When Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffe opened nearly 130 years ago on 11th Street in the East Village, it was a pool hall serving pastries to its patrons in a mainly Italian neighborhood. The founder was Sorrento native Antonio Veniero, who soon realized he ought to import bakers from Naples, and after he did the shop reached its current high level of pastry quality and garnered awards in Rome and Bologna.
These century-old certificates can still be seen on the walls of the cafe — a glittering room with a stamped tin ceiling just beyond the bakery showroom. The showroom’s sumptuous display runs to dozens of cakes, butter cookies, eight kinds of biscotti, ice creams, fruit tarts, and individual pastries, some originally made for religious festivals in southern Italy but here turned into everyday treats.
For decades the cafe has been a relaxing and inexpensive refuge for East Villagers, a room that may have served the city’s first espresso in its early days. (Veniero also established a roastery and a workshop that made sugar-preserved fruit.) Colorful translucent baffles in the ceiling and a flickering fireplace provide illumination, and by mid-evening, the bent-wood chairs have filled up with beatniks sporting berets, punks dressed in black, hippies in more colorful regalia, extended families with kids, dating college students, and elderly couples, who may have been coming here for a lifetime.
You can linger over coffee drinks, some with infusions of alcohol. The most popular is cafe corretto, a small bitter cup of espresso “corrected” with sweet Sambuca, a trio of coffee beans prettily displayed on the saucer. In summer, the selection of gelati swells to include well over a dozen, and other ice cream specialties include wedges of spumoni and orbs of chocolate-covered tartufo.
Yes, Frank Sinatra once bought bags of pastries here, as a signed photo attests, and so did Enrico Caruso, Joe DiMaggio, and Bruce Springsteen — who is a distant cousin of current owner Robert Zerilli, the fourth-generation great-nephew of the founder. And the operation that once made cannoli for pool sharks now produces over 150 pastries on a daily basis. Indeed, to the neophyte the selection is bewildering. So take your seat in the cafe, and Eater NY will tell you what to order.
While these Sicilian signature pastries are not filled to order, the cannolis here are fresh enough that the shells snap when you bite into them, and the ricotta filling, smooth as polished silk, arrives studded with chocolate chips and candied fruit.
Zuppa Inglese ($7.75)
No, this isn’t a soup, but a rum-soaked cake with layers of vanilla and chocolate custard, utterly delicious —and my choice of pastries at Veniero’s from when I lived in the East Village decades ago. It may have been inspired by the English trifle, and goes to show how Veniero’s has absorbed international and American influences since its inception. (For example, Veniero’s now makes a red velvet cake.)
Miniature pastries (three for $7)
The showroom’s display cases burst with miniature pastries. Some, like the chocolate eclair filled with vanilla custard and the baba rum, are smaller versions of regular-size pastries, but the majority are custard tartlets with fruit and nut toppings. They may also be assorted and arranged in a box for carryout, in which case they are sold by weight.
Italian cheesecake ($7.50)
This is not the cheesecake most often associated with New York City that is principally cream cheese (though Veniero’s also makes that), but it’s just as good: a pastry crust topped with a sweet ricotta filling, but not so sweet that you couldn’t eat it for breakfast — with a cappuccino, of course.
Mixed fruit tart ($7.50)
A fruit tart, which will satisfy eight or nine people, has long been a popular stand-in for birthday cake at parties, the fruit glistening on top with its sugar glaze. It is simply the best party pastry to be had in the East Village. You can also get a slice in the cafe, every bit as fresh and fruity.
Baba rum ($5.50)
More properly known as a baba au rhum, this pear-shaped sponge that goes by a French name arrives soaked in rum. It probably reflects the centuries-old French occupation of Sicily, though most French pastries that are part of the Sicilian canon obviously arrived at a later date (the creamy and crisp Napoleon served at Veniero’s, for example).
This is a festival pastry par excellence. It originated in Palermo and consists of a pastry shell, top and bottom, filled with ricotta dotted with candied orange peel. And the top is piously decorated with a cross, hence the name. It makes for a nice holiday breakfast.
The origin of this wildly popular Italian dessert is lost in the murk, but I tend to believe the story that it was invented for American tourists, who were disappointed that desserts don’t follow most Italian meals, in northern Italy in the 1960s. The version at Veniero’s is imagined as a coffee-soaked sheet cake, with coffee-flavored whipped cream. Taken with a double espresso, it constitutes enough caffeine to send you flying around the pressed-tin ceiling.