DeRobertis Neon Sign
This week, I walked by to find the neon sign is gone.
I don’t know where it went or when. I don’t know if it will miraculously return. I only know the building looks blank and sanitary, with nothing to catch the eye.
What follows is my account of the pastry shop‘s last days, from my book “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul.”
One day in 2007, I sat down to chat with Annie DeRobertis, who first went to work for her grandfather at 11 years old, folding cake boxes and filling cannoli. I met her in the café on a quiet Friday afternoon. She was reading about corrupt city politics in the Post and wondering out loud if she should go back to Bari, her grandfather’s hometown. She wore her iron-gray hair short, with lavender eye shadow that matched her top. We talked about the neighborhood of her childhood, when every street was filled with Jewish and Italian businesses. And we talked about the newest people of the East Village.
Annie shook her head as she described impatient young customers who whined about waiting in line, ignored her help as they talked on cell phones, and then wanted service “right away, right away, right away.” But worst of all, she said, were the Starbucks people.
“People come in and tell me I don’t know how to make cappuccino,” she said, incredulous. She’d been making cappuccino for 50 years. “They tell me, ‘Starbucks makes it this way.’ I tell them, ‘I’m here before Starbucks.’ They want flavors. I tell them, ‘I got flavors. You want a flavor? I’ll put it in.’ Put it in? They look at me,” with a look of disbelief. “Do these people really think the coffee bean grows in flavors? Like it comes in hazelnut and mint? These are people with college educations. But they want Starbucks. So I tell them, very nicely I say, ‘So go to Starbucks.’”
At the end of 2012, Starbucks planted itself just two blocks away from DeRobertis on First Avenue, taking the space of what had been Mee Noodle, a Chinese restaurant frequented by Allen Ginsberg, who always ordered the steamed flounder in ginger sauce. Just nine months later, the DeRobertis family put their building up for sale. After 110 years of serving crisp cannoli and perfect cappuccinos, providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere, they announced they would be shuttering. Customers flocked to say goodbye. When I talked to third-generation co-owner, and Annie’s brother, John DeRobertis, he shook his head mournfully and said, “Where was everybody for the last ten years? Maybe we didn’t have to do this.”
Let me hold this moment, my final visit, in present tense. I am sitting inside DeRobertis on the day before the last day in December 2014. It is morning and the café is quietly busy. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. John and his son, also John, are prepping for the day, wrapping black-and-white cookies, folding cake boxes, answering the phone that keeps ringing. “Tomorrow we’re closing. Tomorrow afternoon!” Over the speakers, 106.7 Light FM is playing Christmas carols. Sinatra sings “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” A couple of old guys, the last of the diehard regulars, are talking about hunting. “I still got the two rifles,” says one. “They haven’t been fired in 40 years, but I still got ‘em. And the thing is, I never shot nuttin’. I tried shootin’ deer, but I couldn’t. They looked too nice.”
A hale and hearty fellow bursts into the shop, announcing himself as Murray the Syrup Man. For years he’s kept DeRobertis stocked with Torani flavors—almond, vanilla, hazelnut. He bellows, “I gotta give the whole family a hug goodbye! God almighty!” They hug him, one by one, and then out he goes, saying, “Good luck to your family. You’ve been a great tribute to New York City. I’m not kiddin’ ‘bout that.”
One of the old guys says to his pals, “Everybody’s talking about what’s happening to New York. They all got the same feeling that the city has changed. And not for the better.”
The baker comes up from the basement with trays in his hands. Up comes the last batch of black-and-white cookies. “No mas!” says the baker. Up comes the last batch of sfogliatelle. “Finito!” says the baker. Up comes the last batch of pignoli cookies. “Last one!” he says, waving his hands like an umpire calling safe. A lone European tourist asks how many pignoli cookies in a batch. John the junior tells her, “One-thousand three-hundred and fifty-six,” with a grin that says he’s pulling her leg. She marvels at the large number, repeating it softly to herself as she exits, “One-thousand three-hundred and fifty-six. One-thousand three-hundred and fifty-six,” committing it to heart.
Above the cash register, along the Wall of Fame, the faces of Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese look on. Mike Tyson makes a fist. In the flesh, actor Michael Badalucco, who played David Berkowitz in Summer of Sam and about a million gangster types for TV and movies, walks in and calls out, “I want the last pignoli cookie!” He and the senior John talk about where you can still get real Sicilian food in the city. “Joe of Avenue U,” Badalucco says. “The best. That’s my place. The best, the best! Listen to me. You take the F train, and stay on the back of the train, all the way to Avenue U. They cook with spleen! Everything fresh. Forget it.”
I ask John how the new Starbucks on Thirteenth Street affected his business. He tells me, “One night, there was just one person in here. I left work and I was walking past that Starbucks. I looked inside. The place was packed. And I thought, well, this is what people want now.” He shakes his head. “What can you do? Starbucks took a bite out of us.”
A bite here, a bite there, and soon the entire city is devoured. Death by a thousand bites.