Hoboken, Hudson County, New Jersey 07030
Whenever I visit my parents in North Carolina, I have to make one stop before I catch my flight: Carlo’s. My mother loves the lobster tails here, so I get them along with a dozen pastries, the traditional favorites you can’t get down South, cannoli, sfogliatelle, pasticiotti, napoleons and éclairs. If I didn’t make this trip, I think I’d be left standing in RDU two hours later.
In my extended Italian family, Carlo’s is known as the best and when you bring Carlo’s pastries to a party, you are the top dog. But I’m not the only one who knows this. Sopranos actor and born-and-bred Hobokenite Joe Pantoliano regularly relishes in Carlo’s cakes and pastries. In fact, he featured the bakery on the TV show Extra! with him. In recent issues of Modern Bride, Carlo’s Bartolo "Buddy" Valastro Jr.’s wedding cake artistry is gaining fame. The 25-year-old took over his dad’s bakery in 1994 when Bartolo "Buddy" Valastro Sr. passed away. The elder Valastro had worked with Carlo’s original owner Carlo Gastafaro, who opened shop on Adams Street in 1910. Valastro bought the shop in 1964 and it moved to its current location in 1989—with the name Carlo’s City Hall.
The young Valastro strives to keep the family feel of the shop. His mother, four sisters and two brothers-in-law help manage the store while he bakes. Some of his other employees have been with the bakery for 25-30 years. "I try to keep tradition," says Valastro, who started baking while a little boy. "We try to do a lot of things the old-fashioned way. We make everything here." Carlo’s best sellers include its cannolis and other traditional Italian pastries and tiramisu. Another popular cake is the cream puff cake made with liquor that must be imported from Italy. "It has a really different flavor," Valastro notes. The cake is made of French pastry, sponge and cream puffs.
These days, Valastro prides himself in his special occasion cakes using sugar artistry. "You can do things with cake you never knew," he maintains. The flowers, seashells and brown-spotted butterflies in the storefront’s windows are, surprisingly, handmade out of sugar. "People don’t realize the work that goes into it. It’s all edible and made out of sugar," he explains. Valastro will keep doing what he does best. He adds, "I have a love for it. Making things look beautiful and taste good."
Traveling farther up Washington Street, you’ll hit Riviera, which calls itself a bakery, pastry shop and a café. Owned by Joe and Mark Garcia, the store specializes in European-style pastries. Riviera makes special occasion cakes as well as smaller pastries. It also has an eat-in area and serves cappuccino, espresso and ice cream. Other baked goods include Italian, French and Portuguese breads.
A few blocks more, there’s some outdoor seating on the sidewalk outside of Park Pastries. The variety of sinful cheesecakes in the case beckons anyone who comes into this quaint café. Choose from an array of sweets, like coffee cakes, cookies and muffins. The coffee list is pretty basic—no rivaling Starbuck’s here—but it’s a great place to catch up with old friends and linger.
Farther up the main drag is a brightly-painted, tomato-red shop with a yellowed piece of paper tacked on the door. In 1994, Mark Leyner, the Hoboken writer, wrote a piece about Cosmo’s for The New Yorker and owner Cosmo Sancilio proudly displays it. Signed pictures of celebrities line the walls as well: Frank Sinatra (of course), Jennifer Aniston, and Howard Stern—to name a few. What keeps the celebs coming here since the pastry shop’s arrival in 1979? The pastries, of course. Not only does Cosmo make traditional Italian pastries and cookies, but he also makes other bakery favorites including hamentaschen, black and white cupcakes, and cheesecake—with large, luscious strawberries.
Way up Washington, away from the crowds, under a green awning, is a hidden gem, Giorgio’s Pasticceria Italiana. Giorgio’s was opened in 1975 by baker Giorgio Castiello of Naples, Italy. Having trained in hotels and cruises ships, Castiello specializes in Neapolitan pastries, including sfogliatelle and cassatina. Cassatina is a rare find in area Italian bakeries. In fact, I have not seen it in bakeries in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan or nearby Jersey City. The miniature cake is named after the Sicilian cassata and consists of a sponge cake layered with ricotta filling, almond paste, pink icing and topped with a cherry. It is truly a delight worth walking from my First Street apartment to Twelfth Street. Giorgio also makes specialty cakes and cookies. In 1986, Giorgio created a centennial cake in the shape of the Statute of Liberty for a crowd of 3,000 that took him a week to do.
Ben Slatkin, a Giorgio’s fan and four-year Hobokenite, lives above the bakery. He says, "Giorgio's is all about family. His whole family chips in around the store and they all live upstairs. They even treat the regulars like family. But what gets me is the smell--when the ovens are going, if they're baking pignoli cookies? The place is heaven."
The only Hoboken pastry shop not on grand Washington Street is the Grand Bakery. Now owned by Kathy and John Castellitto, the shop has been around since 1964. In addition to traditional Italian pastries and breads, Kathy mentions she makes homemade poundcake and zucchini bread.
Whatever your sweet tooth craves, it should find in the wealth of pastry shops on Hoboken’s busiest street and off its beaten path.
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