Tag Archives: bakery

The Scent of a Neighborhood

June 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Provided

Since 1989, the corner of 108th and Harrison streets has featured an aroma that permeates the air and reminds every passerby that Rotella’s Italian Bakery makes their magic there. 

The bakery originally began in 1850 in Calabria, Italy, with Dominico Rotella selling loaves baked from a small wood-fired oven. His son, Alessandro, immigrated to America in 1909 and eventually settled in Omaha. In 1921, after a strike left him unemployed, he negotiated to buy a small bakery for $25 a month from a local businessman.

Nowadays, the bakery spans four large buildings that occupy most of the block.
It’s no wonder this busy bakery emits the scent of fresh-baked bread to everyone in the vicinity, including the cars driving by.

Paul Schoomaker lives in one of the surrounding neighborhoods and has not yet grown nose-blind to Rotella’s scent. “We’ve lived in the Applewood neighborhood for over 25 years and have greatly enjoyed the wonderful aromas from Rotella’s Bakery over the many years. When there is a soft breeze from the south-southwest early in the morning, the rich smell of fresh-baked bread wafts through the air,” he says. “On many occasions when I would walk the neighborhood in the early morning, the smell of fresh bread was a major motivational factor to be outside. There are few smells like that which create such a comforting feeling.”

Fellow Applewood Heights resident Amy Youngclaus agrees. “Being near Rotella’s is an added perk to our already homey neighborhood. Walking out of the house to the warm scent of bread swirling in the air is like getting a hug from a doting grandma. I feel as though the whiffs of bakery scent add a warm and cozy vibe to our locale.”

Residents of Cimmaron Woods West have similar sentiments about the Rotella’s aroma in the air. “The best smell is when the air is quiet and they are baking garlic or onion bread,” says resident Tom Perkins. “The aroma gets really intense sometimes and is great to smell when you walk outside. The other time I notice it is in the mornings when it just smells like baking bread my grandma used to make.”

Another resident of Cimmaron Woods West, Tom Demory, says the scent from Rotella’s often compels his wife and children to make a trip to the retail store. When asked if the strength of the scent on a particular day has any effect on their desire to go buy bread, he replies, “Without question.” And while he is generally aware of the scent, he says, “I haven’t given it a lot of thought, but I’ve never considered it a negative thing. It’s a pleasant odor.”  

For some residents living near the bakery, the scent of Rotella’s means so much more than merely the baking of bread. Oak Brook Apartments resident Sara Locke explains: “When my longtime partner was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that resulted in a gluten-free lifestyle, I didn’t think twice about swearing off bread myself. For years, I forwent my favorite foods—pastas, pizza, and my strange addiction to buttered toast. The day I left and moved into my new place, I spent the first long sleepless night sitting on my deck, torturing myself over the decision I had made. As the night gave way to the still-dark early morning hours, the smell was so subtle at first. Just a thought really, like a weird flashback that hasn’t yet taken hold. Then the unmistakable aroma grabbed me and reminded me of seven years’ worth of mornings without toast at breakfast. I sat there until the sun was up and walked over to the store for a loaf of bread. That was when I learned that they have gluten-free offerings, but it’s too late now. I may have ended a long relationship, but I’ve returned to my first love… and I still spend my mornings on that deck, but now I do it with toast and coffee in hand.”

Louis Rotella III isn’t surprised by everyone’s reaction to the Rotella’s scent—he still gets excited when he smells cinnamon raisin bread baking. “Sometimes I get hit with a smell that brings back my childhood,” he says. Occasionally he’ll encounter people who remember the 24th Street bakery Rotella’s occupied from 1965 until they moved to the current location in 1989. “They’ll say, ‘We miss the smell!’” he says, adding that they also miss the bread, but the smell is what’s most often brought up. 

Often, people will stop in at the retail shop to load up on bread to take to their out-of-state relatives. While Rotella’s is indeed a national brand, it can be difficult to find in a store outside of Nebraska and the immediate surrounding states. “Sometimes we’ll get people visiting who were instructed by their families to stop at the retail store and ‘load up’ to bring bread home,” Rotella says. 

Rotella’s Italian Bakery isn’t just a place that pumps out pleasant smells for the surrounding neighborhoods—it’s an Omaha mainstay, active in the local community. “We try hard to maintain the family values that brought us to where we are today,” Rotella says. “We recognize and appreciate the community that supports our business.” In that sense, the pleasant scents blanketing the neighborhoods can be seen as a far-reaching thank-you from Rotella’s to the community.  


Visit rotellasbakery.com for more information about the local Omaha bakery. Residential neighborhoods adjacent to the bakery complex include Applewood Heights, Cimarron Woods, and Brookhaven. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Home. 

Little Italy, Big Flavor

August 12, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

One recent Sunday, the delicious scent of fresh-baked bread and a hodgepodge of other yummy smells wafted outside the Orsi’s building at 6th and Pacific. A steady stream of customers flowed in and out of the building. They made friendly conversation with employees while grabbing bread for Sunday dinner along with domestic and imported meats, cheeses, and olives for the perfect antipasto plate. Others snagged a prized and piping hot pizza to go.

In the back, hustling to make it all happen, was Jim Hall.

Hall’s first job was at Orsi’s. Times and labor laws have changed since a then 8-year-old boy wrapped bread and buns in paper bags. Now he and his wife, Kathy, own the Little Italy landmark.

“It’s been part of me my whole life,” Hall says. Before he returned full-time as owner, Hall worked at UPS and OPPD, but always kept a weekend shift at Orsi’s.

Founded by Alfonso and Raphael Orsi in 1919, the bakery descended through the family over the years. In 2006, Hall and Bobby Orsi Jr. took ownership from Bob Orsi, adding a deli counter with meats, cheeses, olives, oils, and dry goods around 2007. In 2010, the Halls became full owners.

If anyone thinks that the Halls’ full ownership signaled the changing of the family guard, they’d be at least figuratively wrong. Hall, an informally adopted Orsi, has been part of the lifeblood of the iconic South Omaha outfit most of his life.

By age 12 Hall was entrusted with a set of keys and, along with an older neighborhood kid, opened up early each Sunday morning to start baking bread.

“I’ve been here on Sundays since 1967,” says Hall. “I’m German-Austrian by heritage, but I’m an adopted Italian.”

He describes the South Omaha of his youth as an ethnically diverse place where “everyone got along,” but each proud population had their own churches, groceries, bakeries, and bars. Unfortunately, this tradition of niche family businesses isn’t as prevalent as it once was.

“This is all that’s left of Little Italy besides Cascio’s now,” Hall muses. “These places were the special gems of the city.”

But the pendulum is always swinging.

“People are moving back down here now and it’s revitalizing the area,” he says. “It’s a lot more vibrant again.”

Hall still works long hours along with Kathy, who handles bookkeeping. They suspect that many such businesses shutter when a family’s sons and daughters aren’t keen on the grueling time commitment involved in many small businesses.

“If there’s no one in the next generation to take it over,” he notes, “a lot of them have faded on.”

Hall says it may not be his kids, but perhaps one of the next generation of neighborhood kids—just like he once was—who pick up the Orsi’s baton when the time comes.

But not just yet. It’s Orsi’s 95th year in business, and Hall says he will see it to the century mark and beyond.

“I was always part of the family,” he adds, “and I want to keep going.” I know our customers and like making them happy. And having new people discover us. Once they taste, they’ll be back.”

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Culprit Cafe sticks to the basics.

January 29, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Espresso and bread might not sound like much of a restaurant menu, but for Culprit Cafe owner Luke Mabie, those are the only two things he needed.

When designing the menu for his new restaurant, now open at 16th and Farnam streets, Mabie turned to the basic elements of a traditional bakery and cafe.

“My palate is always looking for more with less,” says Mabie. “We wanted to bring everything back to its original element.”

While simplicity reigns supreme at Culprit, that doesn’t mean customers get just a cup of coffee and a slice of bread. Rather, Mabie aims to focus on perfecting the simplest elements of Culprit’s variety of drinks, sandwiches, and baked goods.

Culprit was inspired by Mabie’s love of classic bakeries, as well as his experiences in New York City honing his craft as a pastry chef.

“Too many people focus on having that one recipe where it’s just like, ‘Oh yes, I have this thing, nobody else has this,’” says Mabie. “You come to realize that there’s never going to be a recipe that is so special or stands out so much that everybody’s going to be jealous of it. Because it’s all about the experience as a whole.”

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Owner and pastry chef Luke Mabie is all about more taste with a simple menu.

 

You aren’t going to find novelty drinks and secret menus at Culprit Cafe—what you see is what you get, and Mabie makes sure to keep Culprit’s offerings simple yet satisfying.

Take, for example, their cappuccino. Culprit sells their cappuccinos in one size only. As Mabie explains, a cappuccino is meant to consist of one-third espresso, one-third foam, and one-third milk. If you make cappuccinos bigger, the espresso can be overpowering, so Culprit keeps their cappuccinos at their original 6 oz. size.

This thoughtfulness shows up everywhere on Culprit’s drink menu. All syrups are made in-house, so that “the customer has a closer relationship to what we do,” says Mabie. On a recent visit, the vanilla latte and drip coffee were surprisingly smooth and not too bitter, perfect for both the coffee addict and the casual sipper.

While Mabie enjoys coffee and knew he wanted it to be a fundamental part of his business, he actually had no experience with it before opening Culprit. So he took the same approach that he does to baking and focused on the craft. Mabie traveled around the Midwest, tasting different coffee roasters, eager to educate himself on coffee as much as he could, before settling on Broadway Cafe and Roasting Co. in Kansas City, Mo.

Broadway account manager Brian Phillips worked with Mabie, and was impressed by his dedication to educating himself on coffee.

The open-face veggie sandwich pairs well with a salad of candied walnuts, feta, and balsamic reduction dressing.

The open-face veggie sandwich pairs well with a salad of candied walnuts, feta, and balsamic reduction dressing.

“When I got the phone call from Luke, I could tell that he was really passionate about coffee, but didn’t have the technical vocabulary,” says Phillips. “But I knew right away, when he was talking about his work, with the way that he makes bread, there was a lot of crossover.”

A quick glance at Culprit’s bakery display emphasizes the work Mabie puts into his classic baked goods. Pies and cakes at Culprit aren’t just served as slices from an hours-old display but rather as individual portions. The apple brown butter cake with a honey cinnamon buttercream frosting was basic yet satisfying, just like the rest of Culprit’s menu. Containing the perfect ratio of cake to frosting, the cake wasn’t loaded with the sugars and sweeteners found in many foods nowadays.

The bread at Culprit is just as much of a labor of love. Mabie bakes his at 3 p.m. every day, so that it’s fresh for customers who come right off of work.

The bread is more than just an accent on Culprit’s sandwiches and salads. It’s the foundation for which Mabie provides lunch fare with a variety of flavor profiles and textures, to please everyone from meat lovers to vegetarians. Once again, it’s back to the basics for Mabie.

 

Ed LeFebvre

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ed Lefebvre, owner of Cupcake Island at 120th and Pacific streets, made his very first cake at age 11. “I made it for a neighbor lady’s 80th birthday,” he recalls. “I really liked her, so I volunteered to do it.”

A baking course at Metro Tech in 1973 was followed by 25 years at Baker’s grocery store, most of which were spent specializing in cakes and decorating. “This is all I’ve ever done my entire life,” LeFebvre said. “Cake decorating in particular is my passion.” He bakes all of Cupcake Island’s wedding cakes personally, just as he did for friends and friends of friends in his home kitchen for 20 years before opening the shop six years ago. “I want it the way I want it,” he confesses, “but I really do need to hand this off.”05 December 2012- Cupcake Island is photographed fro Omaha Magazine.

It’s a timely consideration, given that his plan is to retire in the next three years and travel with his wife, Lois. Their children Katie, Brian, and David are grown with their own careers, so LeFebvre says he hopes one of his staff takes up the business’ torch.

Still, three years is three years, and the ideas aren’t stopping anytime soon. “I eat, breathe, everything, Cupcake Island,” LeFebvre says. He added that while he intends to keep up with the trends and expectations created by shows like The Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, he’s always going to focus on quality. “I take pride in doing that for my people,” he says, referring to his customers.

His signature flavor is Ed’s raspberry. The chocolate cupcake has raspberry filling, chocolate frosting, a raspberry on top, and chocolate curls. But his personal favorite? Plain white. “It’s just a really moist, flavorful cake,” he says without a hint of apology for the simple preference. “I’m not a big ‘filling’ person.”05 December 2012- Cupcake Island is photographed fro Omaha Magazine.

To keep things fresh in the new year, LeFebvre wants to put an emphasis on the cupcake’s big brother. “I already have more cakes on the books for 2013 than I’ve ever done in a year,” he says.

Any other visions for the future?

After citing new recipes like snickerdoodle, tiramisu, and turtle, LeFebvre leans forward, eyebrow raised. “I’m telling you this,” he says. “The next thing is food trucks. And I’m not saying anything, but Omaha could use a cupcake truck.”

And what does wife and bookkeeper Lois think about that? “I think he already has enough to do,” she says with a laugh.

Cupcake Island
1314 S. 119th St.
402-334-6800
cupcakeisland.com