It is impossible not to feel nostalgic when visiting De Robertis, an Italian pasticceria and cafe in Manhattan’s East Village that has been serving coffee, cannoli, and various other powdered sugar-dusted pastries for 114 years.
Its charming, storied interior—hand-cut mosaic wall tiles and pressed-tin ceiling; a half-dollar from 1821 embedded in the patterned floor tiles—has remained untouched since the shop opened. Patrons eat their cannoli slowly and deliberately, dabbing the powdered sugar on their plates with licked fingers.
But they are relishing their pastries with heavy hearts this week, as De Robertis prepares to close its doors for good tomorrow. And with that news, nostalgia-prone New Yorkers are bemoaning the loss of yet another downtown institution that will surely be replaced by a Starbucks or a Duane Reade.
John De Robertis, whose grandfather Paolo de Robertis opened the shop, cited the economy, age, and health concerns in the family’s decision to sell the building for a reported $12 million.
“When people came in here, they knew the people working behind the counter. We felt a closeness,” De Robertis told Bedford + Bowery, an online publication run by New York magazine and NYU. (De Robertis declined to speak with the Daily Beast.) “That’s what I’m going to miss the most. You go into any of these chain coffee shops, you’re just a person and they’re robots...Here, I think people felt at home.”
Some 20 people are there when I visit, including a father with his young son, pointing to photographs of movie stars on the walls. (Spike Lee shot part of Malcolm X in the shop, which also makes a cameo in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, and the first episode of Sex and the City.)
It is one of those city relics New Yorkers gush about without ever darkening its door—or only go when they learn it’s shutting down. “I’ve passed this place a thousand times but never came in,” says Ranesh, who grew up in Staten Island and has lived in Park Slope for 20 years. “You take it for granted and think it will always be here.”
Bill Poznanski, who has lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the neighborhood since 1985 (his blue Cadillac is also something of East Village legend), says there are few authentic Italian pastry shops left in the city.
Around the corner from De Robertis is Veniero’s, which dates back to 1894 and bills itself as “America’s Oldest Pastry Shop,” but Poznanski says “there’s something about it that feels too pristine.” And as mom-and-pop businesses like De Robertis are pushed out by rapacious real estate conglomerates, Poznanski worries about the inevitable “disappearance or destruction of activity on the neighborhood and street level” in a city that is being hyper-gentrified and over-developed.
But gentrification isn’t all bad. New Yorkers may long for the grittier, seedier, more “authentic” East Village that was home to Patti Smith and CBGB’s, but they are less likely to be stabbed while walking through Tompkins Square Park today than in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, before Rudy Giuliani’s clean-up of the junkie-den neighborhood.
Indeed, it was crime that ultimately drove Virge Randall and her Italian, working-class family—all De Robertis devotees—out of the East Village, where they had lived since the ‘40s.
“It devolved from a very poor neighborhood to a very lawless one,” says Randall, who is refreshingly unsentimental. “We moved in 1976 after my father was knifed in the hallway of our building. That was standard operating procedure in the neighborhood at the time. My brothers were all stabbed, too. My father told people we were moving because he was tired of people stealing his car battery.”
Randall isn’t immune to nostalgia (she blogs for New York Natives under the tagline “Don't Get Me Started”); she just masks it with hard-nosed pragmatism. “All those memories and that piece of New York civic culture is just going to go with the building’s sale, because we need another CVS,” she says sarcastically. “The New York that draws people here doesn’t come out of a can. It comes from cultural heritage and civic pride embodied in its citizens but also in the city’s buildings.”
This is certainly true, though the herds of twentysomethings moving to New York after college, settling en masse in hip neighborhoods like Bushwick and Williamsburg, are more infatuated with New York as an artsy and worldly urban ideal than with the city’s old working-class enclaves.
They like artisanal coffee shops and restaurants with kale salads on the menu, but they don’t discriminate one from another. (If De Robertis does not become another frozen yogurt chain, it will be another “trendy” restaurant with white-tiled walls, filament light bulbs, and a mediocre—if familiar—menu.)
A few years later, these gentrifiers will lament gentrification in the recent past or imminent future, like the hipsters in Williamsburg whining that their favorite “old” music venue is being converted into Vice Media offices.
They care much more about the new wave of younger people—the bankers who are moving there because it’s “cool” —and rent hikes than they do about the Dominican population being pushed out of South Williamsburg.
Even Poznanski, who hates to see East Village relics like De Robertis go, recognizes that everyone—himself included—“plays a role in the gentrification process.”
“It’s almost a cliché: people move out of a neighborhood, it becomes run down, and then the artists and people living on the fringe move in, and then it’s designated as a cool place,” he says. “Then people with money come in. But some of these artists forget that there was a generation that preceded them.”
But there is always a preceding generation, or an idealized time in our personal histories. And it’s hard to resist indulging our instinct for nostalgia—to fantasize about “the good old days”, even when the good old days were not as good as our selective memories lead us to believe.
So while mourning the closing of De Robertis, consider that we might someday mourn the bankruptcy of whatever chain replaces it.
And think of the De Robertis family enjoying their hard-earned retirement.