History in the Baking

By Andrea Stach

Many great recipes get passed through a family. Yet few have gone the distance and have the longevity of those of Caterina Primerano, the matriarch and inspiration of Donato’s Bakery in Thunder Bay. Born in 1903 in Simbario, Calabria (a mountainous area of central Italy), Primerano began baking bread under the guidance of her own mother when she was seven years old. Using only unrefined flour, yeast, salt, and water, the bread was considered to be a “poor man’s bread,” as it used the wheat they grew themselves.

The loaves were baked all day long in a wood fired oven that lacked any type of gauge to measure temperature. As it was imperative to keep the oven door closed to maintain a consistent temperature, Primerano used an ingenious system of lining the seam of the door with dough so she could track the bread’s progress. When the seam was golden brown, so was her bread. Primerano shared her gift with many families in her village as a means to support her family.

Fast forward 80 years and Donato’s Bakery was born. Primerano’s eldest daughter moved to Thunder Bay with her sister, and the art has been passed down to each generation. Donato Bruno, the oldest great-great grandson of Primerano, and his brother James opened the bakery 20 years ago. Though the wood oven has been replaced, they still use the original recipe, free of preservatives and made by hand. The Brunos are also well-known for their homemade pizza, with sauce made fresh daily.

The bakery still has its roots in family, with all five members of the Donato clan contributing to its success. You can try a crostoli, a delectable pastry coated in icing sugar made by Donato’s mom, or a taralli, a specially-made breadstick made with black anise seeds that David Bruno (the youngest brother) brings back himself from Calabria every couple of years. The cinnamon buns, black velvet cake, and cheesecake are equally tempting.

Later this month, the family plans to invite everyone to the bakery for a week of baking celebrations to commemorate their great-great grandmother’s 100-year legacy, and 20 years of success for Donato’s Bakery. Plan to visit to sample some baked nostalgia and taste a delicious piece of history.

Find Donato’s Bakery at 161 Court Street South, open 24 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, 345-7273.