When Mary Mancini Hartner was a child, she pretended to ice skate on the flour-dusted floor of her family’s bakery.

Now she runs the place.

Mary has been president of Mancini’s Bakery in McKees Rocks for 45 years. I’ve been consuming the fresh, chewy bread for almost as long (I’ll be 43 on December 17 if anyone wants to buy me a pepperoni roll or two.)

Mary Mancini Hartner. Photo courtesy of Mancini’s Bakery.

Last week, Mary treated me to a tour of the Pittsburgh institution, which was founded by her uncle, Jim Mancini, in 1926.

The Italian immigrant apprenticed with a professional baker when he was 14 and soon began experimenting with his own Old World-style recipes in a rented space. He sold his bread to workers building the nearby Neville Island Bridge. The twisted loaves were a big hit and generated the motto, “Our bread makes butter taste better!”

Impressed by his success, Jim’s father, Frank Mancini, built him a bakery that now serves as the company’s retail shop.

Touring the facility is like walking back through time. As the business grew, the Mancinis kept expanding their footprint. Neighboring houses became part of the operation, which Mary’s father, Ernie Mancini, joined after World War II. You can document eras by the various types of linoleum flooring throughout the building.

A thin layer of flour coats flat counter tops and picture frames like snow and the ovens are on 24/7, cranking out 10,000 loaves a day, from traditional Italian, wheat and marble rye to Paska, raisin and pumpernickel. Every morning, a fleet of 13 trucks delivers the company’s products to 500 restaurants and stores within a 40-mile radius of the bakery. (Many eateries in the region promote  Mancini’s on their menus like a badge of honor.)

Photo courtesy of Mancini’s Bakery.

The fragrant smell of baking bread — particularly this brand — makes me think of my grandma, who died in 2001.

She lived on Broadway Avenue, just a few blocks from the bakery, and always had fresh rolls when I visited with my mom and little brother. We’d hollow them out and stuff them with meatballs and red sauce and then eat the doughy innards “for dessert.”

Since then, carbohydrates have been my weakness. I’ve even downed a roll while sitting in Fort Pitt Tunnel traffic and listening to The Clarks, the most Pittsburgh thing ever.

Bread is Life 

To my great joy, Mary’s son and the bakery’s co-owner, Nick Mancini Hartner, showed me how to make the company’s trademark twist. If only my grandma could see me now, I thought, as I awkwardly rolled the thick dough into a long rope and braided it. Nick bagged my lopsided handiwork so I could take it home.

I baked it for dinner that night. Mancini’s bread is a meal in and of itself. It’s not loaded with preservatives, so you have to finish or freeze it the same day. It makes for excellent toast the next morning, though.

Like a lot of Pittsburghers, Mary starts each day with a thick slice. For her, each bite is a taste of victory.

Mary started working for Mancini’s in 1977, after her younger brother, Frankie, who was being groomed to take over the operation, was killed in a motorcycle accident. The family experienced a lot of loss that year, including the death of the bakery’s founder Jim. While Mary was a new mom, she wanted to help her heartbroken dad keep the business afloat.

Photo courtesy of Mancini’s Bakery.

With a business degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a lifetime of observing her father operate the original brick oven, she helped bring Mancini’s into the modern age and turned it into a corporation.

Recently, the bakery received certification from the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, which was founded in 1997 to develop a nationwide standard for female-led businesses. She hopes to use the designation to secure federal grants for upgrades to the bakery, including a separate room for baking bread that’s free of major allergens.

Mancini’s now employs 48 Pittsburghers. It has a satellite location at 1717 Penn Ave. in the Strip District and only closes three days a year: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Business has remained strong and steady through eras of various no-carb diet fads (don’t deprive yourself, people!) and throughout the current pandemic.

Last December, to bring some levity to the Covid-tainted year, Mancini’s displayed a 6-foot-tall Christmas tree made out of bread. People came in droves to snap selfies with it. This year, Nick, a prolific dough artist, is working on a snowman.

“We were really afraid that it was going to be horrible,” Mary says of the pandemic. “People were staying home. They stopped going to restaurants, but they wanted something special to eat so they bought our bread. We have customers who stop by every day.”

My grandma was one of them.

Photo by Kristy Locklin.

After my nostalgic visit, I left Mancini’s with tear-filled eyes and drove to Mt. Calvary Cemetery in the Rocks to feast on some bread by my grandma’s grave.

While I was there, it started to snow softly, a fitting tribute to two December babies. When I got back to my car and tuned to a Christmas radio station, I heard a woman’s voice sing, “You will get a sentimental feeling …”

I sure did.