The year was 1965 and this 18-year-old girl was in her first year at Virginia Junior College. At lunchtime I often walked downtown, sometimes to J&A Hamburgers and often to Pepelnjak's Bakery, where I acquired a real fondness for chocolate eclairs and custard-filled napoleons. That fondness was revisited recently on a stop at Pep's Bake Shop for a newspaper story on the closing of a favorite place, the Italian Bakery, and at Pep's I would interview the owners Joe and Bette Prebonich. I visit with Joe every time we have a spaghetti feed at the VFW and he stops by to pick up dinners. The Italian Bakery Italian bread is super, and we use it to make garlic bread, a must-have with spaghetti.
A couple of weeks ago at the Eveleth IGA I ran into Gary Skerjance and remarked, "All of the Italian Bakery things are gone — they're out of Ranch bread." Gary said, "Oh, don't you know, the bakery is closed." I couldn't believe it — that mainstay on First Street South in Virginia, the building that's trimmed with red, green and white for the Italian flag, it's been there forever... it's closed.
Phoning Joe and Bette, I learned it was indeed true. He said it's time. He's 75 years old, he said. And their daughter Laura Collins has Pep's and having both places would be too much, he said.
I started remembering ... the early morning drives to Virginia for bakery treats for the coffee breaks while we're preparing the spaghetti, hearing Kathy Frank's lilting voice on the phone say "Good morning, Italian Bakery." And seeing the smiling faces of Kathy and Brenda Jylha deliver the boxes to my car. Now the Italian Bakery was to be no more — it had closed in Eveleth a few years back, now Virhinia.
It brought me back in memory to the old days when I had a parttime job at the Mesabi Daily News after graduating from high school. The newspaper back then was on Second Avenue where the Engman Insurance Agency is now, and the Italian Bakery was right next door. So a co-worker in the newspaper front office named Mary Jo Hobrle, now Vesel, and I would take our 15-minute breaks at the bakery. Among the bakery employees were Florence Garden and Mary Frederickson, who served the most delicious orange rolls.
Back to the present time, and my very nice visit with the Preboniches and daughter Laura and son Paul and granddaughter Allison. Pep's Bake Shop still has the lunch counter and stools of long ago, chalk boards to list the daily specials and big glass display cases to hold all manner of treats. I was remembering the bride dolls that would be on display each year at Pep's — searching my distant memory I remembered the name Ann Horvath, and an online search found her obituary of several years ago. "Ann was very active in Sacred Heart Church. She was well-known as the 'Doll Lady.' For 44 years her bride dolls were featured in Pepelnjak Bakery’s window before the annual fall bazaar at Sacred Heart Church."
The interview over, I checked the display cases and did some serious shopping — raspberry tarts, florentines (a toffee-like thin cookie with nuts and one-half dipped in dark chocolate), little white cakes frosted with coconut icing, napoleons and eclairs. Plus a loaf of Ranch bread.
And to be picked up another day, an order of French doughnuts. The Italian Bakery sadly is no more, but the wonderful products and grand service will continue at Pep's.