Earlier this week our local PBS Channel, WNET-13 broadcast it’s PART 2 of it’s documentary called, “THE ITALIAN AMERICANS OF NEW YORK AND NEW JERSEY” hosted by Maria Bartiromo. You can catch both parts 1 & 2 on the website ( http://www.thirteen.org/italian-americans-ny-nj/)
It ran before each of the installments of the PBS National documentary “THE ITALIAN AMERICANS” so there’s been a boatload of nostalgia and pride, happiness and sadness, a hope for the future and a longing for the past. Inevitably it brings up those memories of family no longer here, of youth long gone and the grasping at things which help connect all those dots to form your comfort zone and your life. Out of a large number of submissions of family photos and stories mine was one that was picked to be part of the broadcast, a proud picture of my maternal grandparents on their 60th wedding anniversary in 1981 along with a quote from me. It was a proud moment for me, and I hope for them as well as they gaze down from another place. So for the bulk of this week I’ve been thinking about the past, not in a morose way but in a grateful way to have be fortunate to enjoy pieces of their world still here in the present. BUT…things, they are a’changing. This year my blogs will be a mix of my stories and recipes, but some will be like this one, just a story, a thought.
New York City is changing again, for the better? In some ways. For the worse? In some ways. What made this city what is it was the neighborhood, distinct enclaves set up by ethnicity, socio-economics, religions. You used to be able to tell a neighborhood by when the stores changed from one ethnic group to another. At present out of control rents are being asked by landlords and in the process the old guard is being completely forced out. Gentrification is the word. In the case of Times Square it was a welcome change. In other neighborhoods, like lower Manhattan’s Little Italy, it’s not so great. Why? Because it all looks the same. The Restaurants which are my barometer now instead of being all Italian, or Sicilian, are turning into upscale Hipster Yuppie (not all the same but you get my drift) boutiques for clothing, food, and anything retail. At some point Manhattan will become a single neighborhood with repetitive retail and residential zones stretching from North to South and East to West. That brings up my reason for writing this: DE ROBERTIS PASTICCERIA at 176 First Ave between 11th & 12th Sts in what was once a heavily Italian enclave in the East Village. The family run business closed this past December after being open for 110 years. Amazing. The family is getting older, it’s increasingly tougher to compete and profit for the mom and pop places and real estate prices are making these decisions for tired families very tempting. Apparently that’s what happened here, can you blame the owner? Of course it’s sad because the old school Italian Pastry shop is becoming increasingly hard to find and this was one of the best in show for a variety of reasons. It’s age. That alone is a reason why it’s closing really takes a living piece of NYC’s Immigrant and Italian-American history away. We need these places, they are living museums. The look and aroma in the shop always took me back to “the old days”. Everything about it suddenly brought my mom and dad, my grandparents and other deceased family members back to life if only for a moment. For me, that’s priceless. You would step down into DeRobertis and get Punched in the face with the smell of what every Italian Pastry shop should smell like. I still don’t know if any other Italian or Italian-American bakery in NYC bakes the array of old traditional cookies and biscotti that DeRobertis did.
For some reason Italian bakery cookies are a much bigger connection to the past than the pastries are, but let’s just say that DeRobertis had on of NYC’s best cannoli bar none. The Ricotta cream filling was that right combo of cheese and flavorings, with an almost custard like mouth feel and flavor. Crisp shells in irregular shapes added to the handcrafted feel of this place. Delicious. Have a taste of that…My last trip there was on May 2, 2013. I took home a box of Cannoli and one of their Sfogliatelle and a Pignoli tart. Who knew then that I’d not be able to experience these pastries or walk on that ancient NYC immigrant floor again. Is it all about the loss of some good pastry? Certainly not, While my Grandparents’ picture on TV the other night will not bring them back, or my posting these pics of DeRobertis will not reopen its’ doors, they make us think. They make us realize that we must maintain certain traditions in life and in cooking that will keep up connected to the past or they will be forever lost and eventually die. I enjoy Starbucks, but sitting in a Starbucks is not the same feeling one received sitting in DeRobertis with a house made pastry or cookie. Seek out a mom and pop place in your neighborhood, not just Italian, but any one and enjoy what is being produced there. Especially the ones that have been in a neighborhood forever. Thankfully for those still pining for the old East Village’s Italian side, there is still Veniero’s on E.12 St. Run, don’t walk, time seems to be running out for these living museums of Italian food that helped to build the City of New York. Please , no panna cotta or trendy Gelato shop for me, I want a simply family run pastry shop making the standards. Happy Eating!!!