Cannoli, cheesecake, and an East Village icon: See history in action at 125-year-old Veniero’s Pastry
Ask a group of New Yorkers where to find the best cannolis or cheesecake, and without a doubt, you’ll hear Veniero Pasticceria and Caffé. An East Village institution, Veniero’s is a family-owned and operated Italian pastry shop that was established by Italian immigrant Antonio Veniero in 1894. Veniero, who lived with his family next door, started the business as a candy shop. He then started serving Italian espresso and biscotti and by the 1920s, he had brought in master bakers from Sicily to run the kitchen.
A century later, Veniero’s is still family-owned and is celebrating is 125th anniversary next year. We had the chance to tour the caffé and bakery with Robert Zerilli, the fourth-generation current owner and great-nephew of founder Antonio Veniero. Today, Veniero’s serves more than 150 desserts, from traditional Italian butter cookies and cannolis to some more modern offerings such as red velvet cake and oreo cheesecake. Ahead, go behind the scenes to see how all these tasty treats are made, tour the historic interiors, and learn all about Veniero’s history from Robert.
My great, great uncle was Antonio Veniero who was born in 1870. Antonio came from a little province outside of Sorrento, Italy called Vico Equense. He took the passage to New York as a 15-year-old boy and worked at a candy factory in downtown Manhattan. They made him manager three years later, and six years after that, in 1894, he opened up his own shop–A. Veniero Confection at 342 East 11th Street (our current location). He made great homemade candies but his patrons wanted something to go along with those candies so he started roasting his own blend of six different espresso beans in the backyard of our property and then started to serve up espresso to his customers. I guess you could say he was one of the first to introduce Italian espresso to the city.
An old photo of Robert’s father Frank Zerilli on the current counter
Antonio made his own candied fruit, which was a very labor-intensive process involving buying fresh fruit and making the syrup from it. The house specialty was watermelon candy, which is made from the rind of a watermelon. Antonio became really popular with the kids from the neighborhood because he would give them for free all the watermelon fruit and just keep the rinds to make his candy. Antonio brought over his wife Pasqulina Merola and they had seven children (four girls and three boys). The children all got a good education, and the three boys, Michael, Peter, and Alfredo, all had to work in the bakery after their studies.
As the business grew, Antonio decided to bring in some master bakers from Italy to make cakes and pastries. That was a really big step to go from a little confectionery to a more prominent pastry shop and word spread around the neighborhood, which at the time had a huge Italian immigrant population. Many famous Italian people ordered cakes and pastries from us, including Enrico Caruso, and eventually, Antonio changed the name of the shop to Antonio Veniero Pasticceria.
It was very common at that time for extended families to all work together, so my grandfather Andrea Zerilli also worked at the bakery. Andrea played the violin as a hobby and as a wedding present to Andrea, Antonio decided to set him up in his own annex shop to the bakery on Thompson Street in the South Village (where my father was born back in 1918). Antonio owned a few buildings in that area and set them up in an annex shop to see how his pastries would sell. Unfortunately, my grandfather Andrea was more of a violinist than a businessman and would just sit inside the shop with the door open and play music. Customers would walk in after hearing the beautiful music but he would not stop playing and eventually, they walked out never having the chance to buy anything since he just played and played even though people would say, “Excuse me, can I purchase some pastries?” So eventually he was forced to close the shop. My relative, Peter Veniero, told me that Andrea moved up to Mamaroneck, NY to open his own pastry shop.
Cookie trays being prepped
We did not have electricity when we first opened. Our lights were gas-fed and we were using coal-fired ovens in our basement, which we actually still used until about 25 years ago. When electricity was introduced to the surrounding area, Antonio wanted to have it installed in the store so that he could operate new machinery and not have to do all the labor-intensive work that comes with baking by hand. When he approached the Edison Company they refused to give him electricity because our store was located in a poor immigrant neighborhood. Fancier streets in the area, like Irving Place, had electricity but Edison Company told him they would not consider installing it unless he produced a signed petition with 40 signatures from local shopkeepers in the area. So that is exactly what he did. He knew everyone in the area and Edison eventually installed electricity on the grid from 14th Street to Houston between First and Second Avenues.
Antonio Veniero died in 1930, but his sons continued to run the business. My father, Frank Zerilli, was an only child. When he came back from World War II, he decided to start working for his first cousin, Michael Veniero, at the shop. Michael eventually promoted him to manager, which is when the business really took off. Our cakes and pastries began to win awards at prestigious pastry competitions in Rome, Bologna, and New York against top chefs from around the world. We actually beat the French three times in a row at the NY hotel Exposition (in the mid 30’s) that they took us out of the competition to give someone else a chance to win. Frank Sinatra was even a huge fan of our shop.
Almonds being roasted for the almond cheesecake
I was born in 1962 at St. Clare’s Hospital in Hell’s Kitchen. I was a “Hell Raiser” but I grew up in New Jersey. My family, the Zerillis, owns the building we are located in. We bought it from the Veniero family in the late 1960s when my dad took over the business during very hard times. The bakery was almost going bankrupt but he resurrected it. He took on two partners but eventually bought them out and started little by little to build the business back up.
The espresso counter
I started working here in the late 1970s helping out my father on the weekends as the cappuccino craze had begun. By that time, my father had added a few marble tables to the store and offered sit-down table service, eventually putting in 30 seats. I began working here full-time in 1981. I dropped out of Pace University and decided to make a career out of working at the shop. I have three sisters who are now full-time partners with me.
The Venetian Room
When I started here full-time the stock market was doing well and business was so good that at night people often couldn’t get into the store to buy anything from the counter because there were so many people lined up waiting for tables to become available. That is what prompted my father to do an expansion. In 1985, we expanded the café dining area and added even more tables by converting the storage area and office space on the first floor. We now have 100 seats in the dining area as well as an espresso bar. Our Venetian room has a sky-painted ceiling and Italian Renaissance art.
Top: Italian cheesecakes being prepared in the original bakeshop; Middle and bottom: Strawberry shortcakes being prepared in the finishing bakeshop
The original bakeshop with our gas revolving ovens is still downstairs under the main ground floor pastry shop and cafe. But we expanded upstairs and gutted out apartments one and two to create a brand new finishing bakeshop for all our cakes, wedding cakes, and larger pastries where they do the decorating. We also installed new walk-in refrigerators and freezers here. We have four floors devoted to the bakery and all its operations.
Robert holding his father’s portrait in the main dining room
Our extended family is really into music. I already spoke about my grandfather, but we can also add that Bruce Springsteen has a connection to Veniero’s Pasticceria. Bruce’s great grandfather’s brother was Andrea Zerilli and Andrea’s wife’s name was Rosa Veniero. My relative Peter Veniero and I were talking one day and he said to me, “You know you’re related to a famous rock star? He is a Zerilli…Bruce Springsteen is your cousin.”
I didn’t think much of it until one day in 1988 when I was just getting ready to close the shop when a group of 10 or 12 people came in. They asked to see Frankie, my father, but he had already left. I told them that Frankie wasn’t here but asked if I could help and that I was Frankie’s son. They introduced themselves as my relatives and said they came into the shop to sit down and have some dessert after seeing Bruce at his concert in New York City. The group included Bruce’s two aunts, Dora and Ida, and some of his cousins. We had a little family reunion, and from that day on, I began to follow my cousin’s career and went to all of his concerts.
Then in 1993, I was hired to cater a very large party for Sony Music executives in New Jersey. I had to bring and set up 5,000 pieces of miniature pastries. I’ll never forget the day because I wore one of my baker’s white uniform that was two sizes too large for me. When I got to the party and was setting up, I mentioned to one of the executives that Bruce Springsteen was my cousin because I knew that Sony was his label. The executive said to me, “You know that he is here tonight?” I told him I never had met him and only knew his aunts and other cousins. So the guy said, “Well go out there. Now is your chance to meet him!” So I went over to him and gave him my card and told him that we were cousins. He was so cool and introduced me to his wife and spoke with me for a while. I was so star struck! When I told my dad about meeting Bruce, he wasn’t impressed. He said Frank Sinatra got his pastries from our shop and who is more famous than him.
When I took over the business at our 100-year anniversary in 1994, the same year my father passed away, I introduced a catalog to further get the word out about our products. I also put Veniero’s on the Internet and even added a liquor license about 15 years ago.
A lot has changed here over the years, including the pastries and cakes we offer. We still serve many of the true Italian specialties such as our cheesecakes, biscotti (Italian biscuits), and Italian butter cookies, but for the past 13 years, we’ve worked with a head baker, Angelo, who originally worked here in the 1980s. He brought a whole new spin to our catalog by adding chocolate sponge layer cakes and chocolate mousse cake as well as seasonal offerings. He likes to be creative and try new things so we let him have his way. It makes sense to expand the offerings instead of just profiting from the same old thing over and over again.
Sugar bags and trays
We bake so many cakes and pastries that we go through about 1,000 pounds of sugar every week. We also use three different types of flour for our pastries, cakes, and cookies and use between 500-700 pounds of each type of flour every week. Our most popular sellers are our cannolis and our cheesecakes.
We have retained as much of the original interior as possible, including our hand-stamped metal ceilings, terrazzo floors, wood display cases for the cookies and biscuits, and the back counter mirrors.
Our huge overhanging neon sign is not original but was installed in the early 1940s. You don’t see many of these big, one-story signs in the City anymore. My family remembers it also used to have a neon border. Probably the maintenance on the little details got to be too much.
We also added the box sign. It’s funny because it says “since 1894” instead of “established in 1894.” That’s what my dad said to the sign maker and that’s what they created. It reminds me of him and his Brooklyn vernacular. I’m not going to change it. We are refurbishing the original neon constantly, just to keep it lit despite the rain and snow that damages it. The guy who does the maintenance on it tells me that he can make a new sign for $12,000 that looks just like it and is more weatherproof and will cost me less money in the long run. But I don’t want that; I want the old dirty broken-down looking sign. That is what I love and people love and as long as I am alive, I won’t put up a new sign. It’s a thing of visual beauty and you can see it all the way from Avenue B. The sign to me is like our lighthouse beacon.
A baker filling the Rum Baba with custard
When I heard about Glaser’s Bake Shop in Yorkville that recently closed after 116 years in business, I immediately believed the reason why they didn’t survive is that the owners were also the bakers. My great, great uncle Antonio Veniero was a businessman and he made the decision early on at the turn of the century, to hire master bakers for the shop. Even Antonio’s son Michael did the same thing. My dad also kept the same master bakers, and I do the same thing today. It’s like church and state. If you try to do everything, you burn out. Running a business is hard enough. We take the same playbook from Antonio and that is to purchase the best and freshest quality ingredients and make it “hand-made” as they did way back in the day. Another secret to our success is the loyalty of the staff. We have employees that have been here 25, 35, even 40 years. That’s a key element to our longevity. And of course, there’s our giant neon sign. What an advertisement that is!
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James and Karla Murray are husband-and-wife New York-based photographers and authors. Their critically acclaimed books include Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, New York Nights, Store Front II- A History Preserved and Broken Windows-Graffiti NYC. The authors’ landmark 2008 book, Store Front, was cited in Bookforum’s Dec/Jan 2015 issue as one of the “Exemplary art books from the past two decades” and heralded as “One of the periods most successful New York books.” New York Nights was the winner of the prestigious New York Society Library’s 2012 New York City Book Award. James and Karla Murray’s work has been exhibited widely in major institutions and galleries, including solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Clic Gallery in New York City, and Fotogalerie Im Blauen Haus in Munich, Germany, and group shows at the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA. Their photographs are included in the permanent collections of major institutions, including the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the New York Public Library, and NYU Langone Medical Center. James and Karla were awarded the 2015 Regina Kellerman Award by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) in recognition of their significant contribution to the quality of life in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. James and Karla live in the East Village of Manhattan with their dog Hudson.