It was 34 degrees out on the first of February in Warren. Clouds were sparse, the sun was shining, and the air was sharp as a paper cut. I stood on the beach in my bathing suit with Kathleen Bellicchi, founder of Bellicchi’s Biscotti, and three other women who’d all come together for an afternoon dip in the ocean.
We called ourselves selkies. Selkies are similar to mermaids. They are seal maidens who appear in Celtic and Scottish folklore. Versions of selkies appear in stories told in cold, northern countries and regions such as Iceland and Siberia, and in tribes of the American Northwest. Selkies tell stories of where we come from, what we’re made of, and how we use instinct to find our way home.
Swimming in the ocean is something Bellicchi does every month of the year, often multiple times a week.
“I’m a summer swimmer, winter dipper,” she said.
Bellicchi sold her first box of Bellicchi’s Biscotti in 2015 on her 68th birthday at the schoolyard market behind Hope & Main, RI’s premier food incubator, where Bellicchi got her start.
“I was there for five years and you have your ups and downs. I’d come in and be in tears feeling like, ‘Alright, I’m at the end of the line, I’m not doing it right, I can’t figure it out.’ And they would say, ‘Kathleen, you’re doing great, look at you, look at this, what do you mean?’ They were always there if I was doubting or in need, someone was always there to take me seriously and listen.”
Bellicchi founded Bellicchi’s Biscotti to honor her husband Eric, who passed away in 2013 from early onset Alzheimer’s. Baking biscotti was an activity they enjoyed and one they continued to enjoy even as Eric’s Alzheimer’s progressed.
“He was diagnosed in his fifties, but as he lost his capabilities, he could still turn biscotti. So we’d put on some jazz, get out the KitchenAid, and bake more biscotti than we could eat. It was like stealing him back.”
It was Bellicchi’s first husband’s mother who taught her about biscotti.
“I’m Irish and Polish, I’m one of nine children. We ate a very meat and potatoes diet. I loved to cook, to bake cakes, but I did not know biscotti. I learned so many wonderful things from my mother-in-law. She couldn’t cook a ham; she couldn’t cook a turkey; she couldn’t cook anything that wasn’t Italian, but you could not beat her Italian cooking.”
Bellicchi’s mother-in-law taught her to use fennel instead of anise when making biscotti, she taught her about the science of baking, about the benefits of exactitude and size.
“Anise gives you an overpowering licorice taste, but with fennel you get a crunch of almonds and a blast of fennel, you get a different taste with every bite… If your biscotti is too thick, it tastes kind of powdery when you bite into it. Ours has a crunch that’ll stand up to a good dunking. Our tagline is: Dunk, crunch, yum.”
At 76 years old, Bellicchi teaches executive presentation skills, is training for an Alzheimer’s memory run, takes spin classes twice a week, and attends a yoga class 4–6 days a week. She donates a portion of Bellicchi’s Biscotti profits to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, which she has done since day one, and hopes to launch a new line of biscotti by the end of the year: Nona the Stonah’s Cannabiscotti.
“The name created itself. Cannabis. Biscotti. Cannabiscotti! My grandmother name is Nona, although cannabis has never been my thing, I really only got paranoid; however, my son-in-law said, ‘Nona the Stonah’s Cannabiscotti!’ and of course the name was born.”
Bellicchi was the last to leave the ocean. She wore a pom-pom hat, special water gloves and booties, and talked about the boats bobbing behind us; they reminded her of her time in Alaska, when she worked aboard a boat her brother captained. In 30-degree water temps, amidst a background of glaciers and moraines, she’d go for a swim, take a dive off the dock, swim ten strokes out and ten strokes back in water so cold it felt warm.
I focused on Bellicchi’s words; she spoke of “Alaskan sunshine,” the crew’s term for when it rained. My thoughts kept to my breathing – the moment felt familiar, like we’d talked about Alaska and boats before, but I began to come out of it. Around the three-minute mark, my toes stiffened and I shot out of the water, my torso exposed, and Bellicchi said, “Don’t stand like that for too long.” We were warmer in the water, she said, which I didn’t understand, but knew to be true.
Bellicchi’s Biscotti is available at Whole Foods in RI, MA, and CT, and at Hope & Main’s new Downtown Makers Marketplace at 100 Westminster St., PVD. To view a complete list of locations visit bellicchisbest.com.