Baker Finds Breaking Molds Difficult To Do

Lucille finally knew that Gus had adapted to South Jersey life when she found him feeding peanuts to the local squirrels at their Haddon Township home.
Gus knew Lucille finally was catching on to the vagaries of city life when she could calmly drive across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to work in his South Philadelphia business.

Before their marriage eight years ago, it was as if Lucille and Gus lived in two countries. That’s just the way it is with people deeply rooted on either side of the Delaware.

“Jersey’s the sticks.” “Philly’s a sty.” That’s the folklore perpetuated in the old neighborhoods, east and west. But Lucille and Gus broke a few molds. And it’s something Gus still finds hard to do.

As the third-generation proprietor of Isgro’s pastry shop in the heart of South Philly’s Italian Market area, Gus knows the weight of tradition.

He is still bonded to, the same recipes and cooking methods his grandfather Mario Isgro brought from Sicily 80 years ago.

Thing is, Gus keeps thinking about breaking part of that mold, too. He thinks about opening a grand European-style pastry bistro where people can sip cappuccino, eat pastries and watch bakers perform their art.

He thinks about doing it in Voorhees or Cherry Hill, or some other up-scale place where people don’t think that espresso is the quick-service line at the supermarket.

But when he thinks about it too much, Gus gets the same feeling he had when his wife, a South Jersey native, suggested that they make their home here – petrified.

“The idea frightens me because I still haven’t figured out how to be two places at one time. I oversee everything. And once you get into mass-producing a product, it’s difficult to retain the quality. And that’s the most important thing to me,” says Gus, as we talk in the family kitchen behind the store.

“Baking is a feel. That’s the art. Even if you don’t know the recipes, it doesn’t matter. You have to be able to know when something is right just by touching it. I know how to make pastry one way – the way my grandfather taught me.”

Gus uses the same techniques Mario Isgro honed in the kitchen of a Sicilian aristocrat neatly 100 years ago.

“My grandfather was the head chef for a baron and studied cooking in Vienna.” After the baron died, Mario came to America and in 1904 opened the shop on Christian St., near ninth.

Mario’s children Mary, Vito, and Sam, operated the shop before Gus took over after a long apprenticeship. Gus has been baking Italian pastry since he was 9 years old. “It would be 9 p.m. and my grandfather would say,’Come on Gus, I’ll show you how to make Sfogliatelli.'”

Thirty-one years later, Gus is still making the flaky cream-filled cake the same way. Why? “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Like the cannoli – Isgro’s specialty. “I still make the cream in a massive double boiler and cook it slowly. It’s the only way to make good Italian custard.” And like the Italian cream cake, “The sponge cake is critical. It has to be the right texture to absorb the rum without making it soggy.

“Uncle Vito still makes them, one at a time in his little space, and if you say, ‘Hey Uncle Vito, can you move over a little bit?’ he’ll just say, ‘No.’ “Why? Because that’s where he’s been making his Italian cream cakes for 60 years. He can’t make them any other way in any other place.”

So, when Gus starts to wonder about that bistro, he can’t help thinking about what his uncle represents. “It has to do with being comfortable in those old neighborhoods and believing things can’t get any better. But it also has to do with crossing bridges and finding out life on the other side isn’t so bad after all.

By Rosemary Parrillo, featured in “Courier Post”