A sweet life
It was a sweet life for the family of Tony and Melba (Liberatore) DiMario. And not just because they owned the Tastee Bakery for so many years.
Tony (a.k.a. Ace) and Melba were both involved in the bakery business even before they knew each other. So it’s not surprising that when they met in her parents’ bakery, they bonded with each other like cake and frosting, or peaches and cream. In fact, Tony affectionately called her Peach Melba.
Melba was literally born into the bakery business. Her parents opened Central Bakery at Baldwin Avenue and King Street in Sharon,PA, in the early 1920s. When the Depression hit, they moved to Morgantown, West Virginia. In the 1930s, they moved back to Sharon, opened the Tastee Bakery on North Baldwin Avenue, and later moved it to North Water Street – next to a bar named the Bucket of Blood.
“That was a tough neighborhood,” Tony said.
Tony’s father Mario worked at Carnegie Steel. After Tony’s mother Mary died on Mother’s Day, 1930, Mario remarried. His new wife, Erna, was a seamstress at Garrick’s and worked out of her home as a furrier.
Tony started working in bakeries when he was just 14 years old.
“I peeled apples and cleaned stuff at the Sanitary Bakery, Ideal Bakery, and places like that,” Tony said. “I learned the trade. My dad got on my case. He said, ‘Son, you could go to college.’ I said, ‘Dad, I’m a baker.’ I always wanted to be a baker.”
Tony was drafted into the Coast Guard while he was a senior at Farrell High School.
Always joking, he said “I wanted to change my name. I thought they were only drafting Italians.”
For most young men, service during World War II meant a change from their peacetime occupations and activities.
“I thought I would be guarding the coast,” Tony said. “They sent me to Greenland. The Coast Guard didn’t have a base there, so they combined us with the army. We had five sub-chasers there, but I didn’t have to go on them. The base commander found out I was a baker. I baked for about 1500 men – rolls, pies, cakes, cookies, éclairs, everything, for more than two years.”
When the war was over, Tony came back to Sharon, bolstered with all that experience and a letter of commendation that praised both his abilities and his character. He went to apply for a job at the Tastee Bakery.
“Melba was washing the windows,” Tony said. “I didn’t know who she was. She said, ‘My dad’s in the back.’ I went back and introduced myself, told him what I had done, where I had baked in Farrell and in the service. He hired me on the spot and I went to work the next day.”
It was store policy that employees were not supposed to date each other. That put Tony in a spot when a friend encouraged him to get a date for an upcoming weekend.
“I didn’t say anything to Melba,” Tony said. “But her sister came up to me and said, ‘Anthony, I’ll go home and talk to my mother and father. I’ll talk to my sister and brother-in-law so see what I can do.’ I said, ‘What do I got to do, go through the grape vine to take your sister out to eat tonight?’ But the next time she went out with me. We went to Yankee Lake. From then on it was steady.”
Rumor had it that Melba’s father let her go out with Tony because they didn’t want him to quit because he was such a good baker.
Again Tony joked, “I don’t remember when she asked me to marry her. We went together about nine or ten months and got married on August 30, 1947.”
So I married the boss’s daughter,” Tony said. “I thought I would have it made and go fishing all the time. The first year I went fishing six times. I went into the bakery at 1:30 in the morning, and we opened at 6. We were open seven days a week. The mills in the town were booming. Everything was booming.”
Before long Tony and Melba started raising their own family. Daughter Mary Frances (now Tonty) was born in 1948, son Mark Anthony in 1951, and daughter Margaret Ann (Heutsche), better known as Ranny in 1955.
“While we were growing up,” Mary Frances said, “we all worked in the bakery. My best memories are those of family. There wasn’t actually any difference between the business and family. It was all one and the same.”
Of course they made everything from scratch. They even had a vat for making the fillings for donuts and éclairs. Melba became well-known for her artistic flair for decorating cakes, especially wedding cakes.
But even during the good times, there were some trials. In the late 1950s, the bakery was destroyed by fire.
“I was home with the flu, really sick,” Tony said. “Tony Chieffo, my brother-in-law wanted to light the oven, but he hadn’t worked much in the back of the bakery. I told him I would be right down, but he went ahead and turned the wrong thing on. It exploded.”
“Uncle Tony had third degree burns all over his body,” Ranny said.
“Grandma didn’t want to reopen the bakery because she knew how my grandpa had worked, and she didn’t want her girls or my dad to work like that,” Ranny said. “But they rebuilt it anyway at 73 Vine Avenue in Sharon.”
The very next year the famous “ice flood” cause $6 million damage to downtown Sharon.
“I remember the sandbags and all of the men down there trying to stop the flood,” Mary Frances said. “They had canoes right in the bakery. Daddy almost died because of the carbon monoxide in the gases from the ovens. The showcases were all ruined.”
When the next flood came, they took the showcases apart and put them up high on benches.
Through the years the DiMarios not only ran the bakery shop, but also did full catering for a number of large events, including Packard Electric’s 100th anniversary party.
But it wasn’t all work and no play.
“I loved the family picnics in the summer,” Ranny said. “They weren’t like normal picnics. They were formal picnics because my mom and Aunt Eleanor were formal women. No paper plates. Real plates. They were big family get-togethers in the yard here or at my grandma’s house. We lived right around the block from one another.”
Ranny and Mary Frances agreed that the best picnics were the ones at Farmer Jim’s, in Cortland.
“We would pack the cars the night before,” Ranny said. “My dad would go to work like around 1:30 in the morning. We’d get up, put on our bathing suits under our church clothes, and go to seven o’clock Mass. Right after Mass we went to Farmer Jim’s. They knew us there, of course, because we went so often – nearly every Sunday that the weather was nice during the summer.”
They would get tables down by the water and set up for breakfast. Uncle Tony Chieffo had a six-burner Coleman stove. They fried up eggs and bacon, made toast, and had donuts and Danishes from the bakery. And of course they had coffee.
“We needed a whole table just to put the food on,” Ranny said, “and another table for the Coleman stove and the cleaning stuff.”
“We kids weren’t allowed to swim for one hour because you would get cramps and drown,” Mary Frances said. “We did dishes. We pumped the water into big pots to heat it. We’d wash the dishes, rinse them in scalding hot water, and dry them. By that time we were maybe allowed to go in the water.”
Shortly after noon, Tony would show up with their station wagon full of food. There would be rigatoni, meatballs, fagiol, fried chicken, tossed salad, fruit, cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, and nuts.
“Then of course you had to wait the hour,” Ranny said. “Dishes again. I remember walking around. Our grandpa Liberatore would give us a nickel or a dime, and there was a juke box, a cement slab for dancing and a band stand, and they had a concession stand inside where we’d get an ice cream cone.”
But kids, of course, will be kids.
“I remember walking with my brother and cousins,” Ranny said. “We’d look at all the people with their little hibachis. They’d have cheeseburgers and hot dogs. That’s all we wanted – a hot dog and potato chips. But we weren’t allowed to eat anything like that. No chips, no pop, nothing like that.”
The DiMarios continued to run the bakery until they sold it in 1994. By that time, independent bakeries had great difficulty competing with the supermarkets’ in-store bakeries. And the closure of Westinghouse and the steel mills had left few customers downtown.
“I told my kids not to do what we did,” Tony said. “We worked so hard we didn’t go anywhere. I bought tickets to go to Italy, and then had a stroke and we couldn’t go.”
Despite the hard work and the struggles, it’s hard to imagine a family with sweeter memories.
Melba passed away on August 22, 2002.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008