Vincent Zerilli at Court Street Pastry Shop. His dad developed the recipes in the 1920s.
November 2011 — It’s noon, the day before Thanksgiving. Gasper and Vincent Zerilli, Carlo Ocello and Carlo Jr. sit down for lunch at Court Pastry, a 52-year-old Carroll Gardens institution, one of the last remaining bakeries in Brooklyn specializing in Italian and Sicilian holiday pastries. Surrounded by industrial-sized electric mixers, they plunk a large bottle of red wine onto a pink marble table brought from Italy to this location, a huge slab of stone that travelled over on a boat in the 1890s, during the huge wave of Italian immigration to Brooklyn. Gasper is frying handmade rice balls stuffed with meatballs, cheese and green peas, and pours over them a tomato sauce he just whipped up. I won’t go in to how good these rice balls are.
It’s always Customer No. 38 at Court Street Pastry
The bakers are busy. Over the holidays, Gasper and his brother Vincent, who own the shop, and their employees will work seven days a week from 7 a.m. to late at night to mix and mold the Italian cookies, pies and pastries that are so hard to find today. People come from all over the tri-State area to Court Pastry to find such items as “Old bones,” a cookie featuring a hard sugar crunch that looks like a piece of bone, with a crisp wafer sticking out from it. Lines are out the door on Christmas Eve.
The shop was founded by the Zerilli’s Sicilian father, Salvatore, from whom all recipes and methods flow, but the sons also make Neapolitan and other Italian traditional treats.
Other specialties of the house include the Sicilian cuccidati, a ring-shaped, fig-and-nut filled cookie; honey balls, and grain pies baked daily.
Everything is made from scratch. It’s hard work.
Gasper Zerilli is always cooking
“I haven’t had a holiday off since I was 13,” Gasper says. “I don’t get to see my grandchildren around the holidays.”
The Zerilli brothers and Carlo Sr. have been working together for 40 years at the bakery, since they were kids.
For hours a day, they fling flour and spread butter and roll long sticky logs of dough on that old table, which came with the shop when Salvatore Zerelli bought it in 1948.
Gasper talks to me while he and Ocello Sr. roll a 7-foot-long Sfogliatelle dough, something Court Pastry is known for, a flaky pastry filled with a sweet ricotta mixture. The same dough is used to make the sinful Lobster Tail, featuring crunchy, buttery ribbons swirling around a Bavarian and French cream center. Gasper says the shop offers the same desserts it did 50 years ago.
“All these recipes are my father’s. He was working here from the 1920s,” Gasper says.
Gasper’s father worked at Court Pastry until he was 86 years old. It’s a different neighborhood now, so the shop doesn’t sell the same volume.
“A lot of Italian people left,” said Gasper, who himself left Carroll Gardens at the age of 25 for Staten Island, in 1973. His brother Vincent stayed here, on President between Hoyt and Smith, “the nicest block in the neighborhood,” Gasper says.
The trifecta: Lobster Roll, Cannoli, Sfogliatelle
“It’s more of a yuppie neighborhood now,” Gasper says. “Back then, we sold more biscuits. Italian people have biscuits in the morning. People changed their eating habits.”
Indeed, like the Esposito brothers, at G. Esposito & Son’s Jersey Pork Store on Court, whose business suffered when people started eating less meat, and women started working more instead of staying home to cook for large clans, well, the bakery business, too, has suffered.
I talk to Gasper about this. He tells me he’s related to George Esposito by marriage. And like George, Gasper says the modern eating and shopping habits are a thorn to his side.
Carlo Sr. and Jr., Gasper and Vincent Zerilli enjoy lunch
About 20 years ago, Court Pastry started selling “sugar free” cookies for diabetics.
“If I was diabetic, I’d still eat the real thing,” Gasper says. “People, they buy all the health food things, and pay triple the prices. I went into Union Market. They sell a pound of steak for $28. I don’t know how people buy those things.
“People they think they’ll live longer because they eat things they think are organic. I have my doubts. Everything in moderation; I like to eat the real thing, butter, not margarine. What good is living if you can’t eat anything? Why live a long time if you’re going to be a dead beat?”
Gasper says the city makes him use a non-hydrogenated shortening. “I can’t make good food with this stuff,” Gasper says. “In the winter, it turns into a solid block, like ice.”
Gasper tells me the story of his dad, who has quite the immigrant’s tale. Salvatore Zerilli was born on Henry Street in 1917. His parents had a daughter, 7, and had suffered the deaths of two babies before Salvatore came along. When he was 18-months old, his parents got the Spanish Influenza and died. He and his sister were sent back to Sicily to live with relatives. Salvatore lived with one grandmother; his sister, with another grandmother.
They rarely saw each other.
When Salvatore was 15, his family in Brooklyn sent for him, and he began to work at his uncle’s bakery on Columbia Street.
His sister was a firecracker, Gasper says. “She wrote a letter to Mussolini, and he granted her request to come back,” to Brooklyn, Gasper said. “She had a good way of writing.”
Salvatore bought Court Pastry in 1948, the year Gasper was born. Gasper remembers standing on a milk crate so he could reach the table to make cookies.
Kids of bakers don’t always want to be bakers. Gasper went to Poly Tech and St. Francis College, and was going to be a math teacher. He lasted nine days at the public school, teaching sixth grade. He went back to the bakery.
Will he stay in the business?
“I’m too old for this,” Gasper says.
And then, he stops his conversation to say something to Carlo Sr., who brings over a bucket of what seems like 100 cracked eggs. They pour them slowly into a mixer, and go back and forth about some tray of rising dough.
“I’m sorry, we have a lot of work to do to get ready for the holiday,” Gasper says, a big smile on his face.
To read more South Brooklyn Post features on our old-school treasures, check out:
Italian Social Club: Pride, History and War:
And Stuffing Salami at Espositos
Court Pastry Shop
298 Court St., at Degraw
Pastries are $1.75 to $2.50 apiece; cookies are $4.80 to $8.50 per pound. Cash only.
Mon to Sat, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Sundays, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.