Dueling ovens: Two family bakers in Gloversville carry on friendly rivalry

The owners of two Gloversville bakeries/pizzerias — Aubrey Grant at Leonzo’s and Tom Beebie at Al’s
Aubrey Grant, owner of Leonzo’s Pizza in Gloversville, removes Italian pepper rings from the oven. The bakery dates back more than 100 years.
Aubrey Grant, owner of Leonzo’s Pizza in Gloversville, removes Italian pepper rings from the oven. The bakery dates back more than 100 years.

In Gloversville there is no pejorative connotation to the term “bread line.”

People would gladly stand in line at either Leonzo’s or Al’s if it guaranteed them a loaf of fresh Italian bread. On most days those loaves go quickly and patrons know that without a reservation they may find the shelves bare.

The owners of the two establishments — Aubrey Grant at Leonzo’s and Tom Beebie at Al’s — often share supplies and say they do not feel a rivalry. Their customers are another story.

There are locals who take sides the way others argue Yankees versus Red Sox.

People are overheard bragging about snagging a loaf of Al’s while still warm as if they had won the lottery. Others, citing the thicker crust at Leonzo’s, assert it is a heartier bread and just as good on the second day.

The longevity of both businesses, both also known for their pizza and a variety of other Italian foods, has kept this rivalry alive for decades. Leonzo’s was founded by the Cristiano family more than 100 years ago, and Alphonse DeSisto and his family opened Al’s in 1953.

Beebie and Grant both starting working for the respective founding families while still in high school. Beebie took over in 1984 and Grant three years ago. While employees they were taught how everything has to be made and they keep up the traditions.

“If it’s not broke don’t fix it … they gave us all the recipes,” Beebie said, attesting to the fact that Al’s remains true to the DeSisto legacy.

Neither baker is ready to share the Italian bread recipe.

“It’s right here,” said Grant, pointing to her head. Unlike Beebie, who makes bread daily Tuesday through Sunday, Grant bakes only on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Both make no more than 75 loaves a day, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Grant’s mother, Debbie Grant, said Leonzo’s bread is so popular there are customers who come all the way from Syracuse to get it. On occasion, she said, they have had to ship it to customers around the nation and at least once to Italy.

But, when Leonzo’s run out, Aubrey Grant said she doesn’t hesitate to refer her customers to Al’s.

“I’ve been eating at both places my whole life,” said Perry Paul, a Gloversville native and school board member.

Paul, who may have been thinking about re-election when commenting, said “when I buy my Italian bread, I buy it at Al’s … when I buy my pizza, I buy Leonzo’s.”

Judging the two breads is a close call, Paul said, but if he gets a warm loaf of Al’s, it does not make it home unscathed.

“Our family is split,” said Dan Rooney, owner of Rooney Signs. “My father likes Al’s. I prefer Leonzo’s,” he said. Rooney said Leonzo’s has the thicker crust he likes while Al’s is a softer bread.

Beebie concurs with that analysis. He said his bread is softer and he speculates the thicker crust at Leonzo’s could be attributable to the recipe or to baking longer — or both.

Fulton County Court Judge Richard C. Giardino, demonstrating his political acumen, said “I love Leonzo’s bread on Thursdays and Al’s bread on Saturdays.”

Gloversville City Clerk Brenda Pedrick said buying bread at Al’s has been a family tradition on Sundays since she was a little girl. She said her father would dispatch her and her brother, Harold Bell (owner of Harold’s Restaurant), every Sunday morning to buy three loaves.

Beebie said Sunday remains a big day for bread sales, with most of the traffic arriving when the door opens at 11 a.m.

Betty Aldrich said she and her husband, Jim, reserve a loaf of Al’s every Friday — their pasta night. They’ve been doing it since the late ’60s.

“We just love his bread … it’s always fresh,” she said.

The quality of the bread, Grant said, depends on how thoroughly it is rolled and kneaded. It’s a lot of work that commences on baking day about 4 a.m.

By the time she loads up the six trays in her massive oven, she said it usually feels like “I handled it 100 times.”

Grant sells a loaf for $1.75, a jump from the $1.50 price of a year ago. Al’s is getting $1.55.

In the past year the price of a 50 pound bag of flour — one of many commodities to skyrocket — has climbed from $8.95 to $30.

Grant said she recently stocked up on 275 bags of flour in an attempt to stabilize her bread prices.

“Our bread is the best in Fulton County,” said Debbie Grant in a joking manner after being coaxed into some trash talking for this story.

Aubrey Grant stands by her bread, too, but she confides “I grew up on Al’s.”

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