Chris Maggiacomo has been eating the same bread for almost 50 years.
Standing on the sidewalk outside Winter Hill Bakery in Somerville, he points at a small green building, then at a hair salon. “I went to school down there. That used to be a school. My uncles had a pizzeria right there.” He gestures across the street. “I worked there when I was a kid.” What used to be a Star Market now lies empty and desolate.
The neighborhood has transformed since Maggiacomo moved away from his childhood home, but the bakery remains.
“It’s always been there,” he says. “And it’s two dollars — two dollars — for a local Scali bread.”
That was almost a year ago, when Winter Hill Bakery was still full of customers on a Sunday morning, crammed together in winter coats, shoulder to shoulder. Of course, things look different these days, with customers socially distancing and wearing masks. But the pandemic hasn’t changed the loyalty of the customers, some of whom drive many miles to pick up a week’s worth of bread from the iconic bakery.
Winter Hill Bakery has existed for decades, some say more than a century. The menu hanging behind the counter is simple, and includes sesame seed-covered, pillowy Scali bread, crusty French bread, dinner rolls (half a dozen for $1.90), and pizza, among other items. Fruit pastries and small cakes fill the glass cases in front of the counter. They sell pizza dough for $1.20, and yeast too.
Since 1995, the bakery has been owned by Fernando Fernandes, who moved to the United States from Portugal with his wife in 1990. (The United States, and especially Massachusetts, welcomed a large wave of Portuguese immigrants after landmark immigration policy was signed into law in 1965.) Fernandes bought the business from his uncle, who bought it from someone else in 1983 before moving it down the street to its current location at 318 Broadway. Fernandes added traditional Portuguese sweet bread and pastéis de nata — a Portuguese egg custard tart — to the menu, alongside the beloved Italian loaves folks like Maggiacomo grew up with.
Fernandes was only 27 when he bought the shop. He and his wife have two children, a daughter and a son, who each spent countless nights sleeping on bags of flour in the bakery while Fernandes and one other colleague baked through the night to be ready to make deliveries in the morning. The Fernandes’s kids are grown-ups now — their daughter is in her late 20s, and their son is in college — and on Saturday nights Fernandes has as many as 10 staff members working from 5 p.m. till 5 a.m. to be ready for the Sunday rush.
But this part of Somerville is shifting, with craft breweries setting up next to the old barbershops, and the currently-under-construction green line extension is raising rent prices already. As such, many of Winter Hill Bakery’s old regulars have moved north of the city where it’s more affordable to raise a family.
But as some of his regulars move away, this Italian-turned-Portuguese bakery has become a home for immigrants from across the world, and Fernandes receives more and more requests for local breads from their home countries. He adds each new ask to his running list of regional staples.
“I have to keep up with what people want, otherwise I’d go out of business,” Fernandes says.
But Fernandes is tired — he’s worked the long hours required to operate a bakery for a quarter of a century. The pandemic has devastated so many small businesses, and as grocery store chains grow larger and more ubiquitous, it’s getting tougher and tougher to compete.
“Some of my customers, sometimes they say, ‘Oh, I took a loaf of bread home, I left it on the table, and after three days it got moldy,’” Fernandes says, exasperated. “You know, I’m sorry, I don’t put preservatives in the bread. It’s just flour and salt and yeast, that’s it.”
Still, in a world where everything is changing, Fernandes and Winter Hill Bakery are a constant.
“Everything’s by hand, and I use the same product from when I first worked here, the same as when my uncle did,” Fernandes says. “There are not many bakers around here right now that do that, but I want to keep it the same since I bought this place.”
Maggiacomo’s life has changed quite a bit since growing up on Winter Hill. He’s been married, had kids, left Winter Hill, and returned. And the Scali bread with sesame seeds still tastes the same as it always did.
COVID-19, immigration policy, housing prices — the future is impossible to predict. But flour, salt, and yeast? That you can rely on.
Update, January 17, 2020: An earlier version of this post included incorrect information about Chris Maggiacomo’s family history.