Owners say social media and the pandemic have strengthened the bakery’s bond with the community

It’s not pizza, but it’s not exactly a loaf of bread, either.

It’s Villa Bakery pizza bread, a warm pocket of nostalgia and the reason the Garden City shop has cultivated a dedicated following. That community connection has only grown stronger during the pandemic.

For the uninitiated, Villa’s pizza bread is a large, freshly baked roll stuffed with sauce, cheese and pepperoni. It’s bigger than a pepperoni roll and softer than a calzone.

Villa Bakery in Garden City is known for its classic pizza bread with sauce, pepperoni and cheese, but they make other versions with bacon, ghost peppers and corned beef. (Photo: Melody Baetens)

On busy days, they’ll move 1,000 pizza breads between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. The process starts when the first employee comes in as early as 1 a.m. to make the dough. More workers continue the process around 5:30 or 6 a.m. with an assembly line, putting the cheese, sauce and pepperoni on the dough rounds before rolling them up and storing them on pans on large racks. 

The pizza breads get a steam before being baked for 20 minutes. They aren’t baked to order, but the steaming and baking process goes on throughout the day, so a fresh pizza bread is usually hot and ready for each customer who wants one… or five. 

The Italian market and deli was founded in 1964 by the Silvestri brothers, originally in a building across the street from where it is now. The pizza breads date back to the 1960s, which is why they’re the most popular thing sold here.

Located a short walk from Garden City High School, Villa used to be a place where teenagers gathered at lunchtime when the school had an open campus.

High schoolers would line up at the bakery’s quick-service window outside for pizza breads. The walk-up window is not in regular use anymore, but was used earlier this year to sell bread to neighbors during the first stay-at-home order. 

In 2002, the Silvestri family sold Villa Bakery and the recipe and technique for the beloved baked ‘za to Dario and Tina Ciccarelli and their business partner Pedro Hinojosa. 

Business wasn’t really booming when the new owners first took over nearly two decades ago. The Ciccarellis’ daughter, Candy VanLue, started a Facebook page for Villa Bakery, though, and that’s when they were able to reconnect with the community, she says. 

“Social media has been huge for us,” said VanLue. “I made a Facebook page and I started connecting with the customers… it just drove me to keep going and coming up with new stuff.”

Some of the new stuff they’ve come up with is chocolate mousse cream puffs and a Ruben version of the pizza bread that was such a hit on St. Patrick’s Day that they now sell it every Wednesday. The chocolate-frosted custard doughnuts are also big sellers. 

Knowing when they have a good thing going, the owners have made many variations on the pizza breads, which start at $4. These include garlic parmesan pizza bread, bacon pizza bread and ghost pepper pizza bread. 

“Years ago, the pizza bread was what Villa Bakery was all about,” said VanLue. “But now it’s a lot more than that. Cannolis, our Italian sub is a big seller, during Fat Tuesday our paczki do really well… we try to have a little bit of everything.”

VanLue said Villa Bakery shut down for 70 days in March out of an abundance of caution with the spread of COVID-19. They made the most of the downtime by changing things up in the store, getting rid of the deli counter and adding salads and other grab-and-go items. 

They also donated a lot of food to area frontline workers and others in need. VanLue said their generosity was noticed by their neighbors, and Villa Bakery saw an increase in business when it reopened.  

“During the time we were closed we donated a lot to hospitals, free food to St. Mary’s Hospital, Garden City Hospital and a couple of nursing homes. We also put out free food out here on tables for customers — free bread, free doughnuts and some deli things,” said VanLue. “Since we did that, when we reopened the community really appreciated us more and our business nearly doubled when we reopened.”

Villa Bakery is a designated drop-off location for Toys for Tots, and they also collect cash donations for Angels of Hope each year. VanLue said being community-oriented is a value that runs deep within the business.

“My dad always says one hand washes the other,” she said. “Our customers, they’re just great. My thing is I try to hire people who are just really, really sweet and kind to every customer, because you just never know what’s going on in everybody’s life. I want people to walk in and feel like family. I think that’s a big part of why we do so well.”

Villa Bakery, 6237 Middle Belt in Garden City, is open 7 a.m-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. Call (734) 425-6245 or find them on Facebook at facebook.com/Villa-Bakery-Garden-City-116257041807042. 

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Twitter: @melodybaetens 

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