Family, tradition and miles of cannoli
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEITH FERRIS
Frank Cordaro, the owner and chief baker at Poughkeepsie’s La Deliziosa in the historic Italian Mt. Carmel District, wound up in the baking and pastry business simply because he grew tired of playing high school football. As incongruous as that may sound. “I wanted an excuse to quit football and decided to get a job,” he says. “No other reason. I just wanted to start making my own money.”
Nearly 40 years on, Cordaro is still rolling out the Italian pastries that have made this scruffy storefront into a beloved institution both locally and with those that seek out lovingly crafted zeppole and cannoli. But Cordaro never set out to be a baker when he was looking for a job back in 1975.
“I lived a couple of blocks away,” he recalls, “I went to the drugstore on Washington Street, which is two blocks from here, and asked if they needed a stock boy. They had hired someone a few days before. So I walked down Verrazano Boulevard, and I was actually at a crossroads. Do I take a left and go to Caffè Aurora [another neighborhood Italian bakery]? Or do I take a right and come here? I literally remember standing there… thinking. I came here and started working that day. Didn’t even tell my parents.” Cordaro’s father, an old-world Italian immigrant had his reservations about his son taking on the role of local baker, as he didn’t want the neighborhood to think that he couldn’t support his own family. However Cordaro’s father, as well as his mother, eventually warmed to their son’s involvement with the bakery, so much so that his mother wound up working the counter for years, and his father even helped with deliveries when needed.
The place smells like an Italian bakery should:
a fragrance of almond, sugar and flour.
THE OLD DELICIOUS
There is an unmistakable family vibe that La Deliziosa exudes, similar to some of the enduring businesses of Little Italy in Manhattan or the long-standing storefronts of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. The place has the look of lived-in retro abundance. The wood paneling and pressed-tin ceilings have seen better days but are well cared for. There are giant lacquered paintings of a holy-ish trinity on the walls: Elvis, Jesus and Marilyn Monroe. As for the decor, “I’ve wanted to remodel for years and get rid of the paneling. And that’s all people talk about is ‘how retro.’ It’s actually been written, ‘It’s a time warp. I go back in time. It’s like the ’70s or the early ’80s.’ I’m like OK. I can’t paint the walls,” Cordaro says, laughing.
Glass cases, also of a certain vintage, are stuffed with all manner of treats, from a seemingly endless variety of butter cookies, in a rainbow of primary and low chroma colors, and a wide variety of biscotti to a cooler case packed with cannoli and napoleons. There are elaborate wedding cakes, replete with flourish and piping that serve to wow customers as they walk through the door. The place smells like an Italian bakery should: a fragrance of almond, sugar and flour.
La Deliziosa has no tables; this is not a place to sit and snack. Instead, it’s a working shop that prides itself on its quality not a cultivated atmosphere. You buy it, they bag it, and you are sent on your merry way with treats.
La Deliziosa came into being in 1974, one year before Cordaro took that fateful walk into the shop. The Naples-born first owner, Mike Buonaiuto, picked the spot because it was right across from the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic church; a religious and social hub for the largely Italian community. The bakery building had housed a number of other businesses through the years, including a butcher shop and a gentlemen’s club, but none with the long-standing community appeal that La Deliziosa holds. “I remember the day he opened,” Cordaro recalls. “I was an altar boy. My friend and I came out of church and he said ‘the pastry shop’s open. They’ll have free stuff. We should go get some.’ The place was packed. I’m like ‘I’m not going over there.’ He went. He actually worked here after, too.”
Baking, as well as running a pastry shop, is hardly easy work. As expected, Cordaro, and his dedicated staff, put in the long hours. “With anything, you have to have a passion for what you do—and we have a passion for this. I didn’t know I was going to have a passion for this. I just liked eating the stuff.
Cordaro claims that making pastries is “not rocket science.” But one look at his sfogliatelle, with its many layers of shatteringly crisp pastry, which resemble a delicately flattened Sydney Opera House, and cup of nutty ricotta filling, makes you think that maybe some kind of science is involved. Either that or witchcraft. Local Daniel Pinkwater, author and NPR commentator, says of the La Deliziosa sfogliatelle, which are only available on Fridays and weekends, “One of these with a cup of coffee is proof of the existence of God, or at least an excuse for the human race to exist.”
Cordaro, however, claims most people can learn how to make, say, cuccidati, an iced Sicilian fig cookie, which he calls “the original Fig Newton.” All you need is “a level head and the ability. There are people who can tell you all about baking. But you put them in the kitchen and they’re lost.”
One person who has both the level head and ability is Cordaro’s life partner, Maria Stokes, who he almost didn’t hire nearly 30 years ago. “She came for a job here when she just graduated college. I didn’t hire her for six months because she would have been the first woman in the kitchen. And my old boss was like ‘you don’t have women in the kitchen.’ I was on the fence with it. I was raised old school. My friend set me straight and said ‘Are you gonna listen to him? It’s the ’80s.’” Cordaro says.
Cordado was soon convinced, “She works twice as hard as all of us and always gives 150 percent. She gets more done in a day than three of us do. She’s amazing. I literally gave her a raise in two weeks. I was embarrassed. She was like, ‘Why are you giving me a raise?’ I was like, ‘Shut up. Just keep it. You’re producing more so I need to reciprocate.’” Such reciprocity was realized years later in 1984 after Cordaro purchased the business and turned his relationship with Stokes into something more than just baking. La Deliziosa is traditional, almost to a fault. They tend to stick to the tried and true and rarely deviate from customary preparation. Their biggest addition from the shop’s original plethora of traditional delights are cannoli chips, which are crispy, chipsize cannoli shells sold with a sweet ricotta dip. Cordaro credits Stokes with that innovation but laments that it’s not something they were able to patent, because another unnamed bakery’s version has eclipsed his success and is now sold in shops like Whole Foods Market.
“We just make sure we serve with a smile,” Cordaro says. “I tell my staff, ‘every single person who walks through this door is your boss.’ They are the people that we’re serving, that we need to keep happy. And we have a good product at a fair price. It’s a simple concept. It’s a matter of making people happy.” Cordaro loves what he does and the role that his work has played in his customer’s memories.
“I have adults who come in and say, ‘my grandfather used to pick me up from school and bring me here to get a cookie every day. One cookie! He’s gone and I just love the fact that you’re still here.’ And they’re not local, and they’ve brought their kids. It gives you chills,” Cordaro says. He pauses and reflects, “It’s cool that we’re part of people’s lives.”
“I have customers from all over. It’s amazing.” Cordaro beams. “I have people who will take the train from Manhattan on a Sunday morning, pick up some stuff, take a nice little walk and go home. It amazes me that people are traveling all that way. It’s amazing. I remember reading an article once about making your [business a] destination, and I didn’t know how to go about something like that, but it has actually transpired. We have become a destination!”
LA DELIZIOSA ITALIAN PASTRY SHOP
10 Mt. Carmel Place, Poughkeepsie