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Zito's Bakery

June 2, 2004

ZITO’S WAS MORE THAN BREAD TO ME

When Zito’s Italian bakery in Greenwich Village closed on the last Sunday in May, New York lost more than a good crusty loaf of bread. It lost a source of continuity. Zito’s had outlasted the Depression, beatniks, hippies, folksingers, and all its neighborhood competitors. “I can’t believe it,” I heard a gray-haired woman say. “I’ve been buying their bread since I was a girl, and my mother before me.”

I had only been buying Zito’s bread for twenty years, but I felt cheated when it closed. Zito’s was more than bread to me. It was my first anchor in New York. My wife and I moved to the city in 1984. We lived around the corner, and I went to Zito’s almost every morning to buy rolls. Seven a.m., the smell of bread, the loaves golden in the window, the workers up and down the street sweeping or hosing off the sidewalks; such a morning contained all the city’s possibilities. I liked to linger there. I was never in a rush. I worked at home and the truth is I had nowhere else to go.

Gradually I got to know the characters at Zito’s and they admitted me into their lives. And they were characters. Balding Charlie Zito was the maitre ‘d and impresario behind the scarred old marble counter where the bread was sold. He waved at children on their way to school, and they waved back and call his name, “Charlie!” as if he were some huge star, like Big Bird. He joked with the nuns and firemen who patronized the store. He flirted with the young single women who were always moving into the neighborhood, and they flirted back. There was a photograph of him behind the counter, wearing a leisure suit, suffused with happiness and pride as he hands a loaf of bread to Frank Sinatra. Old Blue Eyes looks pretty happy, too. Julio, Charlie’s younger brother, was up at three every morning to oversee the men, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants, who shaped the dough and placed it in the ovens. His day was well along when I arrived. By then he’d be tormenting poor Angelo Caiazzo, who had lived upstairs all his life and for whom the bakery had replaced his family. Angelo was easy to torment. Julio or one of the fishmongers from up the street would snatch his cap and he’d bellow with rage and hurl overblown threats. They were like children. The nuns would shake their heads indulgently. Jimmy Zito, the oldest brother, appeared every spring after wintering in Florida. He hung out in the back room working crossword puzzles, reading novels, or reminiscing about his days delivering bread in a horse-drawn wagon. Jimmy smoked as he talked, his cigarette wagging up and down and ashes dribbling on his shirt front.

All this, to me, made New York life graspable and tolerable. It relieved the anonymity of teeming streets and faceless buildings. Zito’s made Greenwich Village what it truly was: a village, with faces and laughter and stories. The zaniness made it just another place, where people faced life from oblique, odd angles. Strange to say, as a southerner from a small town in the Smoky Mountains, but I felt as much at home at Zito’s as I have ever felt. And I felt privileged to be a part of it.

Anthony Zito, on whom the decision to close the bakery rested, was the third generation. His grandfather, Antonino Zito, started the bakery in 1924. Charlie and Julio took over when Antonino died in 1963. Anthony, Julio’s son, was named for his grandfather.

Anthony had not intended to run the family business. He has a master’s in marine biology from New York University. He was working at the New York Aquarium at Coney Island when he was laid off during the city’s fiscal crisis of the seventies. He went to work at the bakery and stayed. He tolerated the antics of the old men, and kept the operation going and eventually, more by default than intent, started running things. And to the customer, it seemed to never change. Zito’s was ten or twelve years old when Berenice Abbott took a picture of the storefront. It’s a famous photograph, showing bread in the shape of round and long loaves, stars, and coiled rings stacked in the window, wicker baskets outside next to an open sidewalk hatch, and a woman with an enigmatic expression looking out. Aside from the large signs advertising the price as five cents a loaf, the bakery window looked much the same when I moved to New York and for ten and fifteen years after that.

But the neighborhood was changing all the time. The vendors who lined the streets with pushcarts filled with fruits and vegetables disappeared in the seventies. The Italians who lived in apartments over the stores moved to the suburbs. Their children weren’t interested in the crowded old spaces and the dingy storefronts. Within the last ten years, a fish market became a tattoo parlor, a bicycle shop an herb store, a boy’s haberdashery a leather goods store and then a sushi bar. Charlie Zito died, and there was no Zito to replace him. Julio lost the energy to torment Angelo. Jimmy fell ill and stayed in Florida. Zito’s endured, but things were getting harder. And then the Atkins diet came along. Dieters started shunning carbohydrates in all forms. The retail business suffered. The more important wholesale business suffered, too, as restaurants reduced their bread orders. At the same time costs increased. Liability insurance rates on the bakery’s delivery trucks skyrocketed after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The cost of parking tickets nearly doubled. With it all, the slim margin of profitability disappeared.

And so the Zito Bakery closed. My wife and I were walking down the street for a last loaf when a worker leaned into the window and taped up a sign that was painful in its bleak finality: NO MORE BREAD.

What will replace it in the neighborhood? Anthony thinks it will be another bakery. The coal ovens in the basement make such good bread that they shouldn’t go to waste. But whatever takes its place, it won’t be Zito’s. And it won’t be my home away from home, where old men were boys and every day could be like summer camp, where laughter and teasing and remembrance knit New York into a story I could embrace and understand.

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