Bensonhurst

Ciao, bella! The prettiest pastries this side of Palermo are sold on 18th Avenue

June 18, 2014 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The best pastries in Bensonhurst? Find them on 18th

Eye On Real Estate

A slice of Sicily lives on 18th Avenue – a pasticceria with a stand-up coffee bar and separate sections for pastry, gelato and bread, just like in the old country.

The cannoli are so fine, they’re served at Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club at Barclays Center.

“We’re all about the cannoli,” said Antonio Alaimo, 26 (also known as Anthony), a third-generation co-owner of Villabate Alba, the Bensonhurst bakery in question.

They’re the most popular product at the Sicilian-centric shop at 7001 18th Ave., which also sells a staggering 40 pounds per week of marzipan – almond-paste confections shaped and decorated to look uncannily like fruits and vegetables.

And around the time of the Santa Rosalia Feast, which is celebrated on 18th Avenue each summer, Villabate Alba bakers turn out eye-popping faux-seafood marzipan in enough different shapes to fill a seafood platter, including octopus, little sardine sandwiches, even lemon wedges for garnish.

The bakery also sells loads of wedding cakes to “old-school Italian families” and works with catering halls that don’t have pastry chefs, said Alaimo – who breaks into impeccable Italian the moment international visitors, or neighborhood old-timers, arrive to sip espresso and savor hand-made sfogliatelle.

“We don’t speak English at home,” explained Alaimo, who also speaks Sicilian dialect and uses a lot of “Itanglish” with his mother, Lina, whose job as bookkeeper he has taken on.

She doesn’t come into work much anymore – but Alaimo’s father, Emanuele, still puts in regular hours, doing a bit of baking and having lunch with the employees (there are 35 of them all told).

Emanuele launched Villabate in 1979 with his father Angelo. The two had left their Sicilian hometown of Villabate (that explains the first half of the pasticceria‘s name) after World War II. Before opening Villabate, they were bread bakers in other people’s Brooklyn bakeries.

The third generation of Alaimos now at work at Villabate consists of Antonio and his sister Angela and brother Emanuele Jr. (AKA Manny).

“I was the mistake,” Antonio said blithely. His siblings are in their 40s.

Brother-in-law Julio Peralta, born in Azogues, Ecuador, is the executive pastry chef.

“Over 18 years, he grew into the family. I consider him my brother,” Alaimo said.

Until a few years ago, Villabate was located at nearby 7117 18th Ave. As a kid, Alaimo went there after school and did his homework because he didn’t have a babysitter. (He and his family live in Dyker Heights.)

In 2004, the Alaimo family bought the Italian-American bakery Alba, and Emanuele and Lina bought the building that housed it, namely 7001 18th Ave. (That explains the second half of the pasticceria‘s name.) Bakery owner Salvatore Alba wanted to retire.

Lina and Emanuele paid $1.65 million for the building to short-term owner Luigi Di Rosa, who had bought it from Salvatore and Dorothy Alba for $1.5 million, city Finance Department records indicate.

Designers from Italy worked with the Alaimos’ American architect to get the renovation of the building just right. Alba’s bakery had been in operation there since 1932.

Villabate Alba opened in the spiffed-up building in 2008.

Operating in family-owned real estate is crucial to Villabate Alba’s longevity. The business needs to pay some rent – “it’s my parents’ pension,” Antonio Alaimo said – but the amount is reasonable.

Compared with the usual rents of $35 to $45 per square foot for 18th Avenue storefronts, Villabate Alba is saving money – which is a good thing.

“Overhead is a killer,” said Alaimo.

Ricotta is imported from Sicily because it makes the baked goods taste just right, but it costs a pretty penny. And the family doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for the goodies it sells – for instance, fancy cakes priced at $30 would go for $60 in Manhattan.

“We sell to a different demographic,” he said. “Ninety percent of our customers have bridge fees and tolls and gasoline to pay for – they live in Staten Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”

A couple times a year, Chinese investors inquire about buying 7001 18th Ave., he said. But the Alaimos aren’t selling.

Lina and Emanuele did make a sale to a Chinese investor – of their previous bakery location. An LLC with a partner named Mei Xian Lin bought 7117 18th Ave.  for $1.375 million in 2011, according to Finance Department records. The building purchaser is also the chairman of Tenzan Inc., the Japanese restaurant that now occupies the building, online records indicate.