The sky is the color of sherbet, boys are throwing baseballs and the ice cream truck can only be a few blocks away because already I’m humming along to Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” But forget the truck. I’m sitting on my Sackett Street stoop anxiously waiting for Dad to come home from work. Mom says that when Dad gets home, we can get ices. Where is he?
For me, Court Pastry wasn’t the “cookie store” growing up — it was the “ice place.” Rarely did my family even go inside! No, we were the Italian ice junkies. That first lick off the top of a chocolate ice stimulated so much pleasure in my brain… that I always forgot that I liked the lemon ice, too. (Tip: combine them.)
Whether you’re new to the neighborhood or not, chances are you’ve been to Court Pastry. Let me rephrase that. Chances are you’ve smelled Court Pastry. It only takes one customer to swing that door open. And once that’s done, you have to forgive yourself. It’s okay that you’re just another victim held hostage to an aroma so nutty and so sweet that you’re forced to stop what you’re doing and immediately brainstorm an excuse as to why you’re about to buy a pound and a half of cookies. (Um, shouldn’t everyone celebrate President’s Day with a pound and a half of cookies? No?)
Around 8 p.m. on an icy weekday night, I am following co-owner, Gasper Zerilli, 62, to the back of his shop, and into the kitchen. Steve Miller Band is playing loudly on the radio, but Zerilli does not turn it down. Instead, he does a quick wipe of his hands down the front of his flour-dusted apron and gets right into it.
“My father, Salvatore Zerilli, was born in this country in 1917. In 1919, his parents died from the Spanish influenza. He had a sister who was eleven, and they both got sent back to Italy to get raised because they had no family here. So they went back to Marsala, Sicily, and my father grew up with one grandmother and my aunt grew up with another grandmother. They never really came into contact. They never really associated while they were young.”
“He came back to this country when he was fifteen,” Gasper continues. “His uncle called him over.”
(I’m confused. Didn’t he say there was no family here?)
“They called him ‘uncle’ but he wasn’t really…”
(Ah. Say no more.)
“So his uncle’s name was Carmelo, and he owned a pastry shop on Columbia Street. When he got to the shop, he made friends with one of the kids who used to work there. This kid taught him English, taught him how to get around, taught him how to work. That was the starting point for my father.”
And we all start somewhere.
Over the next fifteen years, Salvatore took jobs in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, trying his hand at a variety of bakeries, trying his hand at a variety of baking speeds. It was after working for Carmelo that he took a job with a man named Mr. Spina. Mr. Spina’s business was in wholesale biscuits. (Think Stella D’oro, but before Stella D’oro.)
“When you work in wholesale, it’s a different story,” Gasper explains. “Most pastry shops are taking their time, going slow, making everything perfect. But when you work wholesale, in order to make money, you gotta produce, you gotta go fast.”
Surely, a valuable skill in the baking business, but what Salvatore really wanted to do was master the pastries a baker’s “uncle” could be proud of. So he went to work for an older man named Mr. DeBella who owned a pastry shop on Avenue U and West 5th Street in Gravesend, Brooklyn.
“How do you say… when you make something and you see all your own work and everything is done by you so whatever you sell, it’s yours, all yours, and so you have an appreciation for the stuff?”
I’d call that self-satisfaction.
And it makes a difference. In fact, it inspires you to get in touch with your friend, Anthony Caraciolla, during the summer of 1948, and open up your own shop in Cobble Hill.
“Tony and my father – they were partners for thirty-two years. In 1975, a few years before Tony retired, I became a partner. Three partners. And then Tony retired in ’81 and my brother, Vincent, took his place.”
Today, in the back, we have Gasper, Vincent, two bakers and a kid who comes in on weekends. In the front? Girls.
“So the recipes are pretty much the same. I may have added some pies and cheesecake to the mix, but the cannolis are the same, the sfogliatelles are the same,” Gasper says.
All of a sudden, it’s hard to concentrate.
I’m glad the conversation began in the kitchen because now we’re up front and I’m distracted. Seven-layer cookies, stacked like adorable, little birthday presents. Deep almond and apricot flavors accentuated by a pencil-thin layer of chocolate on top and bottom (obviously my favorite). Macaroons. Cuccidati. Rococo. Chocolate things. Can I be another girl that works here? Please?
“See these?” Gasper points to cookies covered in pine nuts. “These are gold. Spanish pignolis. $25/lb. Just for the nuts!”
But you don’t have to be nuts to know that if you use the best materials, you get the best results. That’s just how Court Pastry rolls. I’ve never been surprised to see a line of customers snaking around the shop, all waiting to “get a box.”
The wall is lined with prices. $11/lb for the mixed cookies/sugar free cookies; $6.50/lb for the regina and twist cookies; $2.25/pastry; $2.75/sfogliatelle. If you want 21 pastries, the price is up there.
And for good reason. Trust me, your brain can’t compute math when you’re at Court Pastry.
298 Court Street, Brooklyn NY
Photos by Max Flatow