Steeped in History as it Looks Forward to Its Future

By / Photography By Wini Lao | March 23, 2018
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Stepping into Conti’s Pastry Shoppe is like stepping into the past. The long counters with original wood and the ceiling from the 1920s are intact, and the front soda fountain is operational. But Conti’s is not looking backward or resting on its laurels. The 96-year-old institution is very much in step with its evolving neighborhood, and its partners have their eyes on the future and on continuing the tradition of providing top-notch desserts with top-notch service.

Since 2003, Conti’s has been owned by Safet Paljevic, who came to the bakery with a background in real estate, not baked goods. He was sold on the place by Christina DiRusso, who started working at Conti’s in 2001 when she was 16 years old and “fell in love with the place.” Safet grew up in the Bronx and was friendly with Christina’s brothers. “The place was making no money, but I took the leap,” he says.

Conti’s current head baker Mario Elia and a partner purchased the bakery in 2001 from the grandson of its original owner, Antonio Conti. “By 2003 the place was run-down, and it needed new eyes to restore it,” Christina says. She notes that she would always say, “If this wood could talk,” because customers would reminisce about what the bakery meant to them. “We still had amazing tasting products, but physically the place didn’t show there was any love in here,” Christina says.

So, began the slow process of bringing Conti’s back to life and into a new era. Safet says, “For the first few months, we could barely pay our bills.” He points to Christina and Mario working without getting paid as proof of how much they loved and believed in Conti’s. The first renovation of the storefront came as a result of vandalism to the front window. “It was a big expense, especially when you have no money, but people in the neighborhood started noticing that there was still some life in here,” Safet recalls. Customer Michael Telesca, who now lives in Eastchester, NY, sings the owners’ praises, saying “they really brought back a piece of history.” Michael and his friend Elio Moschetta, of South Salem, NY, still come to Conti’s because, as Elio says, “There’s nothing like this in Westchester.” He notes that there used to be many more bakeries like this in the Bronx but the second or third generation didn’t want to stay in the business. “We love the atmosphere, and there’s nothing like Conti’s Boston Cream pie,” Michael adds.

In 2006, Christina graduated college with a degree in marketing and worked for a short time for a fashion designer but quickly came to the realization that she was meant to be back at Conti’s. “There’s something about working at a place where you create something and see the follow-through that you don’t find at other jobs,” Christina says, because of this mentality, she became a partner through, as Safet put it, “sweat equity.” Christina says she spent her 20s in the bakery, working day and night, teaching herself how to decorate cakes by watching YouTube videos and through trial and error. “Cake shows were popular on TV, and you could get beautiful cakes in Manhattan, so I set out to offer that in our bakery,” Christina admits sometimes it was trial by fire, as she and Safet never said no to a customer.

In 2009 another crucial member of the team came on board, Senada Paljevic, Safet’s sister. Laid off from her job, Senada brought her management skills to the bakery as the third partner. “We started going after wholesale accounts and got some systems in place to work more productively,” she says. And Christina had some important assistance in cake decorating skills. “We were still economizing and improvising—we had no cake boards, so we would wrap aluminum foil over cardboard,” Safet says. Slowly and through all-important word of mouth, Conti’s reached the point where it became “known as the bakery to come to for a great tasting product that looked pretty,” adds Christina.

As the bakery started turning a profit, the partners were able to hire people with different skill sets, such as an intern who had a background in cake decorating as well as a dishwasher, who started there at 16 and is now one of the bakers. They all strongly believe in encouraging their staff of 24 to take pride and ownership in their work. Gianna Giampia, Conti’s front office manager, says, “They always say if you have an idea put it out there and they give you the freedom to learn how to handle different experiences.” Christina says that when she interviews possible employees, she looks for passion and a desire to grow. “I’m very lucky that someone saw my vision and let me spread my wings and hope to give that to all our employees,” she says. And on Safet’s part, he says having that staff in place means he doesn’t have to micromanage.

While the bakery assembled its team and put in the hours and dedication to its product, Morris Park was changing. The area had been heavily Italian, with some Irish and Jewish residents. But as with many neighborhoods in New York City, the old-timers and their children either died or moved away, making way for new immigrants. Now Conti’s customer-base includes people from all around the globe, spanning all religions and ages. “We used to sell pastiata (Italian cheesecake) and rum cakes, now we’re selling sweet potato pies and red velvet cakes,” Christina says. Safet points out that the bakery’s Muslim customers don’t drink alcohol or eat gelatin, so he’s educated his counter staff to accommodate all costumers needs and dietary restrictions.  

In addition to celebrating different cultures of the changing neighborhood, Conti’s also has an eye on millennials. “We’re 96 years old but we’re not stuck in the past, we’ve moved with the times,” Senada says. So there are cake pops, funfetti cookies and macarons mixed in with black and white cookies and cannolis. Hilary Friedlander, a Morris Park resident and fourth-year medical student in the Bronx, is always on the lookout for great food sites and showcases her favorite places on her Instagram account, @bronxandbutter. She used to pass Conti’s on her way to school and when she went in “felt transported back in time.” She loves the combination of the huge selection of her favorite old-fashioned Italian cookies with the takes on newer desserts, such as red velvet brownies. “And as a newcomer to the store I found the staff so sweet and helpful,” she enthuses.

Looking back at their journey, Safet, Christina, and Senada realize how fortunate they are that the “sweat and tears” they poured into Conti’s paid off. Christina says it’s hard to believe that they now produce 350-400 customized cakes a week. “We really started here with nothing; we’re first-generation Americans of immigrant parents—we all could have gone in different directions,” Safet says. “When I see what we’ve built, why would I want to do anything else?”

786 Morris Park Ave, Bronx, NY

Follow Conti's Pastry Shoppe on Instagram @contis_pastry_shoppe

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