For years the goal of my drives from Chicago to Boston was to make the fastest time possible with the fewest stops, usually at a dingy gas station on the side of the highway, nose held, senses on high alert. Unless stopped by a zealous and bored Ohio highway patrol, I could make it in 14 hours, 3.5 tanks of gas, innumerable snacks, and a guilty fast food stop, which I then promptly struck from the official record of the trip. The Indiana and Ohio portions were particularly onerous - long, flat and dull with costly tolls; corn fields cut with industrial parks. Pennsylvania was the home stretch, curves and straightaways, mountains and valleys for hundreds of miles.
When Sarah (a high school friend) and Ben (her academic husband) moved their family (Ava and Ruben) to State College this past summer, I finally had a sensible stopping place where I could break up my trip. The first couple visits were brief and vaguely alarming; I wasn't used to a college town and the welter of students following a Penn State victory, the nocturnal calls of drunken students making their way past the house to fraternity row, and the warm beacon of Hooter's welcoming me when I reached town center.
This week, as I made my way from Chicago to Boston for perhaps the last time, I stopped in State College for a four day sojourn - I needed to decompress from my move and spend some quality time with my friends. I was sleepy and unmotivated - I found myself sleeping late and napping at random intervals. I busied myself by washing dishes, watching videos I'd downloaded and walking the dog. Sarah and I met for lunch during the weekdays - she works from home and would take a break to hang out without the kids.
The first full day I was there Sarah took me to one of State College's treasures - a tiny artisan bakery called Gemelli Bakers.
It was, improbably, located up the street from an alley lined with state college flags. I felt a bit like Dorothy upon stepping out of her house and finding herself in Oz.
Once I stepped in to Gemelli Bakery, I was immediately at ease - the warmth of the oven coupled with the smell of fresh baked bread were familiar and comforting. It was the smallest bakery I'd ever set foot in - the oven was about 10 feet from the door and all of the fixtures were on wheels so that they could be moved during production. The space was both claustrophobic and open - big picture windows brought plenty of light into the space. I've heard many spaces described as jewel boxes. Gemelli truly is one.
The owner, Tony Sapia, is a State College legend. He owns several restaurants and bars and is as much a craftsman as he is a mini-mogul. He opened up the bakery late summer 2007 after running a successful wholesale business out of his restaurant next door. The shop, which used to be a bottle shop, was used for storage for several years before Tony turned it into Gemelli, named for his twin sons.
I visited twice, and each time he was there, waiting on customers, chatting up the regulars, and patiently answering questions from obtrusive bloggers (cough).
When we stopped in on Thursday night, just before close, Tony was tending the ovens as the last loaves of Challah were baking (he's the only certified Kosher baker in PA, and does a brisk sabbath and holiday business). Furniture was rolled to the side of the shop to allow for easier cleaning.
The next time we stopped in, on Friday morning, the shelves were stacked with fresh bread and as I took pictures a continuous stream of customers kept Tony busy, moving from shelf to shelf to cash register.
The old school cash register:
And the breads:
The bread is as good as it looks - rich tasting, great crumb, wonderful texture, terrific crust. We gobbled up both loaves we purchased in record time. And the challah was still toothsome and tender two days after we bought it.
For the curious, Tony makes his list of ingredients available. Predictably, he pulls no punches - the breads are natural and made with minimal ingredients.
Gemelli also sells a small selection of pastries, cupcakes and cookies - baked in the restaurant's ovens rather than in Gemelli's certified kosher deck ovens. We purchased a few cookies - delicious. The apple galette looked great.
And the cookies, oh the cookies:
Gemelli Bakers also sells their bread year-round at the farmers' market.
129 S Pugh St
State College, PA 16801
They keep slightly odd hours, so call ahead.