IT'S a little after midnight on Oliver Street - the beginning of the workday at Napadano's Bakery. Each morning a handful of bakers tend to yeasty business here in the back of an old apartment building in the largely Italian and Portuguese section of ``Down Neck'' Newark.
Established in 1903, the bakery is a grounded symbol of ethnic family roots in America. Time has had little charge over the business: the same bread recipe, the same oven for four score and six years.
Bread is all they make - 3,500 loaves a day, seven days a week. The process is all by hand, save a huge Peerless mixer (it turns out 300 pounds of dough per batch) and a few rollers. The old brick oven, fueled by coal, ensures just the right flavor and consistency.
How can one work here and not salivate day after day from the delicious aroma?
``It's dough any way you look at it,'' says owner Mike Napadano. He came to the States from Salerno, Italy, when he was a teen-ager and worked for the Paganos, the original family owners. He learned the trade quickly and eventually took over. ``I love my work for the simple reason it gives me satisfaction,'' says the bearded baker.
Tonight's first shift includes Mr. Napadano's son Joe, 19, and Rob, also 19. (Rob doesn't want to give his last name, he says, because he isn't Italian.) Napadano's brother, and co-owner, Joe Sr., arrives later. Their father lives upstairs.
Rob prepares a block of yeast and explains that there are two kinds of ``tunes'' they listen to while working: Frank Sinatra and ``cowboy music.'' When asked about the baker played by NicolasCage in the movie ``Moonstruck,'' he replies, ``Very unreal. The guy didn't go to work once - plus the way he had the flame up so high, the bread would have burned.''
As for working unusual hours, he says, like the others, ``you get used to it.''
``Conversation's good and pay is good. And so is the bread,'' he says, tearing off a chunk from a long loaf and smiling.
Patrons and this reporter will attest: Napadano's bread is delicious. The family prides itself on ``the way bread should be made'' - with flour, water, yeast, a little salt, and, of course, an old brick oven. Preservatives and additives are dirty words.
``My way is better, and we don't bother with the other stuff,'' Napadano snarls as he slings a monstrous glob of dough out of the mixer.
``People say it's the best bread you can buy,'' he remarks later. But ``I don't believe in bragging; people do bragging for me.''
``We love to brag,'' says Anita Speziale, who's worked around the corner for John Duffy Fuel Company for 28 years. ``We get it every day.'' She takes loaves to her grown children in south Jersey.
After the ingredients are mixed, the bakers transfer the dough to a long flourboard, cut it, shape it, and put it in boxes to let it rise. Then they shape it again, and slit the tops with a razor blade before the loaves go into the oven. The process is clockwork for them, but to a first-time visitor, it seems a little short of miraculous. Their handiwork is so precise, so timed.
When the dough is ready, they use ``peels'' (flat wooden shovels) to transfer the loaves into the mouth of the 16-foot brick oven fired up to 550 degrees F.
Come daylight, the loaves are bagged or boxed, then delivered by van to luncheonettes, restaurants, and grocery stores. Some are kept on the premises for patrons who stop by.
At 60 cents a loaf, most say it's a bargain. ``If we were in New York, it would be $1.50,'' says Napadano with a chuckle. ``Our bread has gone back to places like Hawaii and England, too,'' he adds.
The different names for the bread - Italian, French, Portuguese - serve the different shapes: round, long, and short. It's basically the same bread, although shape changes the flavor slightly because of the amount of air in the loaf and the baking time.
The best way to eat the bread is ``plain, with nothing on it,'' says Napadano, ``that's the only way you can taste it.''
How long does it take to become a good baker? ``You could spend the rest of your life learning - every day there's a new challenge,'' says Napadano. And yes, mistakes are made: Last New Year's Day his son mixed the dough without the yeast - 650 pounds of flour out the window.
There are basic procedures to learn, but a baker's instincts take a while to set. For example, you have to watch the weather and know just how much yeast to increase (on cold days) or decrease (on hot days). Also, the amount of salt controls the texture of the dough, he says.
When asked if he'd ever do anything else, Napadano gives a quizzical look and replies: ``What would I be if I wasn't a baker?''