Have a Crumby Holiday

“Gus & Lucille Isgro”, says the joint business cards of Gus and Lucille Saro, who run Isgro’s bakery in South Philly.
Head baker Gus Sarno is the grandson of Mario and Crucificia Isgro, who founded the business in 1904. “This is the oldest family-owned and operated shop in Philadelphia.” says Gus. “My wife and I tried cards with the name Sarno. The printer called up and asked did we sell the business. People picked cards off the counter and asked who were these new owners we sold out to…People watch over Isgro’s; they don’t want any changes. They want it kept the same. That’s part of the romance of a family business…”

We’re sitting over coffee at a formica table in Isgro’s back room. It looks like a spotless old-time South Philly kitchen.

“It is a kitchen,” Gus says. “My mother and father still live upstairs! That’s another part of the romance. There are some problems with it, of course. I can’t tell my mother,’Ma, I need your kitchen for a walk-in box.’ Though I could really use another walk-in box.’ But the good thing is that Lucille and I get to run Isgro’s with the help of my father, Emilio, 87, my mother, Mary, 77, my uncle Vito Isgro, 81, my uncle Sam Isgro, 80, who’s retired now officially and still comes in every day, to make sure we do it right. That’s part of the romance of a family business, too. You get a lot of advice about the old days, from people who remember it clearly… It keeps us doing it right. And everything has to be right at Isgro’s for Christmas!”

Christmas at Isgro’s means the tiny shop is full of customers, full of workers, full of family, of laughter, of old friends who moved out of the neighborhood back for a gossipy visit, lots of hurry, bustle, busyness and, very often, a long, long wait before you get in the door.

Christmas at Isgro’s means a staggering array of traditional pastries and cookies that deserve to be better known outside Italian American families. Don’t be fooled by Isgro’s low prices, everything is all-natural, high-quality and handmade.

  • Ricotta Rum Cake: “This is our most famous cake. Sponge cake with one layer of Italian cream and one of ricotta filling, iced completely with ricotta. My grandfather developed this icing, and he never gave a recipe to anybody outside the family.” A big moist cake, great rum flavor, and a light textured and lightly sweet icing.
  • Sfogliatelle: The layers open up like the ridges on the shell of a Am. Filled with semolina and ricotta, orange and lemon zest. A big belt-breaker of a cheesier, heavier, more delicious danish.
  • Ricotta Pie: A pie shell with a ricotta cheese filling that’s flavored with lemon oil and orange zest, topped with slivered fresh almonds. Extravagantly good.
  • Cookies: Isgro’s always has at least 40 kinds, averaging around $6.50 a pound. Try the pignole macaroons ($12.50 a pound), a moist domed cookie covered with fresh nuts. Seymenthe are made of almonds, cashews and walnuts ground to powder, mixed with sugar and whipped egg whites. Dark brown little gnarls that at first seemed crunchy and chewy, then melt in your mouth.
  • Cannolli: A mere $1.25 each, they are filled to order with a rich, creamy ricotta mixed, if you ask for it, with zuccata, pickled watermelon rind. This is the original way to eat the true cannoli of Sicily, and by far the best.

By Jim Quinn, featured in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” Dec. 20, 1992