The Great American Sfogliatella

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Photo by Sarah Strong.

Peter Faggio’s hands are large. They have soft, wide palms that look both worked and untouched and long, thick fingers ending in floury white nails. His hands are the envy of the other bakers at Lucibello’s Italian Bakery in Wooster Square — only his are large enough to cup the wide slab of dough that forms the basis of Lucibello’s signature pastry, the sfogliatella. Peter is the owner of Lucibello’s and doesn’t get his hands doughy as much as he used to. But sometimes when he walks through the kitchen, he unfolds his arms from their crossed position, rubs some shortening onto a thin piece of dough and takes a moment to make the perfect sfogliatella.

At 6 a.m. one Thursday, Lucibello’s is rubbing the sleep out of its eyes to begin a long morning of pastry and cake making. By 7:30, the bakers have arrived and the delivery truck from Wallingford has come and gone, filling the back room with flour and gallons of whole milk and sacks of sugar and hefty buckets of pre-cracked egg yolks that hold more than 200 eggs in each container. From a block away, I can smell the wisps of Lucibello’s morning prep- arations already: fresh cream; warm, flaky pastries; and swells of toasted pine-nut cookies peering out of their display cases. As the little one-story building begins to nourish the morning air with thickly layered scents of soon- to-be-sweetness, the street around it seems to sag in comparison. A lone man stumbles down the industrial avenue, past the convenience store across from the bakery and towards the wired fence a few feet away. I find my way to Lucibello’s early on this groggy Thursday, arriving an hour before Peter, who has just dropped off his nine- and four- year-old girls at Catholic school on the way from his home in Durham, CT to New Haven.

When Peter gets in, he heads to the front of the store, busying himself around the cash register. Peter is tall, standing in the front of the bakery behind the counter with always-slightly- hunched shoulders, as though he is afraid he is too big for the little store; his dark head of hair nods downward often and the corners of his eyes crinkle when he smiles. Impressively, he has managed to spend his life working in the bakery since the age of 15 without even a paunch behind his uniform — a white T-shirt with careful red cursive spelling out “Lucibello’s.” He spends his life surrounded by sweetness, but he doesn’t indulge much himself. The walloping olfactory experience that overwhelms me on my first morning at the bakery is business as usual for Peter.

And Lucibello’s has been a part of the everyday of New Haven since 1929. Peter and the bakers mention (but do not boast) that they regularly win recognition as the “Best of New Haven” in the New Haven Advocate year after year. Walking into Lucibello’s on a busy Friday afternoon, the waiting customers almost fill up the small front area of the shop. There is no seating area and all orders are to-go: customers enter with a plan — six cannoli, a couple neapolitans, and maybe throw in some of those Pignoli cookies too. One of the girls in the front boxes it all up in a clean white cake box, pulling a candycane-striped string from the ceiling to tie it up with a flourish. During holiday season (Christmas, Easter, and St. Jo- seph’s Day in March), the lines cannot be contained inside the tiny one-story building; they stretch outside, curv- ing around the brick walls and down the street. The cookie case is perpetu- ally full, stocking piles of sugary treats covered in almonds and pine nuts and the occasional colored sprinkles; next to them, the pastry case looms regally, displaying cannoli and sfogliatelle and lemon squares. Behind the register, a looming display of tiered white Italian wedding cakes juts aggressively into the heads of the store employees as they rush about

filling cake boxes for eager customers. The customers say mostly the same things:

“I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid.”

“This is really the only place to go.”

“I keep coming back!”

For Peter, the explanation for both the bakery’s longevity and its continuing success springs from the same source: tradition.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he says, always with a smile and a tiny bow of his head. Peter speaks in collectives and with gratitude. He talks about Lucibel- lo’s as though he has always been there, telling me that “we didn’t used to be at this location until 1960.” But Peter, now 43, has only been running Lucibello’s for the last 19 years. Before he owned the bakery, it was his after-school job, and, even before that, it was his play- room. It has seen him grow up, from a child skipping around the back kitchen, through his adolescence and college years when he worked the register out front, and into a man with a family and children of his own.

The customers who come to buy Peter’s pastries have been coming to Lucibello’s for years; if they are first-timers, in all likelihood they found Peter by way of a friend who has been coming there for years. “Lucibello’s on Olive and Grand,” as the advertisements read, has lived in Wooster Square since 1929. The area, dubbed a “Historic” district by the city of New Haven, looks like a tiny fragment of what it was 82 years ago. The neighborhood’s original kids on the block have grown old in sunny Floridian retirement homes and their children have moved away.

“Ninety percent of the emails in my inbox come from the old-timers down in Florida wanting to know if we ship pastries,” Peter tells me one afternoon. (They don’t, yet.) As he says it, a trickle of elderly blonde women slide in, chat- tering and peering into the glass case to pick out their desired treats for the afternoon.

“How’s your mom doin’?” one woman asks Peter. “And the girls?”

“She’s been well, thank you. We’re all doing well,” he responds. “I’ll tell her you said hello.”

*

The way Peter tells the story, he ended up running Lucibello’s by accident. When his father

fell suddenly ill, Peter, 24, fresh out of Quinnipiac University with a degree in finance and plans of heading to Wall Street, instead inherited Lucibello’s and became a baker. On the verge of leaving like everyone else, Peter ended up with the thickest roots imaginable holding him to fading Wooster Square. It was a hefty inheritance: young Peter wasn’t just taking on the 63 years of Lucibello’s history in New Haven, he was also be- coming a curator of nostalgia, inherit- ing hundreds of years of sweet-toothed Italian history.

Despite its name, the bakery has been out of the Lucibello family’s hands since Peter’s father bought it at the age of 26. The Lucibellos, like the Faggios, were Italian immigrants from the Amalfi coast who settled in the Wooster Square district around the turn of the century. Mr. Lucibello was part of a wave of Italian immigrants who began arriving in Connecticut a little before 1900 and kept coming through the 1920s. Immigrants were nothing new to Connecticut: Scots, Irish, and Poles had already found their way into the state, but the famously parochial Italians seemed less inclined to assimilate into the rest of the population. They were fiercely defensive about maintaining the old ways in the new country. On Sundays, the Italians congregated in the square by the church, loud and boisterous; in the afternoons they’d eat never-ending dinners, gabbing afterward over porches with neighbors who were often also family members. The immigrants came to New Haven hoping for industrial jobs; New Haven offered them factories. But since the 1930s, those factories have been reduced to lines in history textbooks. The Italians dispersed to find new jobs, richer cities. Their children grew up, spoke English, and didn’t need the insular protective ghetto anymore. The street where Lucibello’s now stands has seen its own changes; it was once lined with old ornate Victorian homes. Today the corner of Olive and Grand is a sunken memory of industry — around a few lonely streets of homes, the train tracks hang just across from the bakery, and the streets are quiet even on a Sunday afternoon after Mass. Peter’s own extended family no longer lives around Wooster Square, where his father grew up; cousins and aunts and uncles are scattered through- out nearby Connecticut towns. Lucibello’s is one of the last holdouts of the dregs of a dissipating industrial immigrant district. But it survives. Custom- ers who grew up in Wooster Square, or whose grandparents once lived here, make the 40-minute drives back for Lucibello’s. They join the Christmas rush, and they’re back to get pies for St. Joseph’s Day. Some of Peter’s old high school friends even come to help box cakes during the holiday rush. He smiles, adding that these days it’s only a few of the old Italian high school crew who return. Almost everyone else has moved away.

Peter himself doesn’t remember a time when Wooster Square was any different from today. But his father grew up in the days of the true Italian district. At age nine, when Peter’s father broke a window, Peter’s grandfather decided it was time for his son to get a job and learn some responsibility. He approached his friend, Mr. Lucibello, and got Peter’s father a job washing dishes at the bakery. He worked there through his childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. When Mr. Lucibello was ready to sell the bakery, Peter’s dad, then 26, bought it and kept the name.

Since then, the kitchen staff has grown in size from one to five bakers, and a few things have been added to the menu, like Italian ice in the summer and a single row of orange Halloween cookies in the top of the display case in October. But many things remain the same. The refrigerator, shiny and white with silver buckles all over it, dates to 1940. Three steel countertops line the main thoroughfare of the kitchen, one interrupted halfway through by a slab of marble from the original store, used years ago to cool fresh cream. There is only one oven, hiding unobtrusively against one wall, big enough to hold six trays of pastries at time. And there is no dishwasher: that work is still done by hand. Along the back wall stand two mixers, at six or seven feet tall, like comically overgrown Kitchenaide appliances — two of the few new technological additions Lucibello’s has made through the years. Between them sits an old-fashioned radio, usually tuned to oldies; Rick Astley and the Rolling Stones keep the bakers company as they work.

*

There are a lot of things at Lucibello’s that arrived and never left — Peter and the fridge among them. Early on Thursday morning, John Ripkin, one of the two full-time bakers at Lucibello’s, is mixing the ingredients for an Italian sponge cake on an ancient copper penny-stove that looks straight out of “Little House on the Prairie” and is about as old. John has been a baker at Lucibello’s for 32 years, since Peter’s dad’s days as boss; he remembers Peter running around the kitchen as a little kid.

“He was a real brat.” John laughs. “Don’t tell him I told you that.”

Peter grew up watching his father run the books, manage inventory, and make pastries in the back of the store. It was his father’s territory, and the sfogliatelle were the kingliest treats of them all. Only his father made them — no one else even knew the recipe. But 19 years ago, his father was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and died soon after. It changed everything; the bookkeeping fell to his mother, the management to Peter, and the sfogliatelle had to find a new maker.

The secret sfogliatella recipe — known by only five people in the history of Lucibello’s, passed down on wrinkled old index cards that Peter still keeps in a carefully guarded box in his house — was haphazardly released into the hands of another baker when Peter’s father fell sick. After his father died, Peter quickly claimed responsibility for the sfogliatella making. He had two weeks to learn the recipe and perfect a centuries-old Italian delicacy.

“I kinda feel bad for him,” John says as he stirs in a bucket of yellow pre- cracked egg yolk. “It was real tough for him. His father passed away two days before his birthday, and then he got stuck working here … he went to college, and not to do this kind of work, y’know?”

Peter admits that this is not at all what he had in mind for his future through high school and college. But when his father died and his brother, harboring dreams of being a police officer, had no interest in the store, he felt the weight of two generations on his shoulders. Peter’s nine-year-old daughter has already laid claim to the bakery as her future career. He smiles as he says this, perhaps wondering if her future turn out as unexpected as his was. But family legacy at Lucibello’s is as important to the bakery as the pastries themselves.

John tells me that he loves his work at the bakery. He’s been a baker since he chose not to go to college at 18, and he has a glimmer of thanks in his eye when he tells me that Peter’s father saved him from a period of unemployment during the days when baking jobs were short and he’d had to retreat to a factory. Stacy Capodilupo, the other full-time baker at Lucibello’s, just rolls her eyes affectionately as she explains that she’s been there for ten years, on and off. In the middle of the decade, she left to get a master’s in education and taught first and sixth grade. And then she missed Lucibello’s. So she came back, laughing at the circularity of it all.

Sometimes Peter’s smile becomes enigmatic as he bows his head and says, “I never expected to end up here.” Then he nods and turns back to work, to answer the phone or greet a customer.

*

Though cannoli are the best-selling pastry at Lucibello’s, sfogliatelle are Peter’s favorite by far. Sfogliatelle, which are also called “lobster tails” in simpler parlance (though the kind Lucibello’s makes more closely resemble clams), are a 400-year-old southern Italian tradition. The word (pronounced sfee-ah-tell, though when Peter says it quickly it sounds like “stri- adel”) means “folded leaves” in Italian, referring to the wound up mosaic of dough and powdered sugar enclosing the filling. The pastry’s origin has been traced to the Santa Rosa convent on the Amalfi coast, the region from where Peter’s family hails. Legend says that one night the nuns in the convent had nothing left but scraps to make dessert, so they threw the leftovers together — ricotta cheese, dried fruit, eggs, cinnamon, sugar — like a dessert version of pasta puttanesca — and the sfogliatella was born.

Making the sfogliatelle at Lucibello’s is a sign that you have made it to the top of the baking pyramid. Their layers make them fragile, and a pair of careless hands on them can break the dough before the pastry is done. Peter is the best sfogliatella artist around, and Stacy is the only other person alive who knows the secret Lucibello family recipe. (I ask, but it seems that I will not be admitted to the club.)

The day I try to make my first sfogliatelle, I find that my hands don’t quite live up to the legacy of their teachers’. Standing under Stacy’s watchful eye, I select what seems to be the perfect piece of the wound-up dough —a collection of thin layers wrapped over and over on top of themselves like a snail’s shell — rub on the shortening with my fingers, pressing into my palm until the dough pancakes flat across my hand. I lift the piece up with my thumbs and smooth out the edges, skipping my fingertips around the little circle like I’m spinning a tiny Frisbee. I can feel the dough slacken as I give it a final spin and suddenly there, between the third and fourth circles of layered dough arranged like year lines on a tree trunk, I have made a hole in my dough. My hands have broken 400 years of history. Stacy laughs at my disappointed face just as Peter swings open the kitchen door, arriving for the day.

“Should we put her on the payroll yet?” he asks Stacy.

Not quite.

After I have attempted to mend my hole with some creative dough-squishing, I follow Stacy as she spoons the filling into her pancake. She reminds me to “overstuff ” because our hands aren’t as big as the boss’. I heave my spoon into the filling and scoop it liberally into my cupped hand, trying both to keep my hand adequately cradled around the shaped dough and to not crush or maim the little body either. Stacy tells me to add more. I add another dollop. More. I add another. More. I can barely fold the dainty edges of the dough around all the filling, and my hand is soon covered in gobs of squeezed out ricotta-and-mystery as I place the folded pastry onto the tray. It will now be frozen overnight and baked in the morning — baking it too early ruins the over-soft filling, which needs to harden and freeze overnight, so that in the morning, the oven can work through the thaw, browning it to just the right flakiness.

Stacy nods approvingly and reaches over to fix the edges of my floppy-looking sfogliatella. It looks like a forlorn clam drooling its contents onto the tray. Peter bounces into the kitchen, arms crossed over his white Lucibello’s t-shirt and gray hoodie. Stacy and I wheedle him into joining us, and the three of us stand in parallel, our variously sized hands out in front of us, nursing the dough.

As Peter makes a sfogliatella, his movements are fluid and intuitive. He picks up an elliptically shaped chunk of dough, dips his wide fingers into the slippery shortening, smooths it across the dough. Slowly it spreads across his palm, bending and sighing beneath his fingers. He reaches a large spoon into the pot full of secret filling. It’s chunky like mashed potatoes but wavy-soft like new-churned butter. This is why Stacy envies his hands: cupping the dough in his palm, it is clear that the sfogliatelle he makes are just a hair larger than hers, with room for the tiniest bit more of that secret filling. He slaps a few spoonfuls in without any pretense of precision, folds the dough around it, and places the pastry onto the baking tray where it sits, just a shade larger than Stacy’s and several shades happier than mine, respectfully holding in all of its filling and grinning up like an oyster hoarding its secret pearl inside.

*

The comfort with which Peter moves around the bakery makes it easy to believe that he’s been walking those same tiled floors since he was a child. But what it’s harder to see behind the ease is that 19 years ago, for a few weeks, he didn’t have the com- fortable flow he has today. Peter tells me, as I am looking gloomily at my handiwork, that his sfogliatelle used to

be messy, too.

“The first time I made one was frustrating,” Peter adds later. “It was after I had just taken over — and I knew that this had to be my work now.”

Peter’s sfogliatelle were inelegantly lumpy for weeks, as his hands grew used to their new work. But then he started getting better. He created a rhythm — his rhythm.

The cadence of Peter’s days is nothing like what he expected it to be 19 years ago. Instead of counting success in stocks and bonds, he counts his days in pastries and cakes. His Mondays are cookies and cannoli, his Wednesdays are biscuits, his Thursdays are sfogliatelle, his Fridays are cakes; weekends are weddings and holidays are the rush season. Peter doesn’t keep a ledger of inventory. A quick look around and the gut sense that nearly 20 years on the job gives him is all the information he needs to know how much heavy cream he’ll need for next week and how much flour is left over. The numbers that run the grooves of his mind aren’t stock tickers or finances, but quantities: 200 pounds of sugar a week, 30 gallons of milk, 40 quarts of heavy cream, 100 pounds of shortening, and 60 pounds of creamy ricotta cheese. Six pounds of sfogliatelle every day. The only records that matter are Peter’s father’s old index cards, with Mr. Lucibello’s original recipes scrawled onto them. No one really needs them — the bakers work with the inherent sense of proportion and preci- sion that Peter has, and they’re all computerized these days, just in case. But sometimes, Peter digs them up again, just to double-check a recipe.

He begins most mornings by making Italian cream in the enormous standing mixer in the farthest corner of the bakery. It is perhaps the most meditative place to stand early in the morning, shoveling 18 gallons of milk and several crates of sugar and eggs into the enormous bowl. As the blades start up their churning, the humming of the mixer drowns out the buzz of the rest of the bakery. Without the radio crooning Tom Petty in the background, without Stacy and John’s back-and-forth banter about the relative importance of icing versus cake decorating, without the giggling of the clerk-girls out front, the bakery moves like a sensory symphony. The saccharine smell of little hills of powdered sugar waiting by the single steel oven to be shaken over warm pastries mingles with the flaky scent of fresh baked cannolo shells and icing bags filled with soft waves of fresh whipped cream. Peter, quiet in the corner, can survey the scene of his making: the gentle percussion of the back-and-forth of the bakers as they roll large slabs of plush dough, their hands pressing and kneading it carefully to a soft cadence; the pattering of customers through the tiled floors, their fingers drumming on the pastry display case, their eyes devouring the sweets; the rhythm of his hands doing what his fathers’ did and what his daughters’ may one day do.

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