Court Pastry Shop Draws a Crowd
The sweet, nutty smells are irresistible. Half a dozen varieties of authentic Italian Christmas cookies, in addition to classic Italian pastries, are painstakingly filled and intricately decorated to adorn the front window of Court Pastry Shop at 298 Court Street in Brooklyn.
The sweet, nutty smells are irresistible.
Half a dozen varieties of authentic Italian Christmas cookies, in addition to classic Italian pastries, are painstakingly filled and intricately decorated to adorn the front window of Court Pastry Shop at 298 Court Street in Brooklyn.
Cobble Hill may be newly gentrified and packed with chic, young Brooklynites, but these recipes have been handed down from centuries-old traditions and are still prerequisites for holidays for many Italian families.
“I love this shop, I just love it,” says Juliet Labozzetta, 66, who travels from Howel, N.J., to Court Pastry Shop when she gets the chance. Labozzetta is selecting cookies and pastries to fill the three large boxes. “I won’t buy cookies anywhere else. I lived in Cobble Hill until I was 19, and since I moved away, I haven’t found a pastry shop that does authentic Italian cookies as well.”
Over the years, Court Pastry’s cookies have won the kind of loyalty that inspires people to happily wait in line for 45 minutes on Christmas Eve for a taste of the sweet ricotta-filled “pastiera napoletana,” or Neapolitan grain pie, and to drive an hour from the suburbs for specialty cookies like the ring shaped fig- and nut-filled cuccidati, the chocolate-iced mustacciole or the colorfully frosted marzipan reales for $8.50 a pound. The cookies smell so good that it’s hard to leave the neighborhood without a taste — or a box full.
“I have to ship boxes of cookies to my brother. He lives in Florida!” Labozzetta says.
“You have no idea how happy it makes him to get those cookies. He says, ‘There is nothing else you could send me. You could send me a million dollars, and it wouldn’t make me happier.’”
Labozzetta’s family was a part of the Italian immigrant community that used to dominate Cobble Hill, she explains, and the cookies and pastries at Court Street Pastry are exactly like the ones found in Italian homes on every Sunday or holiday of the year.
“We still make traditional Neapolitan and Sicilian cookies at Christmastime,” says co-owner Gasper Zerilli, chopping an onion for his dinner’s tomato sauce in the pastry shop’s large kitchen. Zerilli’s father started the business in 1948, the same year Gasper was born, and Zerilli now runs the business with his brother, Vincent. “There aren’t too many Italian bakeries that still do this. I don’t know how many Italian bakeries are left.” The majority of the cookies Zerilli makes especially for the holiday season hail from Naples, though the cuccidati, which share the others’ nutty flavor, are a well-known Sicilian tradition.
Other Italian bakeries have closed as Cobble Hill’s population has changed, but Court Pastry Shop continues to flourish as decades-old customers are joined by newcomers to the neighborhood who have discovered the shop, along with tourists drawn by articles about Court Pastry’s massive lines and mass-appeal.
Briana Deseril, 15, who works in the front of the shop, recalls a young guy who came in on a recent weeknight to buy out most of the cookies she had left. “He said grew up in Brooklyn, and he had driven 3,000 miles from California for these cookies,” says Deseril, busily packing a heavy cake into a box. “He had driven straight up from Delaware and parked right out front to buy a dozen cannolis and about eight other pastries.”
“We really get a mixture of all ages here,” says Virginia Vargas, 16, who has worked in the shop for four months. “Little kids come in for sprinkle cookies and pink-and-green sandwich cookies.”
“People who move away come back to buy pastries here because they grow up with this stuff,” Zerilli says. “It used to be that families would come in every Sunday and order two dozen pastries — big pastries — for the family. The family would gather at someone’s house and be together for a big meal. It’s not the same anymore. People don’t live together. They eat at different times. But during the holidays, everyone comes around again.”
“I learned everything I know about baking here,” says Carlo Ocello, a baker and pastry chef at Court Pastry who began working at the shop when he was 13 years old. He eventually opened his own bakery, only to return to this booming kitchen four years ago. Four bakers assist the Zerilli brothers in the kitchen, and the retail staff — “the girls,” as Zerilli calls them — tend to customers and design cookie trays in the front of the store.
“Everything is time-consuming, but it’s a special thing, these cookies,” Zerilli says as he opens a large can of Nina peeled tomatoes for the sauce. Dinner has to be quick if he’s to finish the day’s work before the shop closes at 8:30 p.m. “I pretty much work 60 hours a week during the holidays, seven days a week this time of year.”
The output is impressive. The industrial refrigerators in the shop’s kitchen house trays of cookies ready to be filled and decorated. The finished cookies are displayed on shelves in the tiny bakery where there’s barely room for a half dozen customers at once.
“Christmas Eve we have a line out the door from about eight in the morning until seven at night,” Zerilli says.
“I stood in line to buy a great big grain pie on the day before Thanksgiving. It didn’t take too long — 20 to 30 minutes maybe.” says Patricia Power, who recently retired from a career in publishing and who has lived in Cobble Hill for 25 years. “I love their grain pie. When I need something good, this is where I come,”
As for Labozzetta, cannolis are her weakness.
“My family still jokes with me because at holiday meals, when we get the pastries, I have to have my cannoli before my meal,” she says. “I hope they never close that shop — not until after I die at least!”