Una història sopranesca cedida gentilment per la con-becària Marta Martínez per a aquest blog
In the store window of Grande Monuments, next to a pale statue of Mother Mary, there’s a golden rack full of crispy handmade bread. Jerry Ragusa, third generation owner of the Williamsburg funerary business on Graham Avenue, has added focaccias, baguettes and semolinas to his usual sales ¾ tombstones.
“The bread is here because of popular demand,” Ragusa says. His daughter Angela works at Il Fornaretto, an Italian brick oven bakery in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where the Ragusa family resides. After Christmas holidays last year, they had some extra bread left and, rather than throw it away, Ragusa decided to take it to the shop and give a few loaves to a couple of friends in the neighborhood. They liked it so much that started to ask him to bring more.
Angela had been thinking about opening a bakery in Williamsburg, but high rents made it impossible. After the positive reaction of the neighbors who tasted the bread, she asked her father whether they could put some loaves in Grande’s window. “From that day, it just shot. I’ve never had so many people coming to my monuments shop smiling,” Angela says.
Every morning, Ragusa picks up the bread at Il Fornaretto at around 9:30 a.m. He puts the six or seven bags his daughter has already packed in the trunk and drives to Williamsburg. When they started in February, Ragusa used to bring 20 loaves a day to Grande Monuments. Today, he takes 80.
What he values most in this bread-extravagance is that it brought him closer to his 18-year-old daughter. “Every day I meet her in the morning. At night, we meet after the day is done, at home, and we talk about how much bread was sold, if there’s any extra orders… avoid ellipses It’s a very comfortable feeling, communicating with my daughter and developing my relationship with her.”
On his way to the shop, Ragusa sometimes passes by Saint John’s Cemetery, in south Queens, to leave a baguette in the administration office. Everybody knows him there. “If I counted all the stones I’ve put in this cemetery, I could build the city,” he says while driving around the paths of the graveyard.
Most of the brick oven loaves cost mainly $2: whole wheat, baguette, toscano, semolina, etc. The most expensive ones are proscuitto and olive bread, which are $4 and only available on Friday and Saturday. There’s no bread on Sunday at Grande’s because the shop is closed, but people would like it: “There are times when I’m not open and the cell phone goes off: ‘Jerry, we’re here for the bread, where are you?’”
Sarah Velton, 24, comes every day to get her bread. She lives just a block away and discovered the monument shop while passing by one day. “This bread is really good. It’s fresh, it’s a good price, and the customer service is friendly,” she says. Since she tasted the handmade bread, she has been recommending it to all her friends in the neighborhood.
Although bread is not the main business ¾ around 5% ¾ Ragusa says that “it lightens the atmosphere.” He enjoys it when people come in and talk about what they are going to cook that night or about anything else. “The monument business can be very aggravating,” he says, because it involves a mournful sentiment that you have to respect and there is a lot of back and forth. For him, selling bread is “almost like therapy.”
The introduction of the handmade loaves has also brought more exposure to the tombstones, Ragusa notices. Recently a woman came in and told him how ashamed she was, because she was shopping for bread while it had been four years since her mother died and she never put her name on her stone. “Go get the deed,” Ragusa told her. And so she did and ended up purchasing an inscription ¾ and a couple of loaves. “That day, I paid the bread the commission,” he laughs.
Grande Monuments has become more popular in the neighborhood since the bread is in the window. Even if residents don’t know Ragusa’s name, they do know about the brick oven loaves he sells. One day, a hipster ¾what Ragusa calls young, fashionable people ¾ saw him in the supermarket and said:
“Hey, you are the fellow who sells Mary’s bread!”
“Mary’s bread? That’s Angela’s bread, from the bakery in Bensonhurst. Where’s Mary?” Ragusa answered.
“Oh, no, it’s because the bread is right next to the blessed Mother Mary, so we in the neighborhood call your bread Mary’s bread.”
Ragusa got goosebumps when he heard that. “Life and death are so close together, there’s such a thin line…” he says. The fact that the bread is next to Mother Mary, that they go together, symbolizes for Ragusa the circle of life. “So even though it seems that it is so out of the box, it really isn’t.”
382 Graham Avenue