Despite having some strong Italian ties on my Mother’s side of the family and a passion for Italian entrees, I have never gotten properly acquainted with Italian pastries. In all the walks I’ve taken through little Italy, I’ve never dropped by a bakery to pick up some cannoli (or even a singular cannolo), rainbow cookie, or sfogliatelle. While I intellectually appreciate them all, and happily have a connolo when handed to me, it’s just not a realm of the pastry world that my brain immediately goes to when craving sweet treats.
But with my time in NYC fleeting and my current location so perfectly situated near promising Italian baked goods, I knew it was time to get it while I can. So when considering where my pal Ndeye and I would meet to catch up with a sweet treat, I decided we ought to finally try Veniero’s, an Italian bakery and café in the East Village that has been around since 1894. This New York institution has been around longer than myself, my parents, or any of my grandparents. They must be doing something right.
We arrived at the storefront on the rainy weekday that had been so frequent in the city throughout October, primed for a comforting afternoon treat. We entered the first section of the store meant for takeout orders and saw a long stretch of pastry case filled with elegant and intricate pastries. Yet there was not the feel of an ultra-high class, fancy patisserie. While all pastries were beautifully clean and varying in their complexity, I got the feeling that this was an establishment of the neighborhood. They weren’t there to show off how skilled their pastry work was. They were there to give you good food and drink, and be a part of your life.
At the end of the take-out area we turned left and reached the café section and were promptly seated. The floor was filled with small tables and wooden chairs covered by a stained-glass ceiling of warm brown, red, gold, and green tones. It was a café taken out of another time and place. Where families sat together speaking Italian and sipping espresso. Where an older customer sat alone reading a newspaper and having a coffee with biscotti. It was a perfect combo of old New York and old country.
While the reasons Veniero’s had made the Master List were for their cheesecake and pignoli cookies (which I had never heard of before, and was still unsure what exactly they consisted of), we took a gander at their menus. I emphasize menus. In total, we had three menus spread out before us. Two of them were single sheets completely devoted to pastries and sweets, with images of their offerings covering both sides. The third was a full, expansive menu with beverages, and a seemingly endless list of food and again, pastries, but this time with descriptions. We stared at them all in a state of paralysis. There were so many directions in which we could go. The cheesecake section alone was overwhelming. New York cheesecake, NY style with strawberries, Italian cheesecake (what the difference between the two was I did not know), chocolate chip cheesecake. For many minutes we sat going back and forth, turning sheets over and back again in hopes that a decision would reveal itself to us.
And that was just food. There was also the beverage situation to decide on. Typically, when lounging in a café I will go with a standard cappuccino, or even a good ol’ black coffee. But as a still fairly fresh 21-year-old looking at a whole list of alcoholic coffee drinks (and having an unusual craving to sit down with an Irish coffee for the past couple of weeks) it seemed impossible to pass up. And while the standard Irish coffee was available, I instead went with a cappuccino suprema, marrying my classic order with a little Bailey’s and Kalua.
When our waiter came over to take our order we were still lost in bountiful offerings of the menu and decided it was best to ask for their advice. With many good recommendations and a knowledge of our personal tastes the resulting order consisted of: pignoli cookies (which come in a minimum plate of three), New York cheesecake topped with strawberries, tiramisu (I have never been a huge fan of the dish, much to the shock of many, but Ndeye is a tiramisu savant. And it is simply too classic to pass up), and the chocolate layer cake. Yes, it was still quite a collection, but that was just as narrowed down as we could get it.
All arrived and we each began with a sip of our coffees, both cappuccinos, only mine with the added goods. While I could clearly taste the booze, it wasn’t overwhelming. It was simply a well-made cappuccino with a little added something. A pleasant warmth on the cold afternoon. It scratched the itch I had been having for such a drink perfectly, and I definitely see myself returning on some future afternoon to get another while settling in with a book or some writing.
We sampled the food in order of increasing richness, and therefore began with the pignoli cookies. These small cookies were a perfect two bite size with their mounds covered in pine nuts. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, for I had never had pine nuts in a sweet context before. When biting in this was just one element of surprise I found, as the cookie gave way to a soft chew rather than the hard crunch I was expecting. While the outside was coated in pine nuts, the inside consisted of almond paste. The result was a soft cookie with a little crunch from the nut, and a sweet, nutty inside. I was shocked by just how won over I was by it. It was the perfect little treat to have with a coffee.
Next was the cheesecake. Somehow, I did not even notice before taking a bite that there was no crust at all. No graham cracker, no ginger snap, no sponge, no pie crust. Nothing. Normally, this would be a big mark off in my book. But truly, a crust was not missed, for the cheesecake was truly perfection. Cheesecake has never been one of my favorite desserts. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have cheesecake in a year. But I would order this cheesecake again in a heartbeat. I would return to Veniero’s to only have that cheesecake. Smooth, creamy, a mix of the typical cream cheese with what tasted like the addition of mascarpone made it not overly sweet, but not only a fork full of cheesiness. The server’s recommendation to get the strawberry topped one was right on as well, as the strawberries were just ripe enough and gave a great bright fruitiness that rounded it out nicely. It wasn’t doing anything fancy in the filling; no citrus flavors, no additional spices were sensed. It was simply the very picture of what cheesecake should be. Crust be damned!
While the tiramisu was mostly for Ndeye, we did take a bite together, seeing if perhaps this tiramisu would change me. A twist was apparent again in this one, as it was not made with the typical lady fingers, but thin layers of sponge. Each alternating layer of sponge and mouse was clean and even, and the fork went through and pulled away with just a little resistance. It certainly did not put me off like most tiramisu does, and I actually found it fairly enjoyable. But still, it just did not hit me in that special way other pastries do, I tried perhaps one other bite to double check my thoughts, then left the rest to Ndeye who deemed it “different but good”.
Lastly, there was the cake. While I had really tried my best to stray from my typical order of chocolate cake, the waiter recommended it with such glowing reviews, and it looked so good, it just seemed foolish to not try out a favorite. And it was as stunning and elegant as it had seemed on the menu. Two solid and moist layers of chocolate cake lay with a light chocolate buttercream frosting in the middle and coating the outside. But it was really put over the top by the chocolate ganache coating the glistened, totally smooth, and a line of chopped nuts circling the bottom third. I don’t always love things like nuts or sprinkles pressed onto the outer frosting of cake, but these nuts added just a little bit of a pleasant crunch amidst a rich, dark chocolaty bite of cake and frosting that Blew. Me. Away! It is hard for me to say more than that is CAKE. THAT? Is CAKE. That’s a cake you have at your wedding. It’s a different kind of wonderful from your birthday cake, or a slice of cake on a Friday afternoon. Those slices are great, indulgent, soul-filling for sure. But this cake is a different thing entirely. Want to feel a little fancy? Go to Veniero’s, get a coffee beverage of your choosing and have this cake.
With all things sampled, we bounced from dish to dish as we chatted, with numerous pauses for expressing just how taken we were each item. While we left absolutely stuffed and sugared-out, there were no regrets, for the idea of leaving anything out and remaining unaware of its goodness seemed just impossible. While Veniero’s convinced me of all the wonderful possibilities to be found at other Italian bakeries in NYC, they’ve done a pretty good job in convincing me to keep returning to them whenever I get the chance. And for your own sake, I hope you do too.