Cronuts and cupcakes; slightly disturbing milkshakes; gluten free and gold-plated donuts: NYC is known for its attention grabbing, food-fad frenzies. The city’s insatiable desire for the next big thing is matched only by its obsessively nostalgic tendencies. In an era where the media is constantly aflutter with news of shuttering mom & pops, we’d like to celebrate an ilk of stores still open and thriving. New bakeries pop up all the time, but the old-school Italian shop with its signature cannolis, resplendent marzipan goodies and almond-flavored everything still holds its own Brooklyn.
These time-tested temples of gluten are steeped in history. Instead of antlers and Mason jars, their walls are covered with actual family photos and browning Times clippings. There’s real heritage there, rather than press-ready backstories. “My grandfather literally moved here with $75 in his pocket,” explained Anthony of Circo’s in Bushwick, “He had help from family and worked another job in addition to helping in bakeries. From that money he eventually saved enough to buy into the building that’s now Circo’s.” Many, like Circo’s, have evolved to sell non-Italian goods such as fondant cakes shaped like Minions. Nonetheless, all show a commitment to quality and honor recipes honed over generations.
Some of these neighborhood institutions have changed hands over the years, but all remain in the hands of Italian families. A visit is transportive and given the cases upon cases of goods, dangerous for the waistline. Perhaps they even serve as tactile echoes of a time when the American dream held court worldwide. Below are several bakeries of the well-established Italian order that could use a bit of a shout out, especially as some have dared to call them “a dying breed.” We quite literally sniffed a few out, noting which are your go-tos for what.
Court Pastry Shop – Cobble Hill, 1948
To step into Court Pastry Shop is to be knocked over the head with sweet olfactory bliss. Walls covered in family photos and decades of browning press clippings speak to its status as a much beloved institution. It’s belonged to the Zerilli family since 1948 and is known especially for Sfagliatelle, a flaky pastry filled with orange flavored ricotta and sometimes called “lobster tail.” The spot draws long lines in the summer for its Italian ices.
Caputo’s Bake Shop – Cobble Hill, 1904
While many bakeries have changed hands over time, the Caputo family has been at their bread-baking for five generations. Other Court Street neighbors offer pastries galore, but their niche is bread. “We use the same traditions brought over from Sicily in 1904,” James Caputo explains. Such signatures such as lard bread were originally conceived from the need to make use of excess fat and animal parts. While old-time resourcefulness may seem less relevant, I think we could learn a thing or two from such traditions. For more crusty goodness, try their popular olive loaf.
F Monteleone Bakery & Cafe – Carroll Gardens, at current location since 1929, purchased by Antonio Fiorentino in 2011.
Antonio Fiorentino emigrated from Porto Empedocle, Sicily to New York over 41 years ago. After cutting his chops there and in other Italian-owned NYC bakeries, he took over this Court Street establishment in 2011. Picturesque, colorful cakes greeted me as soon as I walked in. Antony explains “They’re supposed to be served semi-freddo, can be taken from the freezer and eaten half cold.” Unlike typical fondant cakes, their designs are comprised of different elements, and Antony takes pride in the craftsmanship. They’re so pretty I’d feel conflicted about eating them at any stage, freddo or not.
Mazzola – Carroll Gardens, 1933
A few blocks from the trio that holds down Court St, Mazzola Bakery occupies a picturesque corner. Known widely for their lard bread, the bakery also offers a bit of everything, from pastries to biscotti and almond cookies. Fun fact: baking here takes place at ground level, which makes all of that rising dough something of a street performer. The tiny space also serves freshly brewed coffee.
Napoli Bakery – Williamsburg, 1981
You won’t find frilly pasties at Napoli Bakery, but you will find Round bread, Neapolitana bread, Sourdough, lard bread, broccoli and cheese, sausage and pepper, focaccia, semolina, whole wheat. The bakery which specializes in breads baked on a decades old brick oven. The current space has been owned by Michelle and Nunzio since 1981, though its been a bakery for years and houses the same brick oven, which one may credit for the tastiness of their loaves. Hailing form Naples, Michelle and Nunzio “try to come up with new things here and there, but many recipes are the same breads from old recipes.” Their most popular offering is a classic sour dough and as well as round bread. in addition to the basics, Nunzia told me that “Pefople come from far away for the lard bread.”
Villabate Alba – Bensonhurst, 1979
Named after the owners’ hometown of Villabate in Sicily, this bakery has been run by the Alaimo family for over 40 years. From tarts to to gelato and all manner pastries in between, the buzzy Bensonhurst bakery feels like stepping inside a Christmas ornament. In my humble opinion, its Sfogliatele is the best in Brooklyn, perfectly flaky and almost spongy on the inside. When you enter you’ll see two lines, one of which leads to gelato. Choose carefully.
Nuccio’s – Gravesend, 1989
Since 1989, Stefano Stemma’s rainbow cookies, prosciutto bread, and creamy cheesecakes have made Nuccio’s a Gravesend staple. Hailing from Palermo, Stefano came to the USA at the age of 15 to bake under apprenticeship of a late uncle who, at the time, owned a bakery in Queens. Now 52 years old, Stemma’s expertise extends to Italian specialty items, such as Inis, cartocci, Genovesi and Sicilian cassata, and other recipes brought over from Sicily. “We take pride in all our baked goods,” he explains.
Circo’s – Bushwick, 1945
Salvatore and Anthony Pierdipino, the brothers who inherited and run Circo’s were both sent to the Culinary institute of America. “Dad sent us there then before we took over the shop made us completely re-learn everything his way, the old school way,” Antony explains. The Bushwick Bakery has been up and running since 1945, and their father learned his craft there before eventually buying out the other owners. Circo’s neon signage stands out on Knickerbocker Avenue, hearking back to a time when Bushwick was heavily populated with Sicilians. The bakery is also noteworthy for making their cannoli shells on site, something Anthony explains happens less and less. “It’s a laborious process,” he explains, “most places buy them ready so they’re thicker.” In spite of this nod to tradition, the space likes to innovate, and is home to the “Holy Cannoli,” a donut both stuffed and topped with cannoli filled, layered with bits of cannoli shell on top. I might as well admit this is my favorite cannoli and also, by default, my favorite cannoli donut.
Fortunato Brothers – Williamsburg, 1976
While many bakeries have a speciality or two, this Williamsburg staple has it all: tiramisu, marzipan galore, cakes, gelato, cannoli, the requisite pastry offerings, as well as a full service cafe. A past apartment of mine was located around the corner, and I rarely saw this place not bustling with activity. While their own website notes how much Williamsburg has changed, Fortunato’s remains old school. In a neighborhood that’s obsessively scrutinized for its rapid gentrification and change, this remains a veritable institution, a place appreciated by millennial transplants and the families who arrived decades before them. One imagines little has changed since its founding in 1976 by three brothers.
We’d also like to shout out a few delicious places we weren’t able to visit this time around: Il Fornaretto for bread in Bensonhurst, Rimini Pastry Shoppe in Bensonhurst and Savarese Pastry for wedding and catering needs.
All photos by Angela Datre.