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By The Way
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Come for Rome’s history, stay for its bagels

This American couple is on a mission to make bagels part of an Italian breakfast

Steve Brenner and Linda Martinez bag freshly baked bagels in the kitchen of Mr. Crunch, the Rome pizza store they bake at, on Tuesday. (Federica Valabrega for The Washington Post)
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ROME — Bagels are certainly not the first thing you think of when you visit Rome.

They’re also not the second or third or even the last. No, bagels are for a long weekend in New York City, paired with lox and cream cheese. Maybe with a coffee in a paper cup.

Here in Rome, we’re sipping cappuccino and nibbling cornetti. But one couple is hoping to change this, and it is one of the best feel-good stories to come out of Italy’s lockdowns.

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Introducing Linda Martinez and Steve Brenner, an American husband-wife team who have lived in Rome for more than 20 years and run the Beehive, an eco-friendly hostel near the city’s central Termini train station. Over the years, Beehive guests loved hanging out in the kitchen where Steve created vegan dishes. Bagels would make the occasional appearance.

Like many in the hospitality industry, the Beehive was decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. After hosting just a trickling of guests last summer, Martinez and Brenner needed to do something to supplement their income and lift their spirits. Enter Beehive Bagels.

“Basically, we were here, lying in one of the bedrooms, just all day doing absolutely nothing, depressed. And we were doing a lot more cooking at home,” Brenner said.

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For Brenner, that meant making everything from homemade pasta and tortillas to pancakes and bagels, sharing their cooking adventures on Instagram. For fun, Martinez suggested offering up Brenner’s bagels to order. “Yeah, sure, you know, go for it,” he casually responded.

Go for it, they did. In October, Martinez shared a photo of the bagels on their Instagram, and the requests came in hot. The Beehive’s tiny kitchen was overflowing with bagels and bread. The couple realized they would either have to turn away orders or scale up.

Brenner met up with friend and pizza-maker Emanuele Piga, whose takeout pizza shop, Mr. Crunch, was suffering the same ennui of slower business during lockdown. It took just one bite of a toasted, buttered plain bagel for a partnership to begin. Piga joined the team, offering his dough-making expertise along with his kitchen and ovens.

Beehive Bagels offers a typical deli menu: plain, sesame, poppy, everything, onion, cinnamon raisin and pumpernickel bagels, as well as artisanal deli-style pickles (big and briny, which are not typical in Italy) and sourdough bread. All the bagels are vegan, and ingredients are locally sourced and organic.

Brenner, who grew up in Orange, Conn., has always been obsessive in his research, which he carries into the kitchen. Along with perusing hundreds of recipes and taking copious notes, he relies on taste memory as he works through several incarnations before committing to what he feels is good enough for his customers. Case in point: his onion and pumpernickel bagels.

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“I hadn’t had a pumpernickel bagel for 30 years, you know? And I was like, “Okay, what’s in pumpernickel? What was it like when I was a kid,” which led him on a hunt to find the perfect caraway and rye ratio.

Trial and error was key for the onion bagel as well, a tricky creation that often results in a dry onion-flaked plain impostor. Steve reviewed and tested scores of recipes, but none tasted right.

“I felt like [onion] was inside … but nowhere online could I find anybody who did it that way,” he said. Finally, Brenner mixed up a dough with onions from Tropea, Italy, baked it and the scent immediately pulled him back to his childhood deli.

Making bagels is a family affair. Steve and Emanuele get up at 5 a.m. to make bagels. Brenner and Martinez’s three daughters — 15, 18 and 20 — are often the taste testers, critiquing every detail. Martinez handles all the public relations, orders and local deliveries, and the middle daughter, Paloma, has designed a pamphlet that shows customers how to store, freeze and defrost the goods.

From starting at baking just a few dozen a day to making at least 300 five days a week, Beehive Bagels now delivers all over Italy and has even starting filling orders as far as Switzerland.

Their clients are not exclusively expats, though the majority tend to be. But bagels are not native to Italians for breakfast — they typically eat a pastry and a cappuccino.

The couple wants to bring bagels into the breakfast fold in Italy, and they are playing around with the idea of launching an experience where people can gift bagels to Italian friends who may have never tried one.

Martinez’s dream: A “bagel pen-pal system.”

“We’ll match them, a bagel pal, like a little cultural bridge … a bagel bridge,” she says. “Italy has contributed so much to U.S. food culture; we would love to give back.”

Read more:

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How the pandemic changed six cities in 2020, according to locals

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The legend of panettone, Italy’s mythical Christmas cake