For 110 years — from 1904 until 2014 — DeRobertis Pasticceria served Italian pastries, cakes, cookies, and breads on the corner of 1st Avenue and 11th Street in New York City's East Village. A great many people were disappointed to see it close, including author Jaya Saxena who included the pastry shop in her new book, The Book of Lost Recipes: The Best Signature Dishes From Historic Restaurants Rediscovered. Below is an excerpt, a story of Saxena's memories of the shop as well as a brief history of its entire existence. Here too is a recipe for the pasticceria's beloved struffoli, a Neapolitan fritter not unlike a doughnut hole, that's finished with a dusting of festive rainbow sprinkles.
Available for pre-order now, The Book of Lost Recipes goes on sale next week.
I have my own stories about DeRobertis Pasticceria. One is that, for a summer, I worked at a rival pastry shop across the street. It was slightly heartbreaking, as I had always split my business between the two, hoping to keep both alive in the face of my neighborhood's ongoing gentrification. I worried I'd aligned myself against a place I loved. Then one afternoon, a customer came into my pastry shop asking for pignoli, the traditional Italian pine-nut cookie. We were all out, but before she left, the owner stopped her. "Go across the street to DeRobertis" he told her, "they make 'em great over there."
DeRobertis Pasticceria was an old-world pastry shop that managed to survive over 100 years without turning into a parody of itself. It didn't beat you over the head with Italian-American tradition, selling you an overhyped glimpse into the neighborhood's past. What it sold you were really good pastries, baked with care and quality, and served with really good espresso and gave you a wire chair in a tin-ceilinged, tile-floored room in which to enjoy them. It was founded by Paolo DeRobertis, an immigrant from the Bari region of Italy, who originally sold espresso and anisette toast out of a storefront on East 12th Street. In 1904 he rented a bigger space on 1st Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets, and began making more cookies, pastries and ices.
Paolo's son, John, soon took over the business, and in the 1940s he bought the building, securing the pasticceria's future. "If we were subject to someone else's rent increases, we would have never survived," said John DeRobertis Jr.,64 who eventually took over for his father, and worked to keep the tradition alive while still catering to changing palates, serving sfogliatelle beside croissants, cannoli next to cheese Danish. But no matter the changes, it was always a family business. "When I was a kid, we lived above the store, and my parents were down there working all the time," he told me. "When it'd get busy down there, they'd knock on the steam pipe with a knife, and my brothers and I would fight over who had to go down and help. But still, we helped. We had a sense of pride about the place."
It'd get busy often, especially on Sundays, as the locals made a tradition of stopping by after church, stocking up on pignoli, or during the holidays when orders for their struffoli, a tower of fried dough balls drenched in honey, started to roll in. There's only so much the pasticceria could do to keep up with the times, though, and those traditions started to fall away. "Appetites changed in that neighborhood," said DeRobertis Jr., and while a pasticceria can learn to make new pastries, it can't do much if people don't want pastries at all. "Even though you're busy on the holidays, you have to put that money aside to get you through the slow periods, which were getting longer." However, gentrification wasn't the only factor. Even though they owned the building, summer blackouts and hurricanes became more common in the later years, with insurance companies paying just a fraction of the cost of all the supplies they'd lose. After over 100 years, even the protection of owning the building couldn't save DeRobertis, and it closed in December 2014.
I went to DeRobertis on its last night and by the time I got there it was nearly cleaned out, with just a few cookies and napoleons still on the baking sheets. The old-timers were sharing sentimental hugs, and the woman next to me had seemingly brought in her son for the first time, explaining how often she used to come in the 1970s. "We never realized how much people loved the place until we announced we were closing," said DeRobertis Jr. "People who came in only a few times, started crying. If we were the kind of place worth crying over, we did it naturally. We were surprised, but it made us happy." — Jaya Saxena
Struffoli is an Italian dessert traditionally served during Christmas, a towering pyramid of fried dough drenched with honey and topped with sprinkles or Jordan almonds. This seasonal specialty was mastered by the bakers at DeRobertis, with light, fluffy dough balls and warmed honey that coats every bite.
4 cups (512 g) flour
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla
½ cup (100 g) sugar
Pinch of salt
½ cup (118 ml) vegetable oil
1 qt (946 ml) honey
Sprinkles or Jordan almonds for garnish (optional)
In a food processor or by hand, mix together flour, eggs, vanilla, sugar and salt. Form the dough into a ball, wrap with cling wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut into eight equal sections. Roll each section into a rope, ½ inch (1.25 cm) thick, and cut into ½ -inch (1.25-cm) pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and set aside.
In a deep skillet, heat oil to 375ºF (190ºC). Drop balls in batches into the skillet (careful not to crowd), and fry until they are golden brown, about 2-3 minutes, frequently turning them with a slotted spoon. When done, remove from the skillet to a tray covered with paper towels to let drain.
Heat the honey in a large saucepan until warm and thin, then add the struffoli to the pan. Stir carefully until coated, then remove from heat and continue to stir for another 5 minutes. Turn the struffoli out onto a platter or serving tray, arrange in a pyramid, and either serve as is or decorate with sprinkles or Jordan almonds.
Recipe and photo reprinted with permission from The Book of Lost Recipes by Jaya Saxena, © Page Street Publishing 2016