child. But when she did visit, she and her siblings liked to skate on the cornmeal that dusted the floors. "It was really fun ... and dangerous," she recalls.
Mary's younger brother was in line to take over the family business. But in 1977 he was killed in a motorcycle accident. Mary started to help her father with the business on a part-time basis. When her three boys -- Nick, Ben and Ernie -- were in middle school, she had an opportunity for a bigger role. Her kids encouraged her to take the job, and Mary encouraged her kids to spend time at the bakery. They took summer jobs there, and helped out during the holiday rush.
As for Nick, he graduated from Marquette University with a degree in biomedical engineering in the late 1990s. He moved home to look for a job. Mary told Nick that if he didn't have a job in six months, he'd have to work at the bakery. Nick started on the night shift, making bread from 11 p.m. to 10 a.m. To his surprise, he fell in love with the bread.
What makes Mancini bread so special? The ingredients are very simple: flour, salt, water and a little bit of shortening. But, as Mary explains, "we make it the old-fashioned way." That means that every loaf has ample time to rest before risings and shapings. It takes four hours to make every batch. "You can make it faster," Mary says, "but it won't taste as good."
Though Nick and Mary run their bakeries as separate entities, Nick uses the family recipes at his store, and his signature pepperoni roll, a delectable blend of pepperoni, spices and cheese cooked into the loaf, is now on the menu at the McKees Rocks location, too. Nick, who recently married, doesn't have children -- yet. "But when I do," he says, "I hope I can pass the love of baking on to them."