It was another Saturday in the Strip. La Prima and Il Piccolo Forno were as full as always. Actually, they were even more full than usual, especially for a weekend in Janurary. There was coffee coming out of the cafe. There were baked goods and other food in the bakery. People milled around outside. People shuffled in and out of the doors. People enjoyed each other’s company in the presence of the best combination of coffee and baked goods that the city has to offer. But this Saturday was different. The pastry wasn’t right. The pastry wasn’t right because Antonio passed away last week. The pastry will never be right again.
I first experienced the magic combination of La Prima espresso and Antonio’s pastry in the U.S. Steel building. This was in 1994 when I had my first job Downtown. La Prima had set up a stand in one of the lobby areas of the building. I recall that it was next to a sprawling coffee stand that took up most of the rest of the lobby, complete with a service counter, tables, and so on. The stand seemed overmatched, but it had two things that the other place didn’t:
The mele are hard to describe. They are substantial, yet not heavy. They are covered in a sugary syrup, but they are not too sweet. The pastry has the perfect combination of a flakey outside and a chewy inside. The only person on earth that I know of who doesn’t love them is my wife. I never figured that out. But life has to have some mysteries.
The cart stayed up in the lobby of the tower for a while, but eventually it was gone, unable to compete on a volume basis with its neighbor, who could sell metric tons of soupy brown water to the ignorant bankers and lawyers until the end of the world.
Later, I found out that La Prima had a retail location in the Strip and that Antonio and his wife had set up shop next door. We started going on Saturdays, and the occasional weekday morning. Initially, I would get coffee and Karen and I would share some combination of the whatever was available. There were mele, but there was also the temptation of the muffins (chocolate chip!), the sfogliatelle, the cream puffs, the peach cakes, the olive bread, the fritatta, the tortas, the cookies, twists, and the pizza.
The pizza deserves special mention. My single greatest food dilemma at Il Piccolo Forno in the morning is pizza or mele. The mele are the perfect sweet pastry to go with your coffee. The pizza is simply the best pizza that there is on this earth. Sam said it at the memorial service on Saturday and Sam was right. The crust is thin with just the right combination of crunch and chew. The sauce is something you could eat by the spoonful by itself. The cheese never falls off. My personal favorite are the the plain, the pepperoni, the anchovy, and most of all, the green olives.
Over time, Saturday at Sam and Antonio’s place became a ritual so ingrained that missing it for more than a week or two became painful. We came to know the regulars who showed up at the place around the same time we did every week. My son does not recognize any baked muffin product that did not come out of Antonio’s oven as a correct and edible food item. He’s young but he learns fast. Pete and I probably ended up writing this humble web site together because we used to meet up in the Strip on Saturdays for a while a few years ago. In my own ignorant self-centeredness, I thought I was at least familiar with most of the people who went through that place in the mornings and on the weekends.
Now that Antonio is gone, I realize that I was wrong. I barely knew any of the people he served and befriended on a daily basis. The memorial service on Saturday showed this to me. There were hundreds of people there, all of whom cared about Antonio and his family enough to come out to the Strip on a rainy afternoon and stand in the chilly air to celebrate his life and everything he had given us. The best measure of the impact that this simple bakery and its owners have had on the city around them is the crowd that was at the memorial service on this Saturday afternoon.
I didn’t really know Antonio that well either. It is not in my nature to strike up that sort of personal relationship on a regular basis. It’s a regretful failing. I do know that he was kind enough to let me take pictures in their place for a student photography project that I was working on. He was even kind enough to tell me that the pictures were good. I know that he and Carla loved to play with my son, and they would even give us pizza for the right to do so. Both he and Carla have fed us extremely well at certain times when we desperately needed it. But I don’t have any great Antonio stories, not like the people at the service had.
My best story is actually about Carla. When I worked at my second startup downtown, we would sometimes take long lunches in the Strip because we were running on funny Internet Bubble VC money and we didn’t need to work. Il Piccolo Forno had recently started doing their pasta lunches and the special pasta that day was lasagne. They make this wonderful lasagne with ground beef and bechamel sauce. One of the guys we had with us, Joe, saw this on the menu and ordered it without thinking. Then, a minute later, he realized that he forgot to ask if it was vegetarian. He tried to get Carla’s attention a few times, but failed to do so before the food came out. The place was very busy, and Carla put the plate of food down and zipped off to get more. In one final desperate act, Joe flagged down Carla and asked if they had any vegetarian lasagne or if he could trade his dish for something else. He was about halfway through his question when Carla ran out of patience and just blurted out, “Lasagne has MEAT IN IT” and stormed back into the kitchen to finish the next set of orders. This sums up the style of the place. There are simple rules. You follow these simple rules and you get great food.
After the service, we went back to La Prima, where they were serving coffee and food. I doubt if I could have named a tenth of the people in the place. All of the regulars that I was familiar with were there. The old Italian guys, Craig Marcus, that kid who is always there with his mom, the various bakery helpers, and on and on. Even if the pastry wasn’t right, we could all sit there and remember all of those other Saturdays when the coffee was perfect, the mele and pizzas still warm and the tables and sidewalks full of people being enriched by this bounty.