Mimi Lordo and Chris Gambero are the third generation of the Gambaro family to run Missouri Baking Co.
Mimi Lordo knows she might surprise customers with her response when they call in looking for authentic Italian pastries from Missouri Baking Company, but she needs to set expectations.
“People will call in looking for cassata cake around the holidays, and they remember how their grandma made it,” Lordo says. “I always tell them that ours is good, but it’s probably not as good as their grandmother’s. Really, it’s those memories that make things so special. It’s all based around tradition. That’s what makes something authentic Italian.”
If tradition and memories are the cornerstones of Italian baking, then Lordo and her brother, Chris Gambaro, are holding up a temple to old-world tradition at their Hill institution, Missouri Baking Company. Since 1924, this beloved bakery, located in the heart of St. Louis’ Italian neighborhood, has been serving bread, pastries and cookies to anyone searching for a sweet taste of the old country.
In fact, that’s why it was founded in the first place. In the early 1920s, Missouri Baking Company’s patriarch, Stefano Gambaro, was living with his family in northern Italy when he got word from St. Louis that his services were needed. A respected baker, Stefano was contacted by the owners of the iconic Garavelli’s who wanted him to move to town to make bread for their booming south St. Louis cafeteria. Stefano agreed and immigrated to the United States, setting up Missouri Baking Company as a wholesale bread operation.
Traditional Italian pastries and cakes are the staples of the bakery's business.
His work at the bakery was unfortunately short-lived. Stefano passed away in his 40s, leaving behind a wife and six young children. To support the family, the elder children quit school and worked at the bakery, eventually joined by the younger ones as they became old enough to work.
Chris Gambaro and Lordo’s father, Ben, may have been the youngest of the siblings, but he was no less dedicated than the older ones. Early on, he figured out that the bakery could do both wholesale and retail to meet the neighborhood’s demand for authentic Italian cookies and pastries.
“The story goes that people from the neighborhood would knock on the door and ask, ‘Could you make me a cake?’” Gambaro says. “So they said, ‘Sure, we’ll make you a cake.’ Then they’d ask for bread, then seeded cookies. More and more of that happened, and eventually, they went less and less wholesale and more toward retail.”
Because the Hill neighborhood had several wholesale bread bakers, Ben saw that Missouri Baking Company could do better as a retail shop. Eventually, the bakery converted strictly to retail, and has been serving the area as a walkup and specialty order shop for decades.
Missouri Baking Company may have changed its business model, but that’s about all that is different since its founding. When his siblings wanted to retire, Ben bought them out and ran it until he was ready to quit working. He then sold it to his children, Gambaro and Lordo, who continue to run the place as close to how it was when their grandfather founded it back in the mid-1920s. However, Lordo notes that, even though they are committed to tradition, the bakery has had to adapt to changing tastes.
“We’ve had to adjust with the times to meet what people are buying today,” says Lordo. “I’d say probably 10 percent of the pastries we sell are those traditional Italian pastries, simply because the traditions are gone. Take panettone. We bake our own, and during the holidays, they would fly off the shelves so fast that we’d have to make them two or three times a day. Now, we have those old reliables that want it for their mother or grandmother, but we don’t see young people coming in and asking for it. If you want to stay in business, you have to change.”
Chris Gambaro makes the bakery's offerings by hand, with the same recipes his father and grandfather used.
Still, the bakery does not stray too far from the model. As Lordo explains, items like cream puffs, tiramisu, cannoli and their famous chocolate drops (their signature round chocolate-coated delicacies similar to a flat doughnut) tend to be their biggest sellers, as well as their traditional Italian cookies around the holidays. However, she has seen demand surge in recent years for traditional cuccidati, a cookie-like pastry filled with figs, raisins, pine nuts and chocolate chips and decorated with icing and colorful candies.
Gambaro and Lordo are proud of their cuccidati— and all of their wares — but they believe the key to their staying power is much more than delicious sweet treats. They recognize that they were handed a successful business by their father, but with it, they were also given a strong work ethic, commitment to customer service and the understanding that treating their employees well is crucial for their success. They have not wavered from those ideals one bit since taking over, and they know that their children, Lordo’s son Joseph and Gambaro’s daughter Christina, will stay focused on those when they take over the bakery someday.
“My parents trained us, and we owe everything to them,” Lordo says. “We’re so blessed to have been born into a happy family that worked hard. But they also showed us that the bakery business is a healthy environment — my dad passed away this December at 96, and my mom will be 96 in August. Working hard and talking with people is what it’s all about. Our customers just feel good here. It’s a fun place.”
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