VANISHING? No way.
The Times got it right when they said that walking into DeRobertis Pasticceria & Caffe on First Avenue in the East Village "is to enter the Italian immigrant experience of the early 20th Century." The tile floor and pressed-tin ceiling are original and not much has changed here since 1904. The shop is still run by the family, and granddaughter Annie was kind enough to chat with me about its history and future.
Annie's family is a local institution. Her father’s father started DeRobertis and her mother’s father started Lanza’s restaurant down the block. Annie first went to work in the shop when she was 11, folding cake boxes and filling cannoli by hand with a knife. I found her on a quiet Friday afternoon sitting in the cafe, reading about city politics in the Post and wondering aloud if she shouldn't just go back to Bari, where her grandfather came from.
She remembers the East Village when it was still filled with Italian and Jewish businesses, whole shops dedicated to single products: pork, fish, freshly made pasta that hung in the windows. “Eleventh Street was all butchers and chicken markets,” she told me, “I used to go with my mother. I was terrified. My mother would pick out a chicken and, boom, they killed it right there.” She recalls the First Avenue Market as a whole world where you could get everything: cheese, clothes, stationery, fabric, buttons, pickles, hats. And the East Village was a place where no one locked their doors. “I’d go into your apartment and leave a note: I borrowed your sugar. And did you care? Of course not.”
The neighborhood has changed tremendously since those days and especially so in the past few years. I asked about her experiences dealing with the newest immigrants to the East Village, the young and affluent. She told me about impatient customers who whine about waiting in line, ignore her help as they talk on cell phones, then want service "right away, right away, right away." But worst of all are the Starbucks people:
“People come in and tell me I don’t know how to make cappuccino," Annie said, incredulous. (She's only been making the beverage for 50 years.) "They tell me, 'Starbucks makes it this way.' I tell them, 'I’m here before Starbucks.' They want flavors. I tell them, 'I got flavors. You want a flavor? I’ll put it in.' Put it in? They look at me," with a look of disbelief. "Do these people really think the coffee bean grows in flavors? Like it comes in hazelnut and mint? These are people with college educations. But they want Starbucks. So I tell them, very nicely I say," with a wave of her hand, "So go to Starbucks.”
After 9/11 it seemed the older people moved out and the younger ones moved in. The traditional Italian pastries don’t do as well as they used to. Millefoglie and sfogliatelle aren’t as popular as the “fancier stuff” that DeRobertis offers, like their many mousses introduced by head baker, Tony, who came from Ecuador and has been with the store since he was 18. He’s family now.
John & Annie
There’s a lot of La Famiglia in this family business. Annie’s nephew John helps her and her brothers run the shop. He’s fourth generation and counting. The family owns the building and, thankfully, no one’s interested in selling. Every year, 35 members from all 5 generations gather on Thanksgiving for a big dinner in the cafe. They bring food and warm it up in the baker’s ovens down in the basement. I asked Annie if she thought the store would last through the next generation.
“Like my father used to say,” she told me with a shrug, “It’s here if they want it and if they don’t, what can I do?”