Tom Forti of Sunrise Market

Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table
Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table

Tom Forti (above, left) was eighteen years old when he left Hibbing. His hockey gear was packed away along with all of his other gear he’d be hauling down to the Twin Cities. He hardly knew what would lay in store for him as the familiar mining town faded into the background. The main drag, high school, inescapable Bob Dylan references, and the converted theater that housed his family’s Sunrise Deli faded into the distance. Before long, WTBX with its mix of hits from the 70’s, 80’s, and today cut out and he was on his way to the next chapter at St. Paul’s University of St. Thomas. Like all the other kids that made this trip before him, he had no idea what was coming. There was no way of knowing that once the iron ore tinged soil of this part of Minnesota gets into your blood, it’s hard to leave it behind forever.

Halfway through his studies, he decided that perhaps teaching wasn’t the right path and graduated with a more pragmatic degree in Business Administration. From there he took off for Sun Valley, Idaho where he worked at a craft brewery. No matter where the young Forti went, the sun was sure to follow. His family seems tied to sunshine and the food business.

His great grandfather Guilio Forti had come to the new world from Rome, where times were tight. He moved to Hibbing, where the mine business was booming, with every intention of working down in the mines’ depths. However, a man in his early 50’s was determined to be too old to hire for such difficult work in the mines. A baker by trade, he helped a woman open her own bakery in 1911. Two years later, he decided to open his own and christened it Sunrise Bakery. At first they mostly made bread. The family business soon incorporated potica into their lineup of goods.

A couple of generations later the family business expanded to that historic movie theater as Sunrise Deli. Young Tom remembers being just seven years old and stealing naps on enormous sacks of flours. Sometimes he and his siblings would explore the relics of the bygone business, checking out leftover reels like Chariots of Fire. He watched his mother and grandfather work, cutting longs strands of linguini by hand or stuffing and folding pasties.

Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table
Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table

Later, Tom Forti returned to the Twin Cities with his wife to raise their family. For him, it was a return to the family business. He knew the great food they had been creating in Hibbing for nearly a century could reach farther.

All of his experience led him to where he sits today, inside a cozy market on Pierce Butler in St. Paul, surrounded by shelves stocked not just with Sunrise Bakery potica and a rainbow of packaged pastas, but also a selection of other items those from Northern Minnesota know and love.

He first began by bringing the family’s dried pasta to area co-ops. Then he found a stand at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market where he could spread the gospel of hand-packaged pastas, pillows of ravioli, and the pasty — a savory pie stuffed with meat, potatoes, carrots, onion, and rutabaga. (If you want to start a fight with an Iron Ranger, ask them if they take their pasty with or without rudy.)

Now frozen ravioli, gnocchi, and pasties are available at several grocery stores all over town, as are the dried linguini, fettuccini, and other noodles. The best selection and prices are at the new deli.

The building is teaming with industry. Not unlike City Foods or Kitchen in the Market in Minneapolis, this space houses several local food entreprenuers in their commercial kitchen space that’s available for rent in the back. When we visited, Bistro Meringues cookies were being baked on the gluten-free kitchen. There’s an entire room dedicated to gluten-free food prep and Forti’s gluten-free dedicated pasta machine will be up and running any day now.

“My wife is gluten-intolerant,” he says. “This isn’t just a fad or passing trend.”

Sunrise Gourmet's frozen pasty
Aaron Fenster / Heavy Table

Exploring the shop is a thrill for this transplanted Iron Ranger. Fraboni’s pork-luscious sausages, seasoned with fennel, garlic, and Italian herbs aren’t available anywhere else this far South. They don’t even deliver them here. “They drop them at the deli in Hibbing and then we have to transport them down here,” Forti says.

The porkettas are exactly as they should be, pork shoulders slathered in that heady mix of dried herbs. Not much has changed since they were first made. “Except we might use just a little bit less salt than we used to,” he conceded. “I tasted them and had a few friends do the same. We agreed it was just a little bit too much salt, but otherwise they’re exactly the same as you’ll remember.” Perhaps even better than remembered. This beautiful roast is available at any grocery store up north, but more difficult to source down here.

While they also have Heggie’s Pizzas, they hope to soon include some frozen Sammy’s Pizzas in the case — a new venture for that historic family business. The crust is so thin you could hear a whisper through it and it is topped with bright tomato sauce and gossamer layer of mozzarella cheese.

The food inside here isn’t just nostalgic. There is also Taste of Summer preserves made with grapefruit and pepper. Cheeky’s Chocolates are decadent dark chocolate treats made in a commercial kitchen inside a lakeside cabin in Penguilly. There’s also Bliss Granola, Grey Duck Chai,  Ing’s giardiniera, and stacks of Sunrise Bakery potica and coffee cake.

Sunrise Bakery rose to fame on their potica. It’s sweet bread made by stretching layers of dough until almost translucent, layering them with warm spices, chopped nuts, and a slight drizzle of honey. Tom’s grandfather Vinny Forti was quoted in the Hibbing Tribune years before his death as saying he perfected his recipe for this traditionally Slavic bread by taking his loaves over to neighboring Chisholm for the ladies there to test. “Chisholm is a great potica town,” he said. They were honest and told him when he went overboard on the honey. It mustn’t be too sweet, just enough to balance a good, strong cup of coffee.

Soon the St. Paul Sunrise Market will add coffee service to their long list of offerings. Tom also hopes to add soups and sandwiches as lunches for nearby workers. There also lurks a beautiful kitchen space where he’d love to have his cousins, who now run the Sunrise Bakery, teach cooking classes. Young Tom Forti, now himself a father of two young children, hopes to carry on the family business for generations to come.

He watches with pride as his pre-K-aged daughter helps ring customers up, looking them in the eyes while speaking. She, too, will grow up with those family memories built around the joy in sharing great food and cinnamon-scented family traditions.

And just in case you’re still waiting for the Hibbing required Bob Dylan reference — the theater that now houses Sunrise Deli was once owned by Mr. Zimmerman’s grandfather.

Sunrise Market, 865 Pierce Butler Dr, St. Paul; 651.487.1913

Hours: M-F 9am-5:30pm; Sa 10am-3pm, Sun: Closed

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