Ain’t We Sweet?

“Good bread, good meat, good cake – let’s eat.” Shakespeare it’s not, but that impromptu poem recited by a customer at the cookie counter at Isgro’s bakery sums up all you need to know about the Ninth Street Market area and the holidays.While fresh fruit and vegetables reign supreme at the market most of the year, the holidays are for pastries. Cannoli and cookies are the favorites, according to Augustine Sarno, owner of Isgro’s at 1006 Christian St.
“Starting in the beginning of December, it goes completely crazy,” Sarno said of business at his bakery, Which will be celebrating its 90th anniversary in January.

“The last three weeks in December, it’s a mad house,” he said, ‘It’s not unusual to have a line out front, with police directing traffic.” When Gus says a line, he really means it, his wife, Lucille, explained.”The line starts forming around 6. We open at 7 and it’s not until 6 at night that there are no more bodies outside,” she said. “But it moves very quickly (it takes about 25 minutes to be served once you’re inside, Gus said) and the people are really nice.” “They understand,” Gus said. “It’s like anything else: if you want anything said. of quality, you wait for it.”

The holiday scene at Termini Bros. bakery, 1523-25 S. Eighth St., is much the same. Things start to pick up in early December and get increasingly hectic as the month wears on, one employee said recently.

“Christmas Eve, it’s all day,” she said.Two other Termini employees rolled their eyes and laughed.”This is the killer,” Marge Piselli. Marie Alessi agreed. “There’s nothing like Christmas,” she said.

Those of you who like to collect facts and figures will appreciate this: At Isgro’s alone, customers buy a whopping 5,000 pounds of holiday cookies in December, most of them in the two weeks before Christmas. The most popular, Gus said, are the Italian fruitfilled and the butter cookies. As for cannoli, try 80,000 in the same time frame.

Astounding numbers, especially considering that the country is in what seems a never-ending recession, and the fact that health and fitness are all the rage.
But bakeries like Isgro’s, Termini’s and others that specialize in Italian pastries continue to thrive. Gus said that’s because they offer special treats, not daily indulgences.

“Pastries are a luxury item, no doubt about it. if they’re going to give up something, people give up doughnuts,” he said. “We carry mostly specialty items, not something you eat every day. That makes us unique.”

His one concession to the fitness trend is using no-cholesterol shortening in butter cookies. “If you don’t stay on top and follow the trends – and the trend these days is health – you’ll lose a portion of the market,” he said. “if people are watching their diets, you should be able to offer something that won’t hurt them.

“But customers know what they want. They don’t want to compromise,” he said. “When people come here, they want calories. They want cholesterol.”

If it sounds good to you and you’re thinking about indulging in some Italian treats, it’s best to make your holiday order now, Gus said, especially if you’re ordering a tray to be delivered as a gift. Both Isgro’s and Termini’s ship cookie and pastry trays but it takes a few days, especially at this time of year.

By Margaret Battistelli, featured in “To Market” Dec. 1993

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

The Whole Cannoli

The Cannoli one of the world’s great pastry inventions, is sold throughout Italy but is never called merely a cannoli. Everywhere, it’s given its full name: canolli of Sicily. And everywhere, everyone says, “This is a good cannoli, but it’s not a real cannoli. For a real cannoli you have to go to Sicily.”
So when I got to Sicily, I tried a cannoli, and it was different from other cannolis: less sweet, more delicate, somehow more filled with its ricotta filling, with a subtle flavor I couldn’t identify, but that I could recognize right away. Because there’s a bakery in South Philadelphia that makes cannolis that taste exactly like the real cannolis from Sicily.

Which is not surprising, because Gus Sarno, of Isgro Pastries at 1009 Christian St., makes cannolis exactly the way his grandfather taught him. And his grandfather came from Messina, Sicily, to found the family business in 1904. More than 80 years of making cannolis, and the recipe has never been written down. It’s too secret for that. I sit with Gus in the spotless, pleasantly old-fashioned kitchen behind the store eating cannolis and drinking strong black coffee, while Gus tells me about cannoli secrets – watermelon rind, chocolatinis, why cannoli shells have to be spoon-filled to order, and about the life of his grandfather, “which is like a romance.”

“My grandfather left home when he was 12. There was a count in his neighborhood this is the 1800s – and he used to go look in the window and watch the chefs. The count caught him at it and put him to work in the kitchen. In those days, chefs were very suspicious; they wouldn’t teach him anything. But he spied on them and learned. Finally, the count sent him to school, and he came back to be head chef of the count’s whole kitchen. Then he saved his money, came to America started a bakery, and then, like all the other Italians, saved more money and brought his whole family over, a little bit at a time.

“My grandfather could do anything connected with food. Ice sculpture. I remember when I was a little kid, 20, 25 minutes, he’d make a swan, a fish, anything. Easter he made lambs – life-size! – out of marzipan. One time we made a cake in the shape of a battleship for a party at the Navy yard. He had all these strings running down from the smoke stacks to the decksails, all of them edible. He spun them out of sugar. He loved the business so much. He’d go to other bakeries, he’d help them decorate, he’d teach them how to make things. But not everything.

“The secrets he kept for the family. My grandfather never wrote anything down. Everything he did was from memory. I wrote some of his recipes down. Certain cakes we only make once a year. I go to the recipe, refresh my memory. My grandfather just pulled out the pans and baked. But the cannoli recipe has never been written down. Not everybody knows it. I do, my uncle Sam lsgro, my uncle Vito Isgro. That’s all. My mother doesn’t know the cannoli recipe. We make it at night, when everybody else’s gone home. It’s a relatively simple recipe At least, when I see recipes for cannoli filling in magazines or books, they have stuff in there I would never dream of putting in. But it’s very precise. Things have to be combined exactly the right moment. It changes with the weather, and once in a very great while, it doesn’t come out right. Maybe we do something wrong, miss that crucial minute. Then I send word upstairs that there’s no cannolis that day – better not to have them than sell something that’s not right.”

Gus is not about to share the secret of his cannoli filling, but he is willing to talk about why they taste different. They’re less sweet “because the sweetness comes from the ricotta. People get tempted to put a lot of sugar in because sugar is a lot cheaper.”

They’re filled to order when you buy them – and filled with a spoon, not a pastry bag. “It takes longer but you get more filling. With a spoon, you’re packing it in, wedging it. A spoon is better. My grandfather did it that way. My grandmother wouldn’t have a pastry bag in the house. Holidays, the whole family worked at it. You didn’t open presents Christmas morning. You went downstairs and started spoon-filling cannolis. We had people standing in line waiting around the block. Finally, holidays got to be too much. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter, we bag-fill cannolis. We couldn’t do it otherwise. But only those four days a year. Otherwise the cannoli is spoon-filled right in front of your eyes.”

Isgro cannolis have chocolate bits – “Chocolatinis, smaller than chocolate chips, but pure chocolate. No chemicals, no artificial flavors.”

If you ask for it, Isgro cannolis have zucca. “Zucca is preserved watermelon rind. The traditional filling. We use it only on request – some people don’t like the flavor. Mostly the old people are the ones that want it. Some people put citron in their cannolis but it’s hard, it’s got a different bite, it’s not zucca. When I was a kid, I remember my grandfather used to have to make his own zucca So he’d buy a truckload of watermelons, and then have a watermelon party. Invite everybody in the neighborhood to come eat out the middles. They were great parties, I still remember them. But now I can get Italian zucca. I have to go to New York for it. It’s expensive; the suppliers laugh at me. They say nobody uses this stuff. Not everybody likes it, so you get your cannoli without, unless you ask. But it’s the traditional cannoli. My grandfather used it. I have to have it.”

Isgro’s cannolis, filled with or without zucca before your very eyes so the skins are always crisp and fresh, cost 85 cents. Extraordinary butter cookies are less than $5 a pound. Isgro’s version of casaata is $8.95, a delicious rum-soaked sponge cake iced entirely with ricotta. “It’s expensive,” Gus says, “and you can only get so fancy with a ricotta icing. But we could never use butter cream on an Italian pastry.” Try the big chewy macaroons, kept in a separate glass jar, so their almond flavor doesn’t get into the other cookies. And if you want an adventure for less than a dollar, try a cannoli with zucca. That’s the way they taste in Sicily.

By Jim Quinn, featured in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” March 2, 1986