Cannoli and Conversation at Egidio Pastry Shop
I first met Carmela Lucciola, the owner of the famed Egidio Pastry Shop in the Bronx, on a bright Saturday morning in early 2017. I was there on behalf of a food journalists’ tour organized by Danielle Oteri of Arthur Avenue Food Tours, a walking tour designed to introduce journalists and others to the generations-old traditions of Arthur Avenue. New York was experiencing a streak of especially frigid weather, and as Carmela ushered us inside, we gave a collective sigh of relief, first at the warmth of the shop, and then, at the pastries filling the spotless glass cases. Carmela was energetic, gesturing us to look around, sample pastries, and ask questions of her employees. She swept us through the shop, watch your step bella, showing us the cannoli fryers, the paddles used to stir cream, the 90-year-old oven and the equally old walk-in freezer with wooden paneled doors. She was as efficient as a ship’s captain, directing her front of house employees and her bakers simultaneously, answering our questions, and pointing out her favorite treats on the shelves.
When I visited Egidio on a recent Sunday afternoon, the shop was crowded and decorated for fall, and for a few minutes, I observed Carmela undetected. Her buoyant personality, unchanged from my initial visit, was even more on display. A woman who left her career as a librarian in the 1980s because she wanted to work around people, not books, and who, after divorcing her husband, fought for ownership of the shop among the predominantly male business owners of Arthur Avenue. Carmela is comfortable being in charge and she has a hand in every aspect of her business. She greets customers like old friends, and in many cases, they are. I meet more than one visitor who stopped in for a box of cookies fifteen years ago and now considers Carmela a dear friend. One moment Carmela’s behind the counter, checking inventory and displays, and in the next, she’s counting receipts and helping customers make purchases. “Have you ever had a baba?” she calls across the shop in her Italian-accented English. “It’s a fried doughnut with cream inside.” To me, she recommends the tri-colored cakes reminiscent of the Italian flag. “We make our own almond paste,” she says proudly. “Have you tried my famous sesame cookies?”
Carmela loves sweets, she confesses over a steaming cinnamon-topped cappuccino. “I love being here, doing what I do.” When pressed for her favorite, she sighs, as though the decision is a tough one. “Well,” she says, “have you had my white chocolate cannoli? That would be my favorite.”
Egidio Pastry Shop has operated on the corner of 187th, just off Arthur Avenue in the Belmont section of the Bronx since 1912. Today, Carmela offers a wide range of Italian pastries, including cannoli, pignoli, biscotti, zeppole and sfogliatelle. She has some new additions as well, Red velvet cake, fruit-topped cheesecake and mini pumpkin pies are not traditional Italian desserts, but Carmela has added them to meet the needs of the neighborhood’s changing clientele. When asked how she develops new recipes, she says “We create one, try it out, then change it till it’s good.” From the way she speaks, Carmela has a definite sense of what makes a pastry pass muster. Still, despite the occasional new item, the heart of Egidio will always be Italian pastries, and specifically, cannoli.
No one knows exactly how many cannoli Egidio produces a week. Carmela shows me the rows and rows of baking racks lined with shells, but when asked for an estimate, everyone shrugs. The shop is open seven days a week and the large oven cranks out cannoli shells by the hundreds. Though the heaping piles of cannoli lining the display cases make the process seem deceptively simple, the art of making cannoli takes several days.
On the first day, the dough is prepared in vast mixing bowls. On the second, it’s stretched on oversized rollers until it reaches the desired thinness. Then the dough is wrapped on wooden sticks resembling cigars in size and length. Carmela prefers the old wooden sticks that have been used for generations at Egidio because of their resistance to high heat. They smell of burnt wood and powdered sugar, a surprising combination that promises deliciousness. The sticks are dropped into cages and are then plunged into the fryer until they float. While the shells cool, the ricotta impastata is mixed with sugar and chocolate chips to form the famous cream filling. When I inquire about the term impastata, Carmela says the water is squeezed out of this particular type of ricotta before the blocks are formed, because cheese that’s too watery can ruin a good pastry. Next, the bakers add what Carmela will only name as, “secrets from her own recipe,” before the shells are piped with the rich filling. Her favorite flavor? A variety she developed herself, a white chocolate chip cannoli. She explains how the chocolate chips in the traditional cream blend so well with the white chocolate-dipped shell, producing a combination of flavors that’s sweet but not overwhelmingly so. In listening to her speak, it’s evident that attention to detail, and to taste, are prominent in all she creates.
What’s also obvious, interlaced into all Carmela does, is that she loves people just as much as she loves pastry. In the hours I’m at the shop, it’s rare that a customer enters alone. Couples stroll in hand in hand, and linger at the marble topped tables, sharing a treat and quiet conversation. A trio of young girls announces they’re on their way to visit their nonna, and scores of adults order cookies to take to Sunday dinner. Some are regular customers and others are tourists who want to see the famous shop for themselves. Woven through all these interactions is Carmela, happy to advise an indecisive customer in one moment and cut a slice of cake for a friend in the next. Connecting people is what brings Carmela the most satisfaction, whether it’s to each other, “You need housing?” she asks a young grad. “Tell me what you need. I’ll ask around,” or to a hand-crafted treat. As the shirts worn by Egidio’s staff remind, “Life is uncertain, so eat dessert first." Heeding that advice is guaranteed to please.
622 E 187th St Bronx, NY 10458