Happy Columbus Day! In honor of Columbus Day, I’m featuring my guide to NYC Italian bakeries. Unfortunately, none of the bakeries is near the parade route!
I’ve been eating at area bakeries now for a long time, and I consider myself a connoisseur of Italian American baked goods. First thing I’d like to mention is that there are two types of Italian bakeries. One is the bread bakery and the other is the pastry shop.
Italian bread bakeries have really gone the way of the dinosaur in Manhattan, with Parisi Bakery being the only one I know of. I used to go to Vesuvio’s in Soho, which you may have seen depicted in postcards for its quaint, green painted storefront. (This is a moot point as Vesuvio’s is closed, but Vesuvio’s made excellent Italian bread. Its bread was an example of how Italian American bread should be made. I was quite surprised to see Jack Robertiello write in his Mangia! book that Vesuvio’s bread wasn’t that good and that Sullivan Street Bakery’s was better. I’m not knocking Jim Lahey–I love his no-knead recipe. I’m simply stating that those who are looking for a classic Italian American bread bakery would have found a haven at Vesuvio.) Another was Zito’s on Bleecker Street, which my family had been going to probably since it opened. Italian bread is a wonderful thing, but it is extremely hard to find Italian bread that is done the way the immigrants did it. So I think it would be moot to write about Italian bread in NYC, as it is virtually nonexistent. (There are bread bakeries on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx though.) I’m glad to have tasted its remnants as a younger person, but it’s all but gone now. Lament, lament.
The other type of Italian bakery is the pastry shop. I divide these into three kinds: the bakery, where there is a pastry case and you just buy without sitting and eating; the pastry shop, where there is a pastry case and you can sit and eat the pastries; or the café, where there is pastry and desserts and maybe other kinds of food with waiter service. In New York City, the Italian bakery is also dying, but it’s a slow death. There are still some pastry shops. It’s definitely not what it used to be, and that is simply because Italian Americans have moved out of the NYC areas where they first immigrated to and assimilated into American society elsewhere. (Hey, I love me some red velvet cake along with my cannoli!) Also, rents in NYC are astronomical, and it makes it hard for small mom and pops to survive. So as the middle class leaves New York and it gentrifies, so go the old ethnic business establishments. However, for now, there are still some bakeries/pastry shops/cafés to sample some delicious Italian American pastries.
The list below includes all the Italian bakeries in Manhattan. I am not including a lot of bakeries in the outer boroughs and New Jersey because 1. I don’t go there that often or 2. I haven’t been to the bakery in years so I can’t speak to how it is now. So don’t get upset with me if your favorite bakery is not on my list. I am not including Arthur Avenue in the Bronx even though it has a lot of Italian bakeries. I’ve written about them here, and I think that if you go to the area, any one you try will be excellent.
The ones I’ve listed are good. Some bakeries do some items better than others. But they all excel at something, namely, keeping tradition alive in a difficult time. My all-time favorite bakery is Monteleone’s in Jersey City. I think it exemplifies Italian American taste. My favorite cafés were the old Caffe Dante and La Lanterna. I have spent many hours (and dollars) in both of these places in the past 20 years. So on to the question everyone wants to know. Who has the best cannoli? This is a tough one. My answer is Monteleone’s followed by Villabate Alba. But again, you can’t go wrong at any of these places.
Veniero’s is what remains of what used to be an Italian neighborhood. Yes, a lot of people do not know this because it’s the East Village and there isn’t much everlasting Italian influence right here. It claims to be America’s oldest pastry shop, opening in 1894. Veniero’s is also owned by Bruce Springsteen’s cousin, so that’s kind of cool. I really like the hot drinks at Veniero’s.
Veniero’s, 342 E. 11th Street (between 1st Avenue & 2nd Avenue), (212) 674-7070, www.venierospastry.com
Rocco’s is the last man standing in this old Italian neighborhood. My family came from this area, lived on Carmine Street and went to Our Lady of Pompeii Church across the street. Today, Rocco’s does a brisk business. He’s got a great location on the much-trafficked Bleecker Street. Yes, the big fat cookies in the window beckon you into the bakery, but get the cheesecake. It’s the best in the city, hands down. (Yes, better than Junior’s.)
Pasticceria Rocco, 243 Bleecker Street (between Carmine Street & Leroy Street), (212) 242-6031, www.pasticceriarocco.com
La Lanterna brings me back to my youth, when I whiled away the hours writing in a Village café–before laptops and cell phones, when the world was more calm and quiet and I took pen to paper as I sipped cappuccino and ate profiteroles or raspberry sorbet. La Lanterna has a garden and fireplace.
Caffe Reggio, dating back to 1927, boasts the first cappuccino machine in New York City.
Caffe Reggio, 119 MacDougal Street, (212) 475-9557, www.caffereggio.com
La Lanterna, 129 MacDougal Street, (212) 529-5945, www.lalanternacaffe.com
Ferrara is a legendary Italian pastry shop. Just walk in to Ferrara and look at the glass case.
How do you decide what to eat? It’s a tough choice, as everything looks so good.
La Bella Ferrara is an old school bakery. Walk in there and the waft of fresh-baked cookies fills the air. The cookies here are amazing. I admit I haven’t frequented Caffe Roma or Caffe Palermo very often, but Caffe Roma does have delicious gelato and lemon ice. Caffe Roma was formerly Caffe Ronca, opened by Italian immigrant Pasquale Ronca in 1891 and run with his brother Giovanni who came to NYC a year later. It was a hangout for NYC’s literati–writers, artists, musicians, actors. Pasquale would go on to be impresario for Italian songs for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In 1952, Vincento Zeccardi, an immigrant and former church ceiling painter, bought it, and it is still in his family today. And Caffe Palermo is known as the Cannoli King of the San Gennaro festival.
Ferrara, 195 Grand Street (between Mulberry Street & Mott Street), (212) 226-6150, www.ferraracafe.com
La Bella Ferrara, 108 Mulberry Street (between Canal Street & Hester Street), (212) 966-7867, https://www.yelp.com/biz/la-bella-ferrara-new-york
Caffe Roma, 385 Broome Street, (between Mulberry St & Mott St), (212) 226-8413, https://www.yelp.com/biz/caffe-roma-pastry-new-york
Caffe Palermo, 148 Mulberry Street (between Hester Street & Grand Street), (212) 431-4205, www.caffepalermo.com
D’Aiuto’s is well-known nationwide for creating the Baby Watson cheesecake. Founded by Italian immigrants in 1924, it is no longer owned by an Italian family. Here’s a good article on the history of D’Aiuto’s. According to Yelp, it is closed, but it looks like you may be able to get the cheesecake at a nearby deli. I suggest calling ahead.
Congratulations to Cake Boss Buddy Valastro of Carlo’s in Hoboken for building a brand and a reputation for crazy cool cakes! I loved watching the show about his bakery. This bakery is in a crowded area near Port Authority that I try to avoid. The bakery itself is also very crowded with insanely long lines. They do have Italian pastries like cannoli, lobster tails and rainbow cookies as well as others. The upside is you can get a photo with a life-sized bobble head of Buddy.
Cake Boss Café, 625 8th Avenue (between 41st Street & 40th Street), (646) 590-3783, www.CakeBossCafe.com
D’Aiuto’s, 405 8th Avenue, (between 30th Street & 31st Street), (212) 564-7136, https://www.yelp.com/biz/d-aiuto-baby-watson-cheesecake-new-york?sort_by=date_desc
Villabate Alba in Bensonhurst used to be two separate bakeries, Villabate and Alba. Villabate Alba is a Sicilian bakery, and they do the Italian things well. (OK, I did get a red velvet cupcake which I would pass on.) But look at those sfinge. You can see why there’s a line around the block on St. Joseph’s Day.
Villabate Alba, 7001 18th Avenue (between 70th Street & 71st Street), (718) 331-8430, www.villabate.com
My family loved the pastries at Carlo’s. In recent years, I think the focus is more on cakes and less on Italian pastries.
Carlo’s, 95 Washington Street, (201) 659-3671, www.carlosbakery.com
And again, Jersey City comes in last after NYC. But this time it’s a good thing. I saved the best for last. Monteleone’s is the quintessential Italian American bakery. Hey, they don’t have a website, doesn’t that tell you enough? This is where you go for pastries. Their Italian rum cake is the best. Their cannoli are the best. You can’t go wrong here. They even have American pastries. There’s nothing like their crumb cake fresh in the morning. If you come during Lent, you have to try a hot cross bun. I can’t sing the praises of Monteleone’s enough.
And it’s a short trip on the Journal Square Path train to Journal Square and a short walk from the station. You can also check out Little India while you’re there. (As if you’re not full enough, there’s a Filipino bakery down the block too.)
Monteleone’s, 741 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ 07306, (201) 798-0576, https://www.yelp.com/biz/monteleone-bakery-jersey-city
–Dina Di Maio, author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, available at Amazon.com