For a family that spends the year purveying pleasure, plentiful pounds and memorable poundcake, the Thanksgiving tradition of letting Grandma do the cooking is a sweet treat indeed.
The labor of 79-year-old Lillian Barrazotto gives the rest of the clan a break from its usual weekday routine, which begins sometime between 4 and 6 a.m. at Clement's Pastry Shop and Caterers, 1338 G St. NW.
At Clement's, a family business and a Washington institution for more than 50 years, the staff includes Lillian's son Richard, his wife Mary Joe, and his sons Richard Jr., Matt and John.
"We have been fortunate," said Lillian's husband Henry Barrazotto, who like his brother and partner Russ has retired from the store, where the current annual production exceeds half a million cakes.
Clement's offers a selection of puffy pies and pastries, trays of candies and cookies, cakes adorned with nuts and gooey glazes.
The warm, soft sweetness wafting inside gives a soothing respite from the motor fumes and construction dust pervading the downtown neighborhood, where formidable office buildings are rising as steadily as warm dough.
In the past few years, many small stores have been demolished to make way for modern buildings, and Richard Barrazotto said he is "constantly" asked by developers to sell the property. Though 70 percent of the shop's commerce comes from wholesale business, Barrazotto said that closing or moving the retail store "doesn't intrigue us." Two years ago, Clement's opened a small outlet in the new Hecht Co. store at 13th and G streets NW.
In the 1930s, when small shops filled downtown Washington, Theo and Clement Maggia, cousins of Henry and Russ Barrazotto, started a bakery on 13th Street, just around the corner from the existing shop.
"They worked real hard, particularly during World War II," as caterers for contractors supplying the military effort, Henry said. "At the end of the war, they were exhausted." Henry and Russ took over in 1947.
Richard started working as a boy, washing pots on Saturdays until he left for Villanova University in Pennsylvania. But he returned after graduation. "I had hoped that he'd be a dentist," Henry said, "but his heart was in the business."
Richard's sons also started young. "We'd come down here on a Saturday, and maybe fold boxes," Matt said. "Or count cookies," John added, with a roll of his eyes.
None of the sons figured so many family members would go into the business. Richard Jr., 28, returned from selling real estate in Florida; Matt, 25, left a banking career; John, 23, first worked for a food supplier. Mary, 27, a lawyer in Louisville, is the only holdout.
"We were never forced into this at all. They always said, 'Do something else, do something else,' " John said.
"You really learn to appreciate your own business and making your own decisions," Richard Jr. said.
Photos of luminaries looming over Clement's creations decorate the narrow store. Harry S Truman, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh look especially pleased.
But, according to the Barrazottos, the faces behind the scenes have created success for Clement's. Two of the 45 employes -- production manager Michel Bray and his wife Elise, the office manager -- came from France.
"We're blessed," Henry said. "I hired them literally when they got off the boat 26 years ago this weekend."
Jessie Washington in the packing department and Jackson Proctor in decorating have also stayed more than 20 years.
When asked about the distribution of labor among family members, Richard Sr. chuckled and looked expectantly at his sons, who explained that Matt oversees sales to stores and hotels. Richard Jr. and John joined the business in recent months and work at the store. Mary Joe oversees the office.
Everyone plays a part in deliveries. But Matt owns the distinction of averting disaster for seven brides on one memorable day. To avoid a careless driver, he slammed his brakes, saving the front of the van but leaving five irreparable globs of wedding cake behind him. Back at the shop, all hands pitched in to refill the order. On the next trip, another mishap destroyed two more cakes, but, the Barrazottos affirm, all wedding parties got their cakes.
An anniversary cake was successfully delivered last month to a Maryland couple, who responded with a thank-you note recalling their fondness for the rum cake Clement's baked for their wedding day -- Oct. 18, 1937.
According to Henry, the family still uses its original rum and poundcake recipes. But it regularly purges unpopular items from production lists and looks for trends.
"You put a fancy name on it, make it look a little gaudy, and people love it," John said, citing a surge in interest in concoctions flavored with Grand Marnier and Baileys Irish Cream. But, the Barrazottos agreed, nothing in the butter-sotted pages of modern bakery success stories rivals the phenomenal rise of the croissant.
Richard Sr. noted that the clientele also has shifted over the years, with less business from suburbs and more from offices.
"Couriers come in on bicycles for 16-by-24 inch cakes," said Elise Bray, adding that she had seen one recently try to balance the cake on his legs.
"He came back in and asked for some string," said Jeanette Sutton, a saleswoman. "I said, 'Oh Lord, what is he going to do?' "
Mary Joe Barrazotto described Sutton as "the sense of humor in the store. She has customers who come in just to see her."
Among many longtime Clement's customers is Fannie Bigio, whose family recently closed the Esther Shop after 52 years on F Street. The Bigios, she said, greeted "any special occasion" with a Clement's cake. Her daughter, Serene Farmer, gave the ultimate compliment: "The cake tasted good even if someone -- God forbid -- stole your icing."