Welcome to Eastside Italian, Bommarito Style
To spend a morning inside Jim Bommarito Dolceria Palermo is to watch a bakery come to life. Early out of the kitchen are the doughnuts, huge trays of them. Later come the Danish pastries in a surprising number of flavors. By 9am a baker’s rack full of aromatic sesame-seed submarine rolls emerges, destined for the lunch crowd. It isn’t long before the first sandwich order is placed. Bread and pizza will emerge later.
“How’s your mom?” co-owner Christine Corrado asks a customer who has just walked in, stopping what she’s doing to chat. “She said ‘hi’ to you,” the customer says. And so it goes on a Friday morning as Corrado waits on customers, takes a phone call, conducts an interview and wonders when she’ll get the following week’s schedule written.
“We’ve got old-timers that have known me since I was a teenager,” she says. “You get to know people.” It’s been that way for three generations at this Italian bakery in St. Clair Shores. It all started with Corrado’s grandparents, Jim and Rose Bommarito. They met in their hometown of Terrasini in western Sicily, near Palermo. They married and came to the United States in an era when millions of Italians were doing the same thing.
In 1925, Jim and Rose and his brothers, Vito and Jack, started selling Italian sweets like lemon ice, gelato, cookies and wedding cakes at Joseph Campau and Mullet in a heavily Italian eastside Detroit neighborhood. “It was the bakery only; no bread,” Corrado says.
Jim and Rose would have one child, Grace. “She was born upstairs from the store,” Corrado says. In 1946 Grace married Sam Valenti, who was born in the U.S. but grew up in Italy, returning to the U.S. at 16 to join his brothers in a produce business.
A photo of Grace and Sam’s wedding party, taken in front of Jim and Rose’s Detroit store, hangs proudly in the bakery. The business retains its original name and offers many of the same Italian specialties created by the founders. Grace and Sam’s four daughters—Christine, Grace, Roseanne and Frances—along with Grace’s husband, Eric Adams, now own and operate the business the girls grew up in. Their offerings have expanded over the years and now include bread, pizza and wine in addition to all the traditional items passed down from their grandparents.
“My dad learned the business from my grandpa,” Corrado says. Every weekend the family would drive to Detroit, where Jim and Rose lived above their store. While the kids played upstairs, Sam Valenti worked alongside his father-in-law. Grace and Sam moved to St. Clair Shores in 1952, continuing to spend their weekends at the Detroit store until it closed. In 1961 they opened their own place.
“As kids we learned the whole business,” Corrado says. Her weekends were spent sitting by the phone, taking pizza orders. She did her homework in the store and remembers that her mother would cook meals for the staff. “As a kid I really didn’t like working in the business because my friends’ parents had the weekends off,” she says. “My parents’ day off was Monday.”
She credits her father with expanding the bakery’s offerings to meet changing demands. “It was my dad who was innovative. He had the foresight to know we had to do more to stay in business in this economy,” she says. “My dad was a brilliant man. So he learned. He went to experts.” For example, he hired a Belgian baker to show him how to make Danish pastry. He also started selling wine.
But there’s no messing with success. “The Italian cookies are my grandfather’s original recipe; we stayed with that,” Corrado says. The same is true for the gelato, lemon ice and cannoli. The one concession to modern times is a soft-serve machine that has made it a lot easier to serve the lemon ice which, when frozen, becomes rock solid.
"Ninety-nine percent of everything that is baked is made here,” Corrado says.
An exception is tiramisu, which is imported frozen from Italy. Some non-Italian specialties, such as shortbread and baklava, are brought in “because people ask for them,” she says. “The few things we don’t make, we try and get the best of the best.”
The store includes a deli counter, packaged Italian specialty foods and a sizeable wine section. Eric Adams, who started working at the store at age 14, has developed the wine department from the jug wines that started it. “He started having a passion for wine,” Corrado says. “He really got involved in knowing wines and studying them.”
Baking starts at 6am, earlier on weekends. “When it comes holiday time they’re here at midnight,” she says. Sales of their traditional Italian cookies are huge for the holidays. “Cookies have always been popular. But I think years ago people baked. People are doing less baking because they don’t have the time.”
The bakery does no advertising—there’s no need. “Our patronage is phenomenal,” Corrado says. “When we get slammed, we’re lined up at the door. When I see that crowd out there, I hear my mom and dad saying, ‘Feed the people.’ So I take out a tray of cookies.
“My sisters and I, we’re just incredibly proud of our heritage. Our parents worked hard and made many sacrifices. The fact that we’re keeping this place going so vibrantly is a tribute to them.”
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