THEIR TOWN: An occasional series about people we like and the places they love.
Reality TV's 'Cake Boss' shows off his bakery and his home town, Hoboken, N.J.
Judging by the line outside Carlo's City Hall Bake Shop in northern New Jersey -- from the front door to the corner, then east toward the Hudson River -- you'd think the Boss was inside. Given all the flashing cameras, the outstretched hands gripping autograph books and the squeals of excitement, you'd be right.
But don't be mistaken: This is the Boss of Hoboken, a.k.a. Bartolo "Buddy" Valastro, the Italian American baker, cake decorator and cable TV star who plays with fondant and modeling chocolate, not a guitar and a backup band.
"We feel very lucky to have Buddy and Carlo's bakery," said Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who can see the long queues and hear the screams from her office across the street. "Hoboken was known before, but now it's even more known."
To be sure, the Jersey city a river over from Manhattan maintains an impressive list of famous folks and firsts. Frank Sinatra and photographer Alfred Stieglitz were born here; the first electric train departed from here (driven by Thomas Edison, no less); and the zipper and ice cream are local inventions. Now add to that roster Valastro and his family's 100-year-old Italian bakery, which last spring went from hometown pastry shop to national sensation with the debut of the TLC reality show "Cake Boss."
"Frank Sinatra was their biggie," said Cecelia Hyrsl, a culinary school student who was trying out for a job at the bakery. "Now they have Carlo's."
The show, whose third season starts airing May 31, shadows the pop-eyed dynamo as he constructs sculptural confections amid the antics of his extended Italian family. And while Buddy and company are the main stars, they share the stage with Hoboken. More than just a backdrop, the city is integral to Valastro's narrative.
"I am really, really proud to say that I am from Hoboken," said the 33-year-old, who was raised in nearby Little Ferry but logged countless hours at the bakery growing up. "I feel like this is my town. Me and Frank."
An unofficial ambassador of Hoboken, Valastro agreed to show me around his town and introduce me to its characters. The hook: We'd do it Buddy's way.
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The "Cake Boss" tour started, of course, at the bakery, which sits on the main commercial strip of Washington Street between a grocer and a Verizon Wireless store. The storefront is simple, with a reddish sign carved in gold script that reads "Carlo's City Hall Bake Shop." A striped awning forms an unbroken eyebrow over two large windows. A display of frosted cakes hints at calories to come.
A smiling Valastro greeted me in the small office above the retail space, across a narrow hallway from the kitchen, where much of the action occurs on- and off-screen. A $10,000 check of Publishers Clearing House size hung on one wall, a souvenir from his Food Network win in last year's "Battle of the Brides" wedding cake challenge. Two plates laden with pastries rested on the edge of the desk. A small blond child in an apron, the youngest of Valastro's three offspring, bounced in and out of the room. Three-year-old Marco was baking cookies, and he wasn't using Play-Doh and a make-believe oven.
Before exploring Hoboken, Valastro wanted to go to Italy, to the warm ovens and memories of his forebears. Both his great-grandfather and his grandfather worked as bread bakers in Sicily, he told me, and his father continued the tradition in New Jersey, his adopted home from the age of 13. However, his father, also Bartolo/Buddy, did not care for the long hours required of a bread baker, so he switched to pastries, apprenticing at Carlo's, established in 1910 on Adams Street.