In Tony Sapias world, a bench isnt for resting.
Its his work station, the flour-dusted table where the award-winning baker practices the alchemy of turning dough into crusty loaves of artisan bread.
Hes there on a December morning, in the back of his State College shop, Gemelli Bakers, wearing a red-checked earflap trapper hat and a faded T-shirt that proclaims You Knead It. As rock music pours from a radio, his hands shape orbs of panettone, the Italian holiday sweet bread.
After a period of proofing, while the yeast further ferments, the dough will go into a massive stone-lined hearth oven that dominates the bakerys tiny storefront in an alley behind Pugh Street. Imported from Verona, Italy, and assembled over nine days, the oven can produce 200 to 250 loaves at a time.
Eventually, Sapia or one of his employees will pull out a string of golden-brown panettone shaped like giant muffins, releasing more of the mouth-watering aroma that infuses his business and lifts a soul on a gray, wintry day.
By now, 13 years after starting to bake bread and five since he opened his bakery, Sapia, 43, has built a stellar reputation as well as a thriving business supplying local eateries and selling at several farmers markets through an ancient art.
His Old World-style artisan creations not only include authentic ciabatta, French country, brioche, sourdough, baguette and whole grain loaves, but also plenty of his own recipes such as the Big Seedy with various seeds, cranberry breads, walnuts and chives rye, and a squash bread made with pumpkin and red quinoa.
In 2008, Sapias creativity earned him a national baking crown. His Breakfast in Bread raisin bread, topped with streusel and made with maple syrup, almonds and whole grain, took first in the annual Americas Best Raisin Bread Contest, a professional bakers competition at the International Baking Industry Exposition in Las Vegas.
His bread rarely makes it home in one piece in our house, said Michele Briggs, the owner of the Natures Pantry food store in College Township, one of Sapias first retail outlets.
But as much as technique, culinary zeal carries Sapia.
A little bit of science
Away from his bench, or even while working, hell readily discuss baking methods, the lineage of breads and food in general with the warmth of one of his fresh-baked loaves.
As easily as his molder stretches dough cylinders for sub rolls, hell spin tales of his Sicilian grandmother and her baking, of nights making pizza with a Florence master, or of growing up in State College the son of a restaurant and bar owner.
And, as hes known to do, he just might thrust a free sample into the arms of a surprised visitor.
Hes a special guy. I think thats what makes his breads special, said Kim Tait, of Tait Farm Foods, whose Harvest Shop supported Sapia early on and still carries his wares. I just remember he had this vision and passion. ... You cant refuse him. Hes über-generous, and hes very charismatic, and you cant say no.
That drive has led Sapia, a formally trained chef and baker, to help promote locally produced food as the Boalsburg Farmers Market co-manager. Three years ago, he helped start at the market a monthly series of cooking demonstrations, including one for children.
Whats really interesting for me is teaching people, Sapia said. I like that. I enjoy that. If somebody asks me a question, then Ill tell them what I know about it.
For instance, he explains, panettone recipes differ across Italy, sometimes even within neighborhoods. His version with golden raisins, candied orange pieces and orange-blossom water stays true to a classic northern version.
Thats very traditional, he said. Youd see that in Italy today.
But he also has added pumpkin and chocolate chips the experimenting that makes bread baking both a challenge and a pleasure.
Theres a little bit of science behind flour, water, yeast and salt, he said. And then you take those four ingredients, and theres 100 different inspired breads.
You start adding pumpkin, amaranth (grain) or raisins, and now suddenly it becomes the skys the limit. Thats where the art lies, but you still have to respect the science: flour, water, yeast and salt.
Fistful of this, a pinch of that
Sapias bakery, named after the Italian word for male twins in honor of his sons, honors two key influences.
Near the front door rests an antique cash register. His father, Jack Sapia, used it in his first restaurant, a College Avenue hamburger joint.
His childhood, Sapia said, helped steer him toward studying hotel administration at Cornell University and then after a two-year interlude working in finance on Wall Street enrolling in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, working in restaurants and eventually running his own State College establishments until 2006.
My father was in the restaurant and bar business, said Sapia, one of three sons. So when wed go to different cities, wed always check out the different hotels, restaurants and bars and see how they were set up.
A sepia-toned photo hanging on one of his bakerys walls displays another inspiration.
His grandmother, who hailed from the same central Sicilian town as her husband but only met him in western Pennsylvania, didnt let her oven sit vacant for long.
Shed bake twice, three times a week, Sapia said. And she didnt use any recipes. It was just a fistful of this, a pinch of that. She lived to be 84 years old, and she started baking when she was 13, on a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana when she came over.
Growing up, Sapia also absorbed the influence of his mother, a high school guidance counselor and frequent baker. But his path to bread baking began in earnest after his graduation from the CIA professional development program.
In New Orleans, he spent eight months as a line cook, learning his way around restaurant kitchens, immersed in the citys eclectic cuisine. Then, at 25, he made his ancestral land the next stop in his journey.
While living in Florence, studying Italian and working in a couple of restaurants, Sapia met Antonio Conte, a master pizza maker soon to be crowned tops in the country.
For a year at Contes side, Sapia made pizzas, sometimes hundreds a night, each deepening his knowledge of dough fermentation and handling. With Italian pizzas emphasis on lightly topped crusts, much rode on the preparation.
Everything leading up to that point that it goes into the oven has to be done perfectly, he said. If not, all the flaws will come out.
Revolutionized bread baking
During his stay, he almost fell into another occupation soldiering.
He became a dual citizen, a process that took him to his grandparents town, Mussomeli, to find birth records. But he also discovered that Italian citizenship, at the time, required all men to serve in the army for two years before their 26th birthday.
Sapia had attended high school at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas, and had once considered the Naval Academy, but those days were long behind him in 1995 when his mother in State College received the induction paperwork.
He had three options. Besides joining and possibly serving on a peacekeeping force somewhere nasty, he could have stayed and registered as a conscientious objector required to talk weekly with a priest.
The third thing was to get out totally, and that was what I ended up doing, he said, chuckling. But in Italian fashion, I had to sign a paper, and its on file in the Philadelphia consulate. It says if in the future Italy and the United States ever get into conflict with each other, Ill make a decision then.
But because the Italian army has since switched to an all-volunteer force, his future choices likely will continue to revolve around which loaves fill his ovens four decks.
Bread for him started as a side pursuit in 2000, first for his own establishments and then for others.
You didnt have any bread service, really no bread around here, he said. So what we did was made our own bread. And one thing led to another. Some folks asked if they could purchase it. I never made it on a grand scale.
As he progressed his training including classes at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan. his baking expanded like prime sourdough. His timing was excellent.
Artisan bread had grown more mainstream, and Americans had developed broader bread tastes part of a global revolution sparked by the 1982 invention of ciabatta by northern Italian bakers using high-speed mixers to create looser dough.
The United States got ahold of it in the 1990s, and quite frankly, if you could say one bread revolutionized bread baking and really took artisan baking to the next level, it was ciabatta, Sapia said.
It was brand new. Everybody was focused on bread. Because before that, nobody really paid attention to bread. When you cut open ciabatta, the look of it, it looks like lumber. When you cut it, all the nooks and crannies, its fluffy. Its crispy. It made bread accessible.
Whats old is new
Handmade bread requires handling, and Sapia plunges into the task, rounding and folding one loaf after another at his baking bench.
It creates strength, he said. It helps give you volume. Because the more air in the fold, the more the yeast can do its thing.
His hands form, on average, a dozen types of bread each week. Many of his recipes are his own, such as his version of stollen, the traditional German fruit cake, stuffed with marzipan and laden with cranberries, almonds and raisins.
Others come from Eastern European, German and Italian customers, a benefit from being in a college town.
Theyll give me some ideas, Sapia said. Theyll say, My grandmother used to make this particular bread. Ill do a bit of research. I have some old baking textbooks, in French as well as Italian and German. I have a couple of folks wholl help translate.
These days are exciting times for an adventurous baker. Once-exotic ingredients such as red quinoa and amaranth grain, used as staples centuries ago, are now widely grown and available.
Theyre marketing them as ancient grains, Sapia said. Whats old is new. The new trend is ancient grains.
And so, he continues his balancing act, between tradition and innovation, always mindful to respect where the bread came from, but also know where its going.
That is whats fun, he said. Thats where you get inspired. Thats what brings you back to the bench, so to speak. Sometimes you have failures. You get your failure pretty immediately in this business.
Kim Tait was struck by Sapias enthusiasm one Christmas weekend a few years ago when he waltzed into her shop with huge trays of panettone and stollen like the Pied Piper of holiday bread.
Bigger than life, there he was, she said.
Sapias outsized generosity impresses Michele Briggs, who calls him one of the most good-natured people. Her 6-year-old son stands as living proof.
Andrew has probably carried out his body weight in free stuff from the bakery, she said.
Though as a businessman he strives for profit, Sapia seemingly cant help but share something so simple yet powerful, the miracle of science and art linking cultures and eras, the staff of life itself.
Its a way of breaking bread together, given as naturally as when he explains about torrone, the classic Italian nougat thats among his bakery desserts, or shows children at the Boalsburg Farmers Market how to make an organic vinaigrette dressing without gums, corn syrup or sweeteners.
If someones transported by sinking their teeth through a crackling crust, then thats priceless to him.
Hopefully, that creates a memory for folks who come in, Sapia said, and that takes them out of the context of State College and puts them in their grandmothers kitchen, wherever that may be.