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Mancini's remains a tradition

Posted on 01. Jan, 2010 by admin

A bakery worker knew what Jaclyn Leto wanted without her even asking.

Spying the little girl's eyes hungrily following the hot rolls, the worker leaned over and handed her one. She picked at the hot crust gently, then took a huge bite.

"I like to shove it in my face," Jaclyn, 10, of Stowe, said through a mouthful.

Mancini's Bakery in McKees Rocks is celebrating its 80th year, built mostly on experiences like Jaclyn's. Housed in a pale orange brick building on Woodward Avenue, the business is a local institution and something of an anomaly in an era dominated by chains and big-box retailers.

For thousands of Pittsburghers, Mancini's is something simpler and grander: A tradition spanning generations.

Tom Taylor Sr., for example, has been eating Mancini's bread for all of his 58 years. He lives in Lake Latonka, Mercer County, but Mancini's still beckons him home to the McKees Rocks area, where he grew up.

"When I was little, going to church and Sunday school, my brother was in the service and we used to stop and get a loaf on the way home," Taylor said. "(When I was older), the whole lot of us would go to football games and we'd come here and get loaves and eat them at the game, and on the way home."

For Mary Mancini Hartner, 58, of Robinson, every delighted smile is confirmation that she is keeping alive a legacy willed to her by her uncle, James, and father, Ernest.

The eldest of eight children, James Mancini founded the bakery in 1926 after emigrating to the United States from the Abruzzo region of Italy when he was 5 years old.

An experimenter and a bit of an independent spirit, James Mancini eventually stumbled on the right combination of flour, water, yeast and sugar and went into business for himself in a little garage in McKees Rocks.

Hartner's father, Ernest Mancini, became James Mancini's partner after returning home from fighting in World War II.

Ernest Mancini planned to hand the business down to Hartner's brother, Frank. But a series of tragedies thrust Hartner into the business.

James Mancini died in of lung cancer in January 1977. In July, Frank Mancini was killed in a motorcycle crash.

Hartner, who was living in Greensburg caring for a young son, returned to McKees Rocks to help her father keep the bakery going. They worked side-by-side until Ernest Mancini's death in 2004.

"It was hard because you have your own ideas about business," said Hartner, who acquired a master's degree in business administration from the University of Pittsburgh in 1975. "But when you work for your father, you have to do it his way. I had to learn the baking end, the business end and the Ernie end."

The learning is ongoing.

Suppliers, customers and diets have changed, even in the two years since Ernest Mancini died, Hartner said.

The mom-and-pop restaurants that peppered Pittsburgh neighborhoods once were the bakery's bread and butter. In recent years, however, those eateries have given way to chains, who supply their own bread. And, of course, there was the low-carb craze.

"I was doing demonstrations in supermarkets and people would come up to me and say 'How can you sell this poison?' " Hartner said.

To stay viable, Hartner and her cadre of 26 bakers have moved beyond their signature Italian breads, just as James Mancini would have wanted it.

Years ago, he added rye bread to the Mancini's mix. Frank's lasting contribution is the bakery's raisin bread. Hartner's son Nick, who started the McKee's Rocks Bread Company with his brother Ernie, is responsible for the bakery's latest creation: European multigrain.

The bakery also has added trendy loafs such as focaccia and cranberry walnut, along with a line of sauces and spreads.

Still, for many people, the allure of Mancini's is tradition, not trendiness.

Carmen Fratto, 73, of Kennedy, remembers buying Mancini's bread for three cents a loaf.

"Mom would send me and my sister to run errands," Fratto said. "She'd give us a bag and we'd get twists and carry it home between us."

One Mancini's tradition is particularly enduring, said Yvette Leto, Jaclyn's mother.

"If you are taking it somewhere, especially if you buy it hot," she said, "it doesn't quite make it to its destination."

By Lara Brenckle Thursday, February 23, 2006 Tribune-Review