The "Cathedral of Bakeries." That's how one incensed customer in a letter to the editor referred to Isabella Brothers Bakery in 1976, when a Plain Dealer writer failed to mention it in an article that purported to list the best bread bakeries in Cleveland. Perhaps, though, the paper's omission was excusable. While the bakery was still producing its locally famous Italian breads, its best days had already passed, as large chain grocery stores were slowly putting it and many other small local bakeries and neighborhood stores out of business.
Italian breads. If you are of Italian descent--or even if you are not, and you grew up in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, you undoubtedly remember the delicious Italian breads sold by Isabella Brothers Bakery. The business was founded in 1914 by Anthony Isabella, an immigrant from the Campania region in southern Italy. Arriving in Cleveland in 1908, Anthony settled on West 69th Street, north of Detroit Avenue, where a colony of Italian immigrants, which included several of his father's sisters and other relatives, was already forming. It is said that the view of Lake Erie from the north end of West 69th attracted these immigrants to this street--once the home of the notorious McCart Street gang, because it reminded them so much of the Bay of Naples back in their homeland.
Anthony Isabella initially found work, like so many other Italian immigrants living in the neighborhood, at the Joseph & Feiss men's clothing factory on West 53rd Street. However, he didn't stay there long. He had apprenticed as both a butcher and baker in Italy and he soon went into business with a cousin (and future brother-in-law) Robert Mazzarella, the two men starting up a grocery store and a bakery at 1256-58 West 69th Street in 1914. It was really the perfect location. Not only did the two-story red brick building provide sufficient space for a grocery on the first store, living quarters for both men and some of their relatives on the second, and a bakery in a small building at the back, but it already had the name "Isabella" carved in stone upon it. Because the building had been erected in 1910 by one of Anthony Isabella's uncles.
In 1920, Anthony Isabella was joined in Cleveland by his younger brother A. Dominic, known to the family as "Mimi." The two brothers then formed Isabella Brothers Bakery, which continued for another decade to bake bread out of the building at 1258 West 69th. Meanwhile, Anthony's former partner, Robert Mazzarella, took over sole operation of the grocery store, later moving it in 1933 to the northeast corner of West 69th and Detroit where it became a neighborhood fixture for decades.
During this era of the early twentieth century, as the Italian population on the street grew to the point where virtually every person living there was either an Italian immigrant, or descended from or married to one, an incredible retail community developed on West 69th Street. Italian immigrants, whom historians have noted were more apt in this period to become first generation retail business owners than immigrants from other ethnic groups, opened up numerous shops on the approximately one-half mile stretch of residential street between Detroit Avenue and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railroad tracks. In the 1930 Cleveland city directory, ten such shops on the street were specifically listed, but the actual number was undoubtedly much higher than that. The 1930 federal census suggests (by identifying a number of residents as owning their own shops or stores) that perhaps as many as 30 such businesses were operating out of the seventy-plus houses and apartment buildings on the street. This number included up to ten barber shops, possibly six shoe-maker/repair stores, five groceries, two bakeries (Isabella Brothers and its neighborhood competitor Fiocca Brothers Bakery), two candy stores, and an assortment of other retail businesses--even a pool room. There had also at one time been several saloons on the street, but of course none were listed in either the census or city directory in 1930. Prohibition had driven them underground.
Isabella Brothers Bakery thrived in this retail community, not only selling its twenty different types of Italian bread to residents on West 69th and other nearby streets, but also making deliveries to homes in other Italian neighborhoods on both the west and east sides of town. Anthony Isabella's son Joseph, who in 2015 was still living on West 69th street, remembered those deliveries--how his father or uncle would drop him off in front of a house; how he would enter the house--regardless of whether the customer was home or not, and how he would place the customer's bread order in the bread box in the kitchen, and then leave.
With the growth of the bakery's business well underway, Anthony Isabella and his wife Carrie decided in 1930 to purchase a parcel of land up the street at 1370 West 69th and there build a new a modern new bakery building. The Isabella family continued to bake and deliver Italian bread from this new address well into the 1980s, as the next generation of Isabellas--Anthony's two sons, Louis and Joseph, gradually took over the reins of the business. But, as noted earlier, large chain grocery stores, eventually forced Isabella Brothers Bakery out of business. The historic West 69th Street bakery closed its doors for good in 1988. Today, the former bakery building is the home of Esperanza Threads.