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Monday, December 19, 2011

Rochester's Pizza History, Continued: Veltre Bakery

In 2009, I did a post on Rochester's pizza history, discussing several of the old timers among Rochester-area pizzerias. But there's anothe place that's intrigued me for a while, even though - or because - it's no longer around.
If you happen to drive down Lyell Avenue in the city, you may have noticed the sign on the side of the building that houses Roncone's restaurant, advertising the Veltre Bakery, just around the corner at 26 Parkway St..
If you've ever followed that arrow, then you've discovered that alas, Veltre Bakery is no more. Only the sign remains. But it's long piqued my curiosity, especially after I found this discussion of Veltre's history (on the linked page, scroll down to the bottom).
It took some digging, but I finally tracked down the last owner of the bakery, Dave Veltre, who's now a Monroe County Sheriff's Deputy. I spent some time chatting with him on the phone, as well as with his father, Angelo "Sonny" Veltre, who ran the bakery before Dave. They filled me in on some of the history of the Veltre Bakery.
Angelo's father, John Veltre, an Italian immigrant who learned his trade at the long-gone Bond Bakery on North Street, bought, and renamed, the Zazzara's bakery - which was then located on Lyell Avenue, at the opposite corner of Roncone's today - in 1932. Apparently Bond (which was part of the General Baking Company) was something of a breeding ground for Rochester bakers, as another Bond employee went on to found Petrillo's Bakery, which is still going strong after 90-plus years.
What was very interesting to me was that Veltre's used a massive coal fired oven, which was capable of turning out bread loaves by the hundreds. Today, the handful of pizzerias in New York City that still use coal fired ovens are looked upon with reverence by pizza aficionados. Due mostly to modern air pollution regulations (most pizzerias with existing coal ovens were grandfathered), new coal fired ovens are a rarity these days, although some high-tech, often coal-gas hybrids can be found, as at Tony D's in Corn Hill.
Zazzara's was already making pizzas when John Veltre bought the bakery, although at that time they were still something of a novelty item. Angelo, who started helping out when he was a young boy, shortly after his father bought the business, recalled that many evenings he'd be given the job of taking "tomato pies," as they were then called, around to nearby bars and saloons, where they'd be sold to hungry patrons for five cents apiece.
Veltre's main product, of course, was bread, and customers coming in to buy loaves would also notice, and ask about, these curious tomato pies. Gradually, pizza started to catch on, with sales steadily increasing through the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
But as pizza gained in popularity, eventually becoming a staple of the American diet, it also changed. Early on, Veltre's tomato pies had been small - maybe 8 inches in diameter - and topped with nothing but tomato sauce, grated cheese, and oregano, though some customers would ask for anchovies too. But at some point beginning roughly around the early '50s, pizza began to evolve into the product we're all familiar with today, big, cheese-laden pies loaded with toppings. .
Veltre's changed with the times, too - up to a point. To meet customer demand, their pizza became more mainstream - processed mozzarella and pepperoni mostly supplanted grated Romano and anchovies - but the dough recipe (the same dough was used for the bread and the pizza) remained the same, and Veltre's continued to use fresh ingredients whenever possible, right down to the home-grown herbs.
Veltre's enjoyed some success, though, so much so that they opened several satellite locations around the Rochester area, including Henrietta, Churchville and Greece. For different reasons, all were eventually sold, and it was back to the one bakery on Parkway Street.
But other forces were at work too, that in the end spelled the end of Veltre's. Neighborhood crime was on the rise, for one thing. Changes in the business climate also led Veltre's to return to its roots, in a sense, focusing more on bread than pizza.
There was also a generational shift going on within the Veltre family. The bakery had always been very much a family affair. Dave's grandmother continued to watch over the baking into her nineties, and Angelo, like his father, devoted several decades of his life to the business.
But as Angelo reached his mid sixties, the reins passed increasingly to Dave, who was being tugged in another direction. He was interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement, and when in 1999 Dave was accepted into the Monroe County Deputy Sheriff Academy, it was time to make a choice. As Dave wrote in 2000, "the lure of a secure job, benefits, and more time with [his] family outweighed the challenges of running the bakery," and so the bakery was closed and put up for sale.
Alas, while the building was eventually sold, the business was not. Some of the original fixtures, including the oven, remain there to this day, but for what I imagine to be a combination of reasons, no buyer ever came along to revive the bakery.
Which would be a sad ending, but life goes on. It's gone on for Dave, who remains with the Sheriff's Office, and it's gone on for Angelo, who at age 84 still reports for work daily at a local YMCA, where he serves as a lifeguard. And that's no mere honorary position - Angelo once saved a swimmer's life at the Y, although he's quick to add that he was "only" 78 years old at the time.
My own regret in all this is that I never tried Veltre's pizza while it was still around. I asked Dave if there's any local pizza that comes close to what Veltre's used to make, but he couldn't come up with any. Matter-of-factly, but with a touch of understandable familial pride, he summed up his memories of Veltre's pizza by saying, "It was a work of art."
I don't think he was being boastful, or even merely nostalgic, by saying that. I think what he meant was that each Veltre's pizza was a unique product, made by individuals, in a particular setting, based on a craft that had been handed down within his family over several generations. It can no more be re-created today, by someone else, than could a lost 17th-century painting, or a legendary ancient sculpture.
So here's to lost works of art, culinary and otherwise. We may not be able to bring them back, but we can be glad they existed, and that they gave joy while they were here. Meanwhile, we can try to better appreciate the art that remains, and that's still being created today, whether in a painter's studio or in a local pizzeria. Something to think about next time you see that slightly faded sign at the corner of Lyell and Parkway.

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