Chapel Hill: Opinion

The Eye-talian Donut Shop

The first time I tasted Tom DiStefano’s pastries at a staff meeting, I knew that my boss had gone somewhere other than Harris Teeter for the morning’s snacks.

The old-fashioned plain cake donut I plucked from the platter was fresh, still warm, slightly crumby and not very sweet, just right. The array and aroma of the turnovers, almond horns, filled and glazed donuts surrounding it immediately reminded me of the bakeries of my Long Island boyhood.

One of my workmates, born and bred in eastern North Carolina but now a Mebanite, replied when I asked where this manna was from, “Those are from the Eye-talian Donut Shop as the people in my neighborhood call it.” Those treats make our staff meetings more bearable or is that unbearable as I struggle with my weight and creeping glucose numbers while pretending to eat only half of one pastry. If only the meetings were shorter.

Finding DiStefano’s is easy. It’s immediately off Mebane Oaks Road, just across from the self-service car wash. Look for the large Steinbickers Dentistry sign painted on the brown block side wall of the non-descript strip center at the intersection with Fieldale Drive – you’re there.

Over the front door you’ll see the modest plastic molded sign announcing T DiStefano’s Bakery. Walking in, food is the star here. Mismatched display cases and modest tables fade into the background against the array and aromas of freshly made bakery goods including a wide variety of donuts, giant muffins with real blueberries, cherries and cranberries – no gumbits here, crumb cakes, five varieties of cheese Danish and a host of turnovers, cookies, pies, strudel, Italian bread, rolls and house-made bagels.

Off in another case were the fancier decorated cakes, cream horns and some cannoli. All made in-house from scratch starting at 2 a.m., seven days a week under the careful experienced hands of Tom DiStefano, straight outta Providence, Rhode Island. The only thing missing was the classic upside-down conical dispenser of colored string used in all the bakeries of my youth that tightly tied shut the white boxes to keep out excited little fingers on the ride home.

Tom, a well muscled, voluble 49-year-old with two daughters, 22 and 14, has been at his trade since age 10 when his father started him washing pots and pans in his bakery. Tom’s coming of age arrived at 12 he was told to bring a 100 pound sack of flour to the mixer. The bag outweighed him; so his dad showed him how to squat, hump the bag off the pallet onto his shoulder, rise slowly from the squat and bring it. There was no such thing as “can’t.”

His dad, one of 12 children of an immigrant family taught Tom every kind of baking: donuts, pies, cakes, pastries, bread and even cake decorating.

“You’re not a baker until you can do it all, not just rolling out dough and stamping out biscuits,” Tom explained. So in addition to building his business he’s training a local staff of bakers and they seem to really love it. Every time I’m there, everyone is friendly attentive and smiling.

DiStefano’s is also becoming a gathering spot. The frigid morning I stopped in to interview Tom, the place began to fill up a little before eight with the regulars, including a few area business owners – one from a nearby winery, a stone supply company manager and a computer software writer were at one table. Soon they were joined by a much older gent sporting his World War II veteran’s baseball cap. That was 99 year-old George White cruising up in his mini-van for his daily coffee and donut. Another long-misplaced New Yorker of Italian descent, he’d retired, landed in Haw River back in the ’70s, and stayed. He quickly told me that he made the six mile trip because Tom’s donuts were superior to anything offered by Krispy Kreme or even Dunkin Donut, while he finished off his old fashioned plain and I my round, creamy, golden, damn near Platonic cherry cheese Danish. It’s always a tough choice between cherry, blueberry and plain for me.

Tom proudly told me his clientele ranges from Greensboro to Durham and Chapel Hill, many making a special weekend stop and others making large holiday orders. Business has grown steadily in his seven years at the Mebane location after closing the first store in Burlington. He has adopted his new home’s food ways; now the chocolate chess pie, a southern specialty unknown in Rhode Island, has become his biggest holiday seller at almost 300 pies last Thanksgiving as opposed to just 100 pumpkin pies. He’d found the recipe in an old local church cookbook. He’s slowly making a reputation for his hometown specialties like the classic crusty Italian loaves though there is yet a bit of a cultural gulf. One local lady had poked at the bread and asked if it was stale.

Tom’s hoping to realize his vision of openin a store in Chapel Hill it in the next few years. In the meantime I’ll be swerving off I-85 at the Mebane Oaks Road exit whenever I have a chance to indulge these sweet guilty pleasures.

You can reach Blair Pollock at blairlpollock@gmail.com

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