Another mainstay of Italian culture has succumbed to the tentacles of realty developers in New York City. De Robertis, an Italian pasticceria and café, for nearly 110 years, has closed permanently. De Robertis Pastry Shoppe, where New York Yankee’s Shortstop, Phil Rizzuto once declared on a television broadcast, “De Robertis makes the best cannoli”, was made an offer that the shop could not refuse.
According to local reports, the family agreed to sell the building where they operated their business for “12 million dollars.” The cozy and quaint, mom-and-pop pastry café, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (or East Village depending on who you talk with) was a favorite spot for many throughout New York City and even New Jersey residents.
A one-time resident of the neighborhood who now lives in New Jersey, revealed “My wife and I decided to do something different during our date nights a few years ago, and I thought I wanted to reconnect with my community and show my wife were I grew up, and of course De Robertis was one of our stops.” He went on to say, “My childhood memories are slowly fading away, like so many other people in the city.”
John De Robertis, the grandson of Paolo De Robertis (an immigrant from Puglia) who opened the pasticceria in 1904, “Cited the economy, age, and health concerns in the family’s decision to sell the building.” Once the sale of the iconic pasticceria was announced, many via social media expressed their surprise and heartache.
Some even used sardonic humor by indicating, “The De Robertis family had 12 million reasons to leave the neighborhood…they sold out to preying vultures.” A week later the post was deleted. Nonetheless, local as well as outside residents, some of whom traveled from afar, to have an espresso or cappuccino and indulge in the pasticceria’s delicious cannoli, sfogliatelle, babà, napoleon and/or the assortment of cookies that were always showcased. Family owned businesses in Manhattan are becoming more obsolete from rapacious realty investors whose sole impetus is to increase their profit margins. Many believe, however, that supermarket chains such as Whole Foods, Food Emporiums and Trader Joe’s, are an inevitable outcome and part of the revitalization of urban neighborhoods throughout the United States. Furthermore, proponents for gentrification all agree that the reason why there is pushback from some is because they are afraid of change. Why are we not celebrating and embracing the fact that with large companies like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s offering a wider selection of imported goods, many more customers are exposed to the same food that our great-grandparents/grandparents cooked in their kitchens?
Moreover, many of the larger food chains sell a variety of products in one location. As a consequence, the pastry section at some of these supermarket chains allow a customer to select from a wide range of multi-ethnic pastries like, cannoli, or a macaroon, or flan, creating a fusion of items for the potential buyer to choose rather than travel to smaller ethnic businesses that specialize in a particular dessert. Conversely, many of the mom-and-pop stores treat their patrons more like family, addressing them by their first names, as opposed to the austere service from workers in food chain stores, who are usually stoic individuals with robotic twangs, “may I help the next customer.” The supermarket atmosphere is more like an assembly line at a factory, than an inviting business establishment that welcomes its customers.
Several patrons walking under the scaffolding façade of the now defunct pastry shop complained about the cold treatment they experience while walking in large supermarkets that have taken over their neighborhoods. Paul Candiotti, a onetime resident who frequented the family owned business, also concurred, “Many of the artisan coffee shops, serving mini-frittatas on an English muffin and flavored coffee are trying to capture the essence of the Old Italian family owned pastry/coffee shops, but are missing the mark.”
Another long-time customer lamented, “I just want my pastry shop back. I do not want to go through crowds of people; just to get an espresso or buy a sfogliatelle. While another individual overhearing our conversation immediately interjected and exclaimed, “Some stores don’t even know what a sfogliatelle is.” He went on to explain, “I recently went to Eataly, the famous Italian Gourmet Food store, co-owned by Mario Batali, and asked for a sfogliatelle, the worker asked, what’s that?”
Nevertheless, what is it exactly that makes us mourn the loss of a pastry café? Is it the disdain that some of us have toward large food conglomerates? Or is it more about nostalgia and not wanting to let go of our memories because it offers comfort? Perhaps De Robertis not only meant a great deal to local as well as outside customers, but it served as a living relic of the past.
When customers entered the pastry store, the typical Italian décor made the pasticceria appear warm and comfy, with hand-cut mosaic tiles that extended to the walls in the back of the seating section. Across the counter and above a long mirror, customers would see their reflections on both sides, and were able to view autograph pictures of Italian American actors on the wall as well as other well-known celebrities who supposedly tried their delicious delights. The pastry café’s interior design was a time warp of the Old Italian pastry shops of the early twentieth century. Patrons would be welcomed by the aroma of espresso and scrumptious sweets, while sometimes overhearing an Italian dialect being spoken. In fact, it is where Spike Lee filmed a scene of Malcolm X, and Woody Allen shot a scene for Manhattan Murder Mystery.
As popular and famous as De Robertis became, it could no longer operate and be successful as before. This narrative is endemic with most mom-and-pop shops that symbolized a time in New York City when neighborhoods were defined by the cultural identity and history of a particular ethnic group. Today, however, the charm and character built by the blood, sweet, and tears of small business owners are forever being replaced by bigger and less welcoming conglomerates, creating a clash between generations that remains bittersweet.