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Friday, July 18, 2014

Interview: Angelo "Sonny" Veltre

In 2011, I did a post about Veltre Bakery, one of Rochester's original pizzerias. A few weeks ago, I sat down over lunch with Angelo "Sonny" Veltre, who ran that bakery for many years, and worked or helped out there more years, both before and after he was in charge. He's a wonderful guy, and it was a pleasure to speak with him.
The old Veltre Bakery used to be on Parkway St. in Rochester, just off Lyell Avenue. When Angelo's parents bought it in the 1930s, it had been in use for some time, and had incorporated a coal-fired oven, built into the wall, from the start.
Angelo's father learned his trade at the long-gone Bond Bakery in Rochester, which seems to have been something of a training ground for bakers around here.
Angelo, who was born in 1928, started working at the Veltre Bakery as a young boy, and part of his tasks included taking small pizzas around the neighborhood for sale.
In the beginning, pizza was no more than an adjunct to bread, which was Veltre's mainstay. They'd offer small pizzas, which in those days were as simple as can be, topped with little more than tomatoes and oregano. To make a little more money, Sonny was tasked with taking pizzas around to local bars at the end of the day, offering them for sale to patrons for ten cents apiece. At that time, pizza was a novelty, and many customers didn't even know what it was at first. But they quickly came to like it; Sonny recalled one night when a bar fight broke out over the sale of his last pizza (fortunately for him, Sonny got out before the fists started to fly in his direction).
Notably, Sonny also told me that Veltre sold some of its wares out of a truck. As the saying goes, eventually everything old is new again. Veltre was operating a food truck decades before the current food-truck trend took hold.
In the 1940s, Sonny got drafted, though he never made it overseas. He got in late in the war, and stayed stateside. But thanks to his military service, Sonny was able, under the GI Bill, to attend a bakery trade school, where he honed his craft. In fact, he learned so much that he was able to bake his own wedding cake on a Friday for the next day's reception.
And he learned how to use Veltre's coal oven. Sonny described it as a "primitive" oven, which to me makes it sound all the more intriguing. He'd show up for work at around 4 or 5 a.m. to start the fire, with wood, before adding the coal. The oven did incorporate a blower to blow off the coal smoke, but besides smoke and heat, coal produces ash, and cleaning the grates was a daily task.
How hot did Veltre's coal-fired oven get? Sonny didn't know. It had no thermometer, and he didn't need one. The baker had to use his judgment regarding where to place the loaf, or pizza, and when to turn it or take it out. Pizza went to the back, the hottest part of the oven, and bread closer to the front.
It was after WW2 that pizza started to change. Sonny doesn't give much credence to the theory that this was due to GIs returning from Italy, and I've had my doubts about that myself. But for whatever reason, the pizzas got bigger, and mozzarella and pepperoni became more common toppings.
The post-war years were the peak of the bakery. There was a spate of weddings at that time, and it wasn't uncommon for soldiers and their brides to order a few sheet pizzas for the reception. As Sonny put it, "pizza and beer, and you're all set." Veltre was also supplying bread to local restaurants and delivering downtown, turning out 100+ loaves a day.
Interestingly, in those days, apparently pizza boxes hadn't yet been invented, or at least they weren't in widespread use. Instead, to-go pies were typically put on a cardboard disk, tied with twine. Sonny recalled one winter night when a customer in a hurry grabbed a pizza to go, tied only with one string, instead of crossways. To Sonny's horror, he saw the pie slide off the base, right under the customer's car, into the snow and slush along the curb. Sonny ran out and offered the guy a new, fresh pizza.
Things continued to go well for Veltre Bakery, but change was in the wind. In the old days, amazingly, Veltre didn't lock its doors at night. As Angelo put it, "Who would rob the guy next door?" And neighbors were welcome to use its ovens. It truly sounds as if Veltre was a genuine neighborhood institution.
But as time went on, the neighborhood became less neighborly. Whether real or perceived, crime in the city was on the increase. Neighbors didn't know each other as well, if at all. At age 62, Angelo retired, more or less, and his son Dave took over. Angelo stayed on as a consultant.
The end came in 1999, when Dave decided to pursue a career as a sheriff's deputy. Angelo completely supported that decision, and I can't fault him for that. There's no more honorable career than law enforcement.  But with no buyers stepping forward to take over the bakery, Veltre closed its doors, and they've remained closed since.
But that was hardly the end for Sonny Veltre. For the past fifteen years, he's worked as a lifeguard at the Northwest Family YMCA on Long Pond Road, where he's saved several people from drowning. Most of these were not dramatic, "Save me, I'm drowning!" kinds of rescues of the type we imagine, and I suspect that few are. Mostly they've involved heart attacks or seizures in the water, with the swimmers silently slipping under the surface, which requires diligent attention by the lifeguard. When that's happened on his watch, Angelo has pulled out the swimmer and called for additional help. But in describing one such rescue, he half-jokingly added that he was "only" 78 years old at the time.
As far as I know, the Veltre Bakery building, including the oven, is still intact. I'd love to find a way to go inside - legally of course - and take some photos. I'll continue looking into that possibility.
I'm also going to watch a movie. Mr. Veltre told me that back in the 1980s, a movie, "Moving Target," used the bakery as a shooting location at one point. I've found a movie by that name on Neflix, and have added it to my queue, but I haven't been able to confirm that it's the movie he's talking about. When I watch it, I'll keep my eyes out for anything that looks like a bakery.
I wanted to meet with Angelo "Sonny" Veltre to discuss pizza and baking, and I did, and that was indeed very interesting. But I also got to meet an amiable man who's lived a very full and productive life, and who's still going strong at age 87.
I'm sure I wasn't the first to do so, but I couldn't resist asking Angelo to what he attributes not just his longevity, but his vitality. His response was, in effect, "Just lucky, I guess." I hope we call all be that lucky. And I know I consider myself lucky to have met this fine gentleman.

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