Vince Emmanuel can’t stay away.
“I’ve never found Italian bread like my mother made – except at Orsi’s Bakery. Orsi’s makes original Italian bread. If you’re Italian, you know what I mean.”
Originally just a bakery when Alfonso Orsi opened for business at Sixth and Pacific Streets in Omaha a century ago, Orsi’s Italian Bakery and Pizzeria has diversified and stands solitarily as an icon in the Little Italy neighborhood.
Emmanuel and his wife, Toni, have been regulars for nearly five decades. They used to walk to the store several times a week; now they drive.
Emmanuel’s shopping list illustrates how Orsi’s has expanded. Bread is a given, he says, but he’s also apt to buy salami and pepperoni sticks from the deli, biscotti, Romano and provolone cheese, and pumpkin seeds. “You can’t get out of there with just one item.”
Often, the Emmanuels drive away with a mini pizza. “Two slices for me, two for Toni.”
Jim Hall, who with his wife, Kathy, owns and operates Orsi’s, says Italian bread and Sicilian pizza make a good combination. “The bread is our calling card, but the pizza pays the bills.”
About 70% of his business comes from regulars. First-timers are easy to spot, he says, because they take their time getting to the counter. They’re distracted by the photos that cover the waiting area walls.
If newcomers order a pizza, Hall throws in a complimentary order of garlic cheese bread. “First-timers become regulars,” he says.
Vic Salinas is another regular. On a recent Thursday, he and two co-workers from the Dallas-based Dräger shared a half-sheet Sicilian pizza, prepared to order. Salinas preferred pepperoni and green peppers; Brandon Ragsdale asked for green and black olives; and Adam Setliff just wanted pepperoni and cheese.
Hall obliged. “A third, a third and a third. They all were happy. Why make them order three pizzas?”
Salinas, who mentioned Orsi’s strong customer rating on Yelp, said the threesome appreciated the hospitality and the free garlic bread. “I dig places like this. He made us feel like family.”
Orsi’s currently has no permanent space for dine-in customers – something that may change. For now, Hall brings out a table for those who ask to dine in.
A caller from Chicago recently asked if Hall could accommodate 14 guests from the Ukraine. “They want salads and pizza. We’ll make it work.”
Bread-baking begins at 4:30 a.m. daily; sauce-making begins two hours later, three days a week. Vendors often ask Hall to try their products, especially cheese. He’ll listen, he says, but won’t budge on quality.
“We cook our own sauce eight to 10 hours. We grind our own cheese. We chop our own vegetables. We make our bread by hand. We make the pizza crust by hand. That doesn’t change,” Hall says.
Something else Hall won’t change is the nod to the neighborhood’s past and the people who made it special. Although Hall doesn’t know the story behind all the photos that line Orsi’s walls, he can come close.
Emmanuel says he appreciates the gesture. Look for a photo on the west wall that features a band of young musicians. “The one in front with the drums is me.”
Orsi’s ownership, through the years
For Frank Orsi Sr., the bakery that bears the family name is in good hands with someone whose name isn’t Orsi.
World War I vet Alfonso Orsi – Frank Orsi Sr.’s father – opened the bakery in 1919. His family worked in the bakery, and its ovens provided the sole source of heat.
Decades later, Alfonso Orsi turned the bakery over to his eldest son, Claudio, who turned it over to his son, Robert Sr. In 2006, Robert Sr. (known as Bobby), turned the bakery over to his son, Robert Jr., longtime employee Jim Hall and their wives. Jim and Kathy Hall presently own and operate the bakery.
Frank Orsi Sr. worked in the bakery as a child, cleaning ovens and chopping wood to fuel them. “When I was a teenager, dad taught me to make bread.”
The Orsi family began making pizzas in the 1950s and added Pizzeria to the name in the late 1970s. Orsi’s also features a deli, which Hall added in 2009 when the last remaining Italian grocery store in the city closed.
In 1997, a fire gutted the building and threatened to end the family’s run. Instead of leaving, the Orsis bought new ovens and enlarged their space.
“Where was I gonna go?” Robert Orsi Sr. said at the time. “My customers know where to find me here. And they like coming back to the old neighborhood.”
Neighbors helped with the rebuild and local bakeries allowed Orsi’s to temporarily use their ovens so the family could stay in business.
About seven months after the fire, a World-Herald reporter told the story of Orsi’s rebirth: “They rebuilt it, and the people came.”
The Orsi family served free pizza, pasta and bread to about 1,500 people the day the bakery reopened.
Frank Orsi Sr. says he is confident Orsi’s will serve customers for decades to come, noting that Hall has worked at the bakery since he was a child. “He’s like one of the family.”