Bread and Rosa, A Love Story, The bakery that Calogero and Rosalba Canfora built

December 30, 2017

By Katherine Keller

The story of Rosalba and Calogero Canfora began in the little seaside town of Trappeto about 50 miles southwest of Palermo, Sicily. —Photo Katherine Keller

After serving Bay View for 20 years, Rosalba and Calogero Canfora wept when they closed their bakery for the final time in August last year.

“It was the most difficult thing I had to do,” Calogero said. “It was very, very difficult to give it up. I cried and she did too.”

Rosalba nodded solemnly.

Although they agreed it was time to retire, after operating their business for 37 years and serving patrons they loved deeply, walking away from it broke their hearts.

Journey
The story of Rosalba Madelio (roze AHL bah) and Calogero Canfora (cah-LO-ger-o) is one of immigrants who by dint of hard work, shrewd decisions, and serendipity made good embracing the American dream.

Theirs is also a love story that began 46 years ago, one that has not been diminished by time or the sacrifices exacted of them as owners of a family business.

The story began in the little seaside town of Trappeto, about 50 miles southwest of Palermo, Sicily.

Calogero was 10 years old in 1961 when his parents, Giovanni and Vincenza (Marchese) Canfora left Trappeto, moved to Milwaukee, and settled on Kewaunee Street, a block south of Brady Street. Calogero’s siblings Anthony, Carlo, Antonina, and Carolina also moved with the family.  The other two sisters, Vincenza and Nunzia, did not join the rest of the family because they were older and married. His father was hired by Grede Foundry on First Street.

His maternal grandfather, Calogero Marchese, emigrated to Milwaukee in 1908, when he was 16 years old. He found work with the railroads and Falk Corporation. Later he returned to Italy, married Paula Bologna, and brought his bride back to Milwaukee.

American ways didn’t sit well with young Calogero.  “It was very difficult for me because we came here not speaking the language,” he said. “We didn’t know what it was like. We came in a boat and landed at Ellis Island in 1961, and we took a train from New York to Chicago and then Milwaukee.”

He and his six-year-old brother gazed from the train windows in wonder. This is America, they thought.

“We saw lots of toys that we didn’t see before. Toys on the train, in the houses, toys outside, to us was new. Back then (in Trappeto) there were no phones. We didn’t have no TV. So America was a dream,” he said.

Adjusting to some of the customs of his new city was painful. Calogero was accustomed to roaming freely in Trappeto. “I grew up with freedom, in other words, if I wanted to go outside, if I wanted to play in the ocean, because we grew up in the country, we had the freedom to do that. I could run free,” he said.

“When we got here, we lived for two weeks with my aunt (on Teutonia Avenue). She had a small yard and I remember it was fenced. You know, you’re curious and you go outside to see what America looks like. There was a fence, it was kind of a shock. I started walking and I went next door. Nobody was there but my aunt runs outside, ‘Don’t go there!’

“And I said why? ‘That’s somebody else’s land so you’ve got to stay here.’ And I cried.

An oil painting was created from a photograph of Calogero Canfora, in Trappeto, Sicily, carrying one of his father’s sheep. —Courtesy Rosalba and Calogero Canfora

“I did not like it here at all. I hated it! Because at 10 years old, you don’t understand economy. You don’t understand the reason we moved from one country to another. You don’t understand poverty either, as long as you get fed. In Trappeto my father was a shepherd. We had sheep. So he made ricotta cheese every day.

“We had food but we didn’t have clothing. We didn’t have all the goodies we have now but I had freedom. I hated it. I just hated it. And I dreamed of my views of the ocean. One side was a mountain and the other side was a mountain. Those pictures never left my mind. Never.”

Calogero attended St. Rita’s Elementary School and graduated from St. John’s Cathedral High School in 1971.

In 1963 or 1964 Calogero began working after school at Peter Sciortino’s bakery on Brady Street, washing trays and helping with cookie production “for a dollar a day.”

Later on, Joe Glorioso hired him as a stock boy at his Italian grocery store, also on Brady. When he was older, Calogero was promoted to Glorioso’s deli, where among other skills, he learned to make sausage.

“I liked the fact that the old people were teaching me. I listened to the older people, Peter Sciortino and also Mr. Joe Glorioso. As I grew older, they became mentors to me,” he said.

When he graduated from high school, his mother gave him $200 that he used to return to Trappeto to visit his sisters. He took his brother and they stayed six months.

A young woman named Rosalba Madelio lived with her grandmother in a house across from his sister.

Until age 3, Rosalba lived with her parents Filippo and Maria (Castellini) Madelio in Palermo, where her father handled the finances for Sicily’s public works department. Her grandmother, Vincenza Misuraca, brought her to Trappeto to live with her. Rosalba was one of seven children.

Misuraca was lonely after her husband died. She only had one son, Rosalba’s father, and he was in Palermo. The family decided that she would move to Trappeto and live with her grandmother. At that time, it was not uncommon in Italy for a grandchild to leave their family to live with a grandparent, Calogero said.

Initially being separated from her family and living with her grandmother was difficult but Rosalba soon discovered the advantages. “I had so much attention. I loved it. No competition, you know,” she said. Ten years later she would meet Calogero Canfora.

“When I met Rosalba, she was 13 years old. But you could get married at that time in Sicily at 16. I kind of saw her and I kept looking at her and I got interested. Very much,” he said.

“He was a good looking man,” said Rosalba, who was mutually attracted to Calogero.

“So I felt that I can’t come back to the United States without at least getting engaged to this girl, but first she had to want me,” Calogero said. He explained that at that time, the 1970s, young people were not allowed to date in Trappeto. “I did go to the parents… ”

“To ask for my hand,” Rosalba said.

“I did that and her mother said, ‘I have to talk it over with my husband and my family and we’ll let you know.” Calogero was confident that they would approve.

“Rosa was actually my first love. I dated but this was my first love. I felt so good that I thought nothing could go wrong. They let me know a few days later, and that’s when I decided to buy a ring and get engaged. And to ask Rosa too if she wanted me,” Calogero laughed.

“Of course!” said Rosalba. “I remember how much I cried when he left. Oh, I still remember.”

Calogero visited Rosa each of the following three years until she was sixteen, had finished school, and was eligible for marriage.

They were married in Palermo in 1974. After their honeymoon in Rome, the couple moved to Milwaukee.

Rosalba was eager to begin her new life with Calogero in the United States but she spoke no English. “For me it was really traumatic,” she said. “It was okay for a while but I was very lonely here. All my family was in Italy, brothers and sisters, everybody.

“But then I got pregnant and my dad came for two months, which was amazing. He was here when Natalie was born. And then after that, back and forth, my dad used to come all the time, my dad and my mom, just to visit. It helped,” Rosa said.

Rosalba Madelio, as a teenager, with her doll, Siamese cat, and roses. —Courtesy Rosalba and Calogero Canfora

“It wasn’t easy. Not easy for anybody to leave your homeland and go someplace else even though here was more advanced. That’s not always a good thing.”

“Home is home,” Calogero said. “People can go anywhere in the world but the place that you were born you will never forget. They say you can take the boy out of the country…”

They settled between North Avenue and Riverside Park on Newhall Avenue because it was close to Lakeside Laboratories where Calogero worked measuring ingredients for the pharmaceuticals the company made. When the company closed in 1975, they moved to San Pedro, California, a fishing port with a sizable population of other immigrants from Trappeto.

“So it was a familiar place to go,” Calogero said.

“It was warmer. I loved it. Oh, my gosh!” Rosalba said.

Calogero found work at Di Carlo Bakery that made Wonder Bread, although he was hired as a foreman, not a baker.

“When we moved to California, we had two kids, and I was working for Wonder Bread but I was not making enough to save to buy a home or a nice car. We were just making ends meet. We weren’t progressing at all.

“I decided to go back even though Rosa didn’t want to because she loved the climate. But I felt I had a better chance in Milwaukee because I know the city. We had no family in San Pedro. All my family was in Milwaukee and in Italy so we decided to come back.” He was hired at Wonder Bread in downtown Milwaukee in 1980.

But Calogero was intent on starting a business. The couple had saved up a little money and he began searching the classified ads. He saw that there was a bakery was for sale or lease on South 25th Street, just off West Burnham Street. It was the Dainty Bakery owned by Joe Kuras.

Calogero said, “I talked to the owner, Mr. Kuras, a Polish man. I said, ‘I want to take over the bakery, lease it, of course, because I have no money.’ He was willing to do that. He wanted five thousand dollars down and two months of rent. I had no money but I said I’ll take it. So I figured, okay, I’ll find the money but the day we were supposed to write the contract, which was a week later, I went there and said, ‘Mr. Kuras, I need to talk to you in your office upstairs.’ I said, ‘I want the bakery, but I have no money.’

“He had his pencil in his hand and he threw it. I said, ‘Mr. Kuras, the little money I have, I need it to start. I need to buy ingredients, I need to get this, I need to get that, and if I gave it to you, I got nothing. Okay? Give me a chance.’

“And he thought about it and he noticed that I am a baker. He thought about it, he said, okay.”

“ We had a thousand dollars,” Rosalba said.

“There was nothing in there as far as equipment. There was an oven and a bench. There was a mixer. Old mixer, who knows how old it was.

“He was there for a long time,” Rosalba said.

“So I had to look for a molder machine (to make bread loaves) because there was no molder there. Things like that. It was July 1st (1980) when we started.”

“Rent was $600 a month,” Rosalba said. “Mr. Kuras paid for electric and gas. That was included.”

They named their new business Canfora Bakery (KAHN for-a).

Because of its location, walk-in trade was slow and Calogero realized that he would have to develop a wholesale business. At the time, Festa Italiana was in its infancy. He knew Joe Glorioso, one of the festival’s leaders. Calogero decided to approach him to see if he could persuade him to buy Festa cannoli from Canfora Bakery.

He took his handmade cannoli to the meeting. When he arrived, Glorioso was talking to another Milwaukee Italian
baker, Freddy Scardina, about cannoli. They were arguing about Scardina’s price.

Calogero waited and when Scardina left he made his bid. “‘Mr. Glorioso,’ I said, ‘I’ve opened up a bakery, and I’m going to make cannolis.’ He said, ‘I’m glad you did. Listen, if I ask you to make 10,000 cannolis for Festa Italiana, can you make it for me?’

“I had no machines, but I said yes.”

“Of course,” Rosalba said. And the couple burst into laughter.

They would have to make 10,000 cannoli shells by hand because they were not able to afford automated equipment to make the shells.

They had two weeks to make the shells as well as the ricotta filling. It was laborious work involving many steps — making the dough, rolling it out, cutting it into circles, draping the circles around a dowel, and then frying them in oil.

After their engagement in 1971, Calogero Canfora and Rosalba Madelio were separated for three years until they were married and she joined him in Milwaukee, Wis. —Courtesy Rosalba and Calogero Canfora

Calogero borrowed $250 from his sister so he could buy the ricotta cheese. He, Rosalba, and his sister worked day and night making cannoli. They made 10,000 cannoli by the deadline — and then another 3,000 to meet the demand at Festa that year.

Calogero’s scheme was a success and launched his bakery. “It was my big desperation that got me going. I got a check for $5,000-some-odd-dollars from Festa. I bought the steamer for my oven. I bought all the things that I needed. Now I had one account,” he said.

Not long after Calogero’s Festa coup, serendipity smiled on the Canforas, although it was the result of another baker’s misfortune. Joseph Campione owned a large Milwaukee bakery and held scores of wholesale accounts on Milwaukee’s south side, including many on Layton Avenue. One day one of the Layton restaurant owners called Calogero. “He heard I opened up and he asked if I had any bread because Joe Campione’s oven broke down,” Calogero explained. “All of a sudden the Packing House calls me. The owner
(Keith Wiken) said, ‘I want to buy bread from you.’ I said, ‘Sure.’”

“He said, ‘What do you sell it for?’ ‘I say, 65 cents.’”

Rosalba roars with laughter. “Sixty-five, I can’t believe it!”

“He says, ‘Joe Campione gives it to me for 62, 60 cents. You’re just starting out, why are you higher than them?’ I said, ‘Keith, you’ve got a lot of friends. If I give you this bread and you like it, you can tell your friend you got it for 58 cents. Or you could tell them, I like this bread better. I don’t want you to say it’s cheap, I want you to say it’s a better bread,’” Calogero explained.

“Quality,” Rosalba added.

“He accepted the price. I got all those accounts and my business took off.” The Canforas made rolls and Italian and French bread for their wholesale customers.

During the same period, they learned how to make pastries. Joe Kuras, who still lived above the Canforas’ bakery, began to teach Rosalba and Calogero how to make éclairs, Danishes, coffeecake, and strudel. Calogero only knew how to bake bread and Rosalba had no baking experience at all.

Rosalba and Calogero Canfora on their wedding day in 1974 in Palermo, Sicily. Rosalba’s grandmother Vincenza Misuraca is seated at the table next to them. —Courtesy Rosalba and Calogero Canfora

Peter Sanfilippo, a retired truck driver, who was Italian-American, lived near their bakery, befriended the couple and began helping in the bakery.

“He knew how to speak Italian and he knew how to speak English,” Rosalba said. “So he used to come into the bakery and talk to me and if I had a difficult time he used to come and help me out. He was a great, great man.”

Rosalba discovered she loved making pastries. “Every time I went to Italia I got recipes. I used to go in bakeries and ask if I could come every day for a little bit just to learn. I said, I’m going back to America, so (not worried about potential competition) they gave me the recipe. My dad had friends that had bakeries, they let me stay for a week and I used to get all the recipes and redo them here,” she said.

Move
“One night as I was working — the neighborhood was changing and I didn’t like it anymore — I heard a big bang on the front window,” Calogero said. “So I went to look and I found a bullet. Somebody put a hole in the window. Young kids. So I said this is getting dangerous for myself and the people who work for us. So I started looking to see where I could move to.

“I started going to different neighborhoods. Downer Avenue, Bluemound, Highway 100, the south side. I kind of toured the city a little bit. I wasn’t looking in the paper. I found a nice place on Downer Avenue that I liked. It was for lease. It was empty. And then I saw this bakery on Oklahoma (Lakeside Bakery), where I used to buy stuff and it had closed. But I didn’t want to move there for some reason. I liked the Downer Avenue better. I got the phone number from Downer Avenue, I got the phone number from Oklahoma Avenue.”

When he got home he dialed what he thought was the Downer Avenue realtor, but instead discovered he had inadvertently dialed the realtor representing the Oklahoma Avenue property so he made an appointment to look at the bakery and building.

“I don’t know what exactly happened to it, I have no idea, but it was run down. It was just terrible. Just terrible. And I actually was afraid. I walked away but then I thought about this bakery. I thought, I know this bakery, I know this neighborhood. We could make something out of this,” he said.

Rosalba and Calogero Canfora operated their bakery at 1100 E. Oklahoma Avenue in Bay View from 1997 to 2017.

“I purchased the building (1100 E. Oklahoma Ave.). It took us, I think, about two and a half months to condition it. We put new floors in the store, bought new cases. We made it look attractive. In the back, we did as much as we could. I had to buy a brand new oven, which is the one that’s still there. I went to Canada to look at ovens. It cost about $36,000. So we made it workable for us.”

They decided to open on Saturday, April 19, 1997. Anticipating they might have more business than on 25th Street, they stocked up for opening day. They were completely unprepared for the magnitude of the response.

“My freezer was full of Danishes and in four days it was empty. It was crazy, the response from Bay View,” Rosalba said.

“We couldn’t keep up when we opened up. It was fantastic, the business that we had,” Calogero said.

“Incredible. And we couldn’t keep up. I mean it was lots of work and we were tired but we didn’t feel tired. We were excited. It took us a little bit to get settled, to adjust. And once we got adjusted, I figured, you know what, I’m going to give some of my wholesale accounts away. The store was a big, big business and it still is.”

“They all came,” Rosalba said.

“We started hiring people right away. We hired a lot of people to work in the front store and to help me (in the bakery),” Calogero said.

“When I baked, it wasn’t about business or how much money you make. Rosalba felt the same way. Yes, we had a very good business but it was not a priority. My priority was the relationship that we had, the community. That kind of filled my heart. There were times on Sunday mornings, in fact always, that I would see so many that would come in that I didn’t actually want to go home, even though I’d worked 15 or 12 hours, I didn’t want to go home. I just wanted to enjoy the relationship.”

“We knew them. We new everybody,” Rosalba said.

They remodeled the large apartment above the bakery and their daughter lived there for a number of years. They continued to build their retail business expanding it to include catering, wedding cakes, a deli, espresso drinks. And they always sold ham and rolls on Sunday mornings.

Transition
By 2015, after working six days a week for 37 years — and opposite shifts — the couple decided it was time to retire. Calogero placed the business on the market and sold it in August 2017.

“As time went by, we figured we had to retire because to work 67-, 68-, 69 hours a week, you need a young body, even though I did it and I wasn’t forcing myself. I was very comfortable doing these hours, but I also understood that we’re getting old and we need to kind of enjoy life a little,” Calogero said. “I started work at 9pm and got home at 8am,” Calogero said. “Finish baking about 6 a.m. Make a few deliveries on his way home. Got home at 8. I always wanted to be there. I wanted to be there every night. Yes, the employees could do it but even if I wanted to stay home, I couldn’t sleep. I had to be there.”

“We worked! Saturday and Sunday. We worked all the time!” Rosalba exclaimed.

Rosalba, who was in charge of the retail part of the bakery, worked from 8:30 am to 4 pm. “I wait for him to come home and then I go in.

“(In the evening), we had dinner together and then he left. It was kind of a bad life that way and that’s why we retired. Now we together all day! (Laughter!) Do stuff together.

“Sundays are with my kids. Yesterday they were here having dinner. Oh, my god, I love that.”

“I didn’t realize how much time I’ve got to do things,” Calogero added dryly, eyes twinkling. “I can enjoy my kids being awake. Not asleep. Normally they were here and I’m sleeping or sleepy or tired or I hit the couch when they were here. Now I relate with them, talk to them. I’m awake. Sunday morning we go to church. Sunday, we never did (go) on Sunday morning.”

Ironically, Calogero doesn’t like baking in their home kitchen because he can’t use the equipment he had in his bakery.

He hasn’t adjusted to his new schedule, either.

“I still have to take a few pills to relax me,” he said. “I’m having a very difficult time doing that right now. And a difficult time adjusting to doing nothing — because you work so many hours and then you stop. I did it for 40 years. And then you stop, you know, it takes more than a week to get used to it. Life goes on,” Calogero mused.

The couple sold their business, the building, and recipes to Karen and Eric Krieg. Although the Kriegs were not bakers, Calogero and Rosalba mentored them for a month. Additionally, the entire Canfora staff, 16 people, stayed on after the new owners took over the business.

Rosalba and Calogero spent a month in Trappeto after they left their bakery. They are remodeling a house they purchased there and they plan to spend part of each year in their beloved hometown by the sea.

They have three daughters and nine grandchildren: Natalie Rovella and her children Michele (mih KAY leh), Massimo, Valentina, and Armando; Bianca Dargotta and her children Apollonia, Isabella, and Salvatore;  Carla Zoric and her children Mateo and Calogero.

Calogero completed the Compass interview, recorded in early December 2017, with, “Let us wish the people of Bay View a Merry Christmas and thank you for all the years they supported us.”

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Comments

4 Comments on "Bread and Rosa, A Love Story, The bakery that Calogero and Rosalba Canfora built"

  1. Mary C Veit on Sun, 31st Dec 2017 1:04 pm 

    Beautiful story!!!!! I enjoyed reading about my “bakery” friends. I always talked to Rosa while shopping at her bakery but never knew about her life story. I, too, was 10 years old in 1961 when my parents Immigrated to the USA from the Azores. I could relate to Calogero’s first impression coming to the US. I always felt so “at home” whenever I shopped at Canfora’s. Loved buying the ricotta cheese because it was like the fresh cheese my Mom made for me when I was young. Best of luck to a beautiful couple and enjoy your retirement life!!!!!

  2. Dorothy Fare on Wed, 3rd Jan 2018 8:19 pm 

    I can’t find the article I am looking for. But I love the ones I do see.

  3. Maria on Sun, 18th Feb 2018 8:01 am 

    Shepherd boy painting done by Robert Uvari. I remember it well. Robert was a very good friend of the family and a wonderful artist

  4. Mary Krogmann on Thu, 19th Jul 2018 7:45 am 

    Oh my goodness. Calogero may have been the original owner of my 1991 Camaro that I’ve owned since April 1992! My grandparents both came to Milwaukee from Palermo! Their sirnames are Minessale & Guffre. I am also your age. I lived in South Milwaukee for many years.

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