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Thursday, December 5,2013

Passing the torte

Roma Bakery's owners are selling their business — but not to just anyone

by ALLAN I. ROSS

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story originally misspelled the name of Gino Baldino, the sales/leasing agent for Roma Bakery.

Last week, Mena Castriciano’s dining room table was covered with authentic Italian dishes. Breads, salads, finger foods, pasta dishes and piles — actual heaping piles — of desserts. Cakes on top of tortes on top of almond cookies. In all, Castriciano estimated there were about 200 items.

“This is more than just a lifetime’s worth of knowledge,” she said. “These are from my family, my husband’s family, things we created — it’s everything we built our business on. I’m so, so proud of it, and it’s my dream that they get (passed on).”

For the last 44 years, Castriciano and her husband, Sostine, have owned and operated Roma Bakery Deli & Fine Foods in downtown Lansing. These are her family’s/ business’s recipes filling her usual dining space, mostly handwritten, mostly stuffed into multi-colored manila folders like massive raviolis. They’re not really food items of course (what suburban table could hold all those wedding cakes, lasagnas and bracioles?), but step-by-step guides to making these dishes just like they did in Italy. She hired a Cooley Law School student, Emma Ewusi, to help her transcribe them so she can turn them into a cookbook, “Cooking with Mena,” that she hopes will be out next year.

And the wisdom passing will continue in a grand return to tradition, if their plan works out. The Castricianos recently put Roma up for sale with a very specific proviso: After they sell the bakery, they want to stay on to teach the new owner (or owners) how to run it.

“We’ve put so much work into this,” Sostine Castriciano, 67, said. “We don’t want to sell it just to see it get turned into something else — we want to make sure it will keep on going as Roma.

“And he’ll be an excellent employee,” his wife chimed in. “He’s been doing this for a long time.”

He wakes up every Monday through Saturday morning at 4 and works from 6 a.m. to about 6 p.m. in the kitchen. Mena Castriciano used to spend almost as much time working the front of the house until she had a stroke in 2007, forcing her take a few steps back.

“I just can’t work like I used to,” she said. “And I have aphasia — sometimes the words don’t come back for certain things. It’s hard. I’ve started working half days, but I’ll probably only be able to do this for a few more years. This would be a perfect time to spend teaching someone how to do this.”

The Castricianos have three grown daughters who have set courses in life that don’t involve donning the Roma baking hat, hence this unorthodox approach.

“I think this would be best for someone young, preferably a couple, who want to stay in the area,” Sostine Castriciano said. “It’s like an apprenticeship. That’s the way they pass on trades in Italy.”

And it soon may be the way it’s done in Lansing. Her brother, Gino Baldino, a commercial sales and leasing agent with NAI Mid-Michigan TMN Commercial, is handling the transaction. He said it will either be sold as a package, which would include the business, the equipment, the land and the 5,500-square-foot building, or through some other arrangement that would split up the components, enabling someone to lease the property or building.

“This isn’t about money,” Mena Castriciano said. “I’m slowing down. It would be sad to let that information (disappear). We know a lot of people who are gone and took a lot of knowledge with them. We don’t want that to happen with Roma Bakery.”

Castriciano counts Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero as a regular customer; she said Gov. John Engler used to be one, too. Customer David Trierweiler said he used to come in 35 years ago, before he relocated. He was overjoyed to see Roma was still here when he rediscovered it five years ago. Roma also sells bread to other businesses, such as Horrock’s Farm Market on Lansing’s west side.

A lot of people rely on Roma, and continuity is a rare quality.

A new schedule would enable them to spend more time with family, but Castriciano said she already knows the first thing she’s going to do.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Spain,” she said. “And Fatima (in Portugal). And of course I’d visit family in Italy. I haven’t been in three years.”

Both Castricianos were born in Italy and immigrated to North America as adolescents. She came straight to Lansing, he moved to Canada first, then Lansing after he met her. They were married in 1968 and started Roma Bakery a year later on the corner of Cedar and Erie streets. That building was only 1,200 square feet and Sostine Castriciano had his eye on expansion. In 1978, work started on the new location one block away, and in 1979 the business moved to its present location, 428 N. Cedar St.

Aside from those treasured recipes, which they’d use to stock their bread, deli and dessert areas, the Castricianos also brought in specialty imported items, which were sold in the business’s grocery area. When asked if he’d ever considered another line of work, Sostine Castriciano just laughed.

“Like what you do,” he said, a smile creeping under his charming cookie duster mustache. “That’s half the job.”

The other half probably has to do something with waking up at 4 a.m. six days a week for nearly half a century. But, hey, Roma wasn’t built in a day.

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