Reality TV's 'Cake Boss' shows off his bakery and his home town, Hoboken, N.J.

By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, March 14, 2010; F01

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.

* * *

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.

Buddy Sr. bought the business from Carlo Guastaffero in 1963 and 26 years later moved it to its current location, supplanting a German bakery. (Quick history lesson: Settled by the Dutch, Hoboken later drew Germans and Italians to its shores. More recently, the demographic has leaned toward post-college arrivistes outpriced by Manhattan rents and young professional families seeking a small town with metropolitan benefits.)

"My father wanted a big bakery where all of his kids could work together," said Valastro, who has continued that family tradition by filling the bakery with his four sisters, his wife, his mother, one aunt, three brothers-in-law, two cousins and occasional cameos from his two sons and daughter (ages 3, 5 and 7).

After his father died, in 1994, the 17-year-old baby of the family dropped out of high school to oversee the business. At the helm, he steered the bakery in a new direction, toward cake-making and designing. "My father had these awesome old-school recipes for cookies and pastries, but I knew the art of baking," said the self-trained baker, whose staff makes up to 600 birthday cakes and 40 to 60 specialty cakes a week. "I knew that I could make modern cakes that go 'wow' and taste great but still stick to our roots."

To prove his point, Valastro walked past a rack of cannoli shells fried on-site; most bakeries buy them pre-made in a factory. At a nearby table, brother-in-law Joe Faugno was stretching dough, then coating it with shortening, over and over again. In two days, the bakers would mold the sfogliatelle into clam and lobster-tail shapes and stuff them with ricotta cheese or sweet cream. The classic pastry is a dying craft, explained another brother-in-law, Mauro Castano, who hails from Milan, and difficult to find even in Italy.

"I am definitely hanging on to these traditions because I want to, not because I have to," Valastro said. "I can't turn my back on the way we did things."

And with that, we looked forward to Hoboken.

* * *

To switch into tour guide mode, Valastro swapped his white chef's coat for a black leather coat with plush lining. A thin gold chain with a Saint Anthony medal peeked out from his collared sweater. His leather shoes were more appropriate for a business meeting than a slosh in the slush, but he was not a prima donna about his footwear.

We piled into our sightseeing bus, a white Lincoln Navigator, spotless considering Valastro's line of work. No flour smudges or streaks of chocolate icing. Turning toward the Hudson, Valastro starting calling out personal landmarks: Caru, where he gets his hair cut by Curtis; TD Bank, where an employee named Antoinette tends to his finances. Before we learned where he gets his teeth cleaned and his suits pressed, we arrived at the new W Hoboken.

"I love staying at the W and eating at Zylo," he said about the hipster property and its Tuscan steakhouse. "It's such an upscale, night-life place." I asked him why he crashes at a hotel when he lives about 20 miles away in East Hanover. He started to throw out reasons, like the need to do so when he has business in Manhattan, but then confessed, "It's a night away from the kids."

We drove a block down to the river and Sinatra Park, a calming recreational space with a waterfront walkway, a gazebo and the best panorama of the Manhattan skyline. "We have awesome views of New York," he said as we peered out the car windows.

In Valastro's younger days, the shoreline was tumbledown and not worthy of its vantage point. "It used to be old piers and a back road," he said. "They really developed it. It's really beautiful."

Still paralleling the Hudson on Frank Sinatra Drive, we drove by a sheer rock wall that created a cocoon of nature. Eyeballing a fallen boulder, Valastro said that his father used to send him off to collect the ones that had sheared off the cliff. The rocks would later end up at the Valastro abode, Hoboken detritus as home design. Before heading inland, he showed me the former site of the Maxwell House plant, which, until it closed in 1992, had scented the air with its good-to-the-last-drop aroma.

In terms of parking, Hoboken can be as difficult as Constitution Avenue on a rainy Sunday. But not on Adams Street. "You can double-park here," he said, stopping his vehicle a car's width from the curb. "The cops won't bother you at Fiore's."

Valastro entered the deli to a chorus of Jersey-Italian greetings.

"Hey, Buddy, how you doin'?" said an employee manning a case filled with fresh mozzarella. "I didn't recognize you."

"Hey, Vinnie," hollered Valastro as he walked into the back kitchen without asking for permission, "how you doin'?"

Vinnie Amato, who runs Fiore's with his brother, two nephews and a brother-in-law, shares a history with the Valastros. The deli, which opened in 1913, abutted the original Carlo's bakery. "People would take a number here, take a number there, and run back and forth looking at the numbers," said Amato. As a young boy, Valastro would pop over to Fiore's to watch them make the mozzarella from scratch, kneading the cheese in warm water. They'd slip him a small piece to taste. "The thing that bound our families was that they did everything the old-fashioned way and so did we," said Amato, 68, who took over the business from his father. "And we both still do."

Amato laid out lumps of cheese for us to sample. The mozzarella (or, as they corrected me, "mutz-er-ella") was squishy, like bubble gum, with a subtle briny tang. "For mozzarella, there's nowhere better," enthused Valastro. "This is the best."

At Piccolo's, it was more of the same: double-parking and an exuberant entrance, followed by a "How ya doin'?," this time directed at owner Patty Spaccavento, who also received a bearhug and a cheek kiss. The one-room restaurant is known for its cheesesteak sandwiches and Ol' Blue Eyes playlist. Spaccavento "ain't going to make you Buffalo wings," said Valastro. "You come in and it's always the same. And Frank is always playing."

Across the long orange counter, a wall displayed dozens of photos of patrons, famous or not. One face was missing from the crowd.

"Am I on the wall?" asked Valastro.

"No," replied Spaccavento, "you're never here when we pull out the camera." (Among those who were: singer Richie Havens, actor Danny Aiello and a strong showing of locals.)

While Valastro waited for his sandwich (no cheese) and fries, Spaccavento, the son of Italian immigrants who started the eatery as a clam bar in 1955, reminisced about the youngster who used to come here with his dad, ordering the same meal, settling in at the same counter. "I knew his father," he said. "They used to come in when Buddy was 3 or 4 and was old enough to sit at the counter."

Today, Valastro downed his meal while standing up. He cleaned his plate, the way his father probably told him to do when he was a growing boy.

* * *

Back at the bakery, Valastro parked in the snowy alley and entered through the kitchen door, away from the crowds. The store attracts about 3,000 to 4,000 people a week, and a Cake Boss sighting can unleash a ruckus. Few see the operations beyond the glass cases crammed with creamy and crispy, chocolate and vanilla, cookie and caky treats. Fans of the show, however, have an idea of the goings-on beyond viewing range: the giant mixers spinning a tornado of frosting, the elves sculpting modeling chocolate into fanciful characters, the relatives hollering at each other. "Our family's nuts," said Faugno, as his wife, Valastro's sister Grace, shouted questions about a missing order over the intercom.

Many patrons visit the shop with two missions: to glimpse Valastro or any of the cast, and to take away a bag of baked goods. After tending to some behind-the-scenes business, Valastro entered the store stage left. Visitors gasped; the order-taking ceased. Waving and smiling, he walked the length of the counter before joining the scrum. Amid the crowd, Trisha Dowd of Middletown, N.J., stood with her family, hoping to fulfill her daughter's Christmas-birthday wish. "It was her dream to come here to the bakery," Dowd said of 8-year-old Kaitlin, who was wearing a T-shirt covered in "Cake Boss" family-member autographs. "We came twice before and the line was too long." Little Kaitlin, your wish has been granted.

Leanne Glynn missed the live Cake Boss Show by a half-hour, but she compensated with an order of crumb cake, cupcakes and cannoli. "Everyone thought we were nuts to drive four hours for a picture," said the Bostonian, who road-tripped with her sister and three small children. "We'll come back tomorrow."

Rest assured, even those who don't see Valastro in person still leave the bakery with a small slice of Hoboken.

"I want people to get a taste of Hoboken all over America," said the boss.

In the spirit of this Jersey town and its Cake Boss, I suggest trying a tough yet sweet Italian cookie.

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