Bakers across Tampa Bay work in the pre-dawn light while we sleep, ensuring we wake up to warm bread, fresh muffins and crispy cookies.
In an area as diverse as the cities surrounding Tampa Bay, visitors can try confections from many countries, including Italy, Cuba and Greece. Some bakeries produce hearty breads that will get you through the day. Others make tasty bites for a great mid-afternoon treat. We stopped by some of the city's best.
Tampa icon Alessi Bakery celebrates its 100-year anniversary in September. Its bakers produce delicious Italian pastries every day, ranging from Italian wedding cookies covered in powdered sugar to tiny, sweet cannolis that disappear with a few bites.
Nicolo Alessi opened the Alessi Bakery in 1912. He came to Tampa from Italy and delivered Cuban and Italian bread by horse and wagon. The bakery became known for its elaborately decorated cakes. Today, customers visiting Alessi, at 2209 W Cypress St., can watch decorators put the final touches on wedding cakes.
The Italian bakery is also known for its black-and-white cookies (more cake-like than cookie) and its scachatta – a room-temperature pizza cut into small squares.
Scachatta means "smashed bread" in Italian. In Sicily, this dish was traditionally made from leftover dough and ingredients from the day's pizza. It's made daily and doesn't stay on the shelves long, said Alessi general manager Wes Wilson.
In St. Petersburg, Mazzaro's Italian Market deserves a visit. At its quirky shop at 2902 22nd Ave. N., Mazzaro's set aside a room dedicated to about 300 cheeses, many of them hard to find elsewhere. In a back corner, homemade marinara boils on the stove next to fresh ravioli.
But nothing draws the eye like a case filled with desserts. Mazzaro's offers more than 30 varieties of Italian cookies – including homemade biscotti. And Mazzaro's bakers make two different types of éclairs: the traditional version with dense cream filling and the "Mazzaro's éclair," a sandwich filled with a lighter, whipped cream.
You can get Cuban bread from most Tampa Bay grocers, but nothing compares to the crunchy crust and warm, soft center of a loaf that comes straight from the source.
La Segunda Central Bakery claims the honor of being the city's oldest Cuban bread company. Juan More officially opened La Segunda in 1915, though many believe it pre-dates that year. More, a Spaniard by way of Cuba, sold this hearty bread daily to some of Ybor City's earliest cigar factory workers. Today, La Segunda, located at 2512 N 15th St., produces about 12,000 loaves daily and sells them from Minnesota to Texas.
Each day, bakers work methodically, kneading the dough and pulling it into long shapes. Each one gets a thin strip of palmetto frond placed on top, which helps split the bread down the top.
Demand keeps increasing. So a couple years ago, current owners Copeland More and his father Tony More purchased a machine that would automate part of the process. Turns out, humans worked more consistently than the machine. The machine failed to take into account factors like weather and flour changes. So La Segunda went back to the old, handmade way.
And though they're known for their bread, La Segunda's flaky guava pastries filled with a not-too-sweet, tangy guava paste are as delicious as they are messy.
If you'd rather sit down and have your Cuban bread served to you, it's hard to beat La Tropicana Café at 1822 E Seventh Ave. Situated in the heart of Ybor City, it serves the buttery, toasted version with a heavy-on-the-milk café con leche. Go early enough and you can sit with the loyal locals who've been coming for years.
Visit Tarpon Springs' main tourist drag any weekend and you'll see hungry visitors pining over the goodies behind the long pastry case at Hellas Bakery. The pastry case provides a beautiful sight that makes picking just one item nearly impossible.
Located at 785 Dodecanese Blvd., Hellas has been a staple since 1970. Stop by the restaurant for a Greek salad. Then head to the giant trays of gooey baklava under the lighted case – that is, if you can pass by the tall personal chocolate cakes or mini tarts with colorful fruit.
Wright's Gourmet House opened in 1963, launched by a widow and widower looking for a new venture. It evolved over the years into a popular lunchtime spot and busy catering company. Its cakes, though simple and unchanging, rank among the best in the Tampa Bay area.
Each year, Wright's – located at 1200 S Dale Mabry Highway – produces between 25,000 and 30,000 cakes in eight flavors. The most popular? Chocolate cake with chocolate icing. During the winter holiday season, Wright's cake-makers work almost around-the-clock, says business manager Rob Hosmanek. In November and December alone, Wright's goes through about six tons of sugar.