New York City doesn’t give up its culinary gems gladly. Interminable subway rides, wallet-exploding bridge tolls and gobs of unclaimed time are usually required to pursue them. Hunger notwithstanding, a vague hope—not at all assured—stokes the hunter’s fires: that the journey might yield contact with unsung, un-blogged brilliance. Vincenzo Scalici is the breakfast pastry and dessert baker at Andrew’s Diner on Staten Island. He reports to work at 5 a.m., and by 6:20 a.m. has filled the counter case with delights both expected and exceptional. All of them are good, but some will spoil you for any other diner—and maybe any other bakery.
Andrew Plaitis, the sleeve-tattooed owner of Andrew’s, had told me about his morning baker. How he reduces the diner’s food-delivery costs. How his repertoire includes a mean apple cheese puff. Plaitis didn’t tell me that his baker is a Palermo-born pasticcière who once worked at Brooklyn’s Villabate Alba, the best Sicilian-style pasticceria in the city; or that Scalici labors in a fluorescent-lit basement below the strip mall in which Andrew’s operates; or that he has the guileless, good-natured bearing of Dom DeMarco, New York’s closest thing to a patron saint of pizza.
The key difference between Dom and and Vincenzo? Dom is slow as syrup. Vincenzo hustles.
By 5:15 a.m., chocolate is being melted in a water bath on a hot plate, a Centaur floor mixer is beating whipped cream, and Scalici is sliding just-mixed chocolate-chip and banana-nut muffins into the convection oven. He portions out the muffin batter not with a measuring cup, but with a gloved hand. After proofing in the basement’s ever-warming air, apple cheese and almond cheese puffs, folded by hand, also get loaded in.
Red velvet cupcakes baked the previous night have their tops lopped off. Whipped cream is squeezed from a pastry bag to crown the gaudy red confections. Scalici drizzles the melted chocolate on top, then crumbles the off-cuts over each cupcake. It’s 5:30.
Sheepishly, Scalici notes that the sfogliatelle, also browning in the oven, are delivered frozen. “I make sfogliatelle, but you need a machine,” he says in heavily accented English. We communicate in a mix of basic English and even-more-basic Italian. My comprehension of the latter, gleaned during an ill-fated romantic experiment in the northern city of Padua, isn’t sufficient to decode Scalici’s guttural Sicilian delivery, but we manage.
Puffs are out of the oven at 6:01. After giving them a heavy-handed dusting of confectioner’s sugar, Scalici invites me to try one. Butter, salt, stewed apples, crunchy streusel, and a cheesecake’s creamy tang, all in one warm bite. It will be gone in three minutes.
Scalici has been in Andrew’s basement for 13 years, having responded to a classified ad, he says. Despite Scalici’s obvious care, it’s not like his boss sources apples from some eighth-generation Dutch family orchard in the Hudson Valley. The fruit comes straight from the can, though Scalici jacks it up with butter, sugar and cinnamon. The whipped cream gets a slug from a jug of imitation vanilla.
In any other context, such aggressive affronts to foodiedom would not stand. Then you remember you’re in the basement of a strip mall in Staten Island, and you’re watching a trained Sicilian pasticcière dance to a diner’s punishing pre-opening rhythm.
Upstairs, the first of 30 local business owners, realtors and attorneys begin trickling in for their weekly Wednesday breakfast. Most will order omelettes, pancakes, a fruit cup—the usual suspects. Others will order an apple cheese puff, or maybe a banana nut muffin. They may not know who baked their breakfast pastry, only that it’s better than it has any right to be.