A day in the life of a pastry chef
By Mary Beth DeCecco
I am not ashamed to admit that I have a sweet tooth. So, to have the opportunity to spend a day with a pastry chef was quite a treat (every pun intended). Most people probably don’t stop to think about how much hard work goes into creating a wedding cake—the most photographed object at a wedding reception, aside from the bride and groom, of course.
Bobby Mallozzi, 29, owner/pastry chef of Villa Italia Pasticceria in Schenectady, said it takes up to two hours to decorate a cake. And it only takes a mere eight minutes for it to be cut and served.
When I was younger, I remember going to the bakery with my brothers on Sunday mornings and being hit with that delicious scent when I walked through the door…a combination of cakes, cookies and breads all rolled into one. For me, it was pure heaven. Since I associate certain scents with memories, entering a bakery always brings me back to my youth.
Walking into Villa Italia at 6:20am on a Friday, I wasn’t knocked over by that wonderful bakery aroma. “Hmmm,” I wondered to myself, and then quickly realized that since I was there so early, the goodies weren’t quite yet ready. The display cases were empty, but Bobby assured me the pastries and cookies were baking in the ovens.
When I arrived at 3028 Hamburg Street, Bobby had already been there an hour and a half. His day typically begins around 5am, sometimes earlier depending on the number of cake orders. He starts out by reviewing the cake order sheets and begins making whipped cream and butter cream simultaneously. When Tricia, the wedding coordinator arrives, he talks with her about any special designs he should know about and coordinates the delivery schedule.
We got right down to business. On tap for the day were three wedding cakes and dozens of other cakes for various occasions.
We headed to the back of the bakery where the production takes place. First up was a four-tiered stacked wedding cake made from rolled fondan—a sugar dough that is run through a press to flatten it out. The texture reminded me of gum, and when I tried a small piece I was surprised how sweet it was (even by my standards). The cake was for a wedding that night and was anything but your traditional white cake—this one was pink with brown accents. I watched as Bobby covered each layer of cake with the fondant, trimming and tucking so the edges weren’t visible.
By 7am the place started to come alive as the workers started coming in one by one. I quickly realized what a jokester this pastry chef was as he introduced me as someone different each time. “This is Mary Beth, she’s with the Health Department,” he said, followed another time by “The Department of Labor,” “Workman’s Compensation,” “State Auditor.” I could tell a fun day was in store for me.
An industry secret I learned is that a stacked wedding cake has interlocking plastic dowels that run through the layers to secure them together.
“I’ve seen cakes fall over that didn’t have these,” said Bobby as he inserted them into the cake.
Once the cake was secure, we moved to another table where the decorating took place. Working from a black and white photo the bride-to-be provided, Bobby’s innate artistic ability emerged. He drew swirly designs on each tier using a small paintbrush dipped in brown food coloring. I watched as he wrote a beautiful monogram in perfect calligraphy on the second to last tier. The last step was adding the small chocolate shaped leaves to the cake with some water and a brush.
“When the water hits the fondant it’s like a glue,” Bobby said, when I inquired if any of them might fall off.
As he placed the leaves on, a beautiful and unique cake began to materialize, and many others in the bakery commented on it. I was certain the bride and groom would not be disappointed.
One down, two more to go
In between wedding cakes, Bobby decorated a cake for a 21st birthday. The night before he cast molds of two Corona Beer bottles out of pastillage (similar to rolled fondant). While I was there, he placed them on the cake, airbrushed them so they appeared as if they were full of beer and put on Corona labels that he made out of edible rice paper. The cake message said it all: “Finally Legal.”
To help with the many weekend cake orders, Bobby’s sister, Christine Mallozzi-Chariavalle comes in every Friday and Saturday to decorate cakes. Though she told me how artistic her brother was, I saw that she, too, possessed the same talent. She took cakes frosted in whipped topping and made them almost too pretty to eat with pastel colored flowers and other decorations. She also writes in the same perfect calligraphy as Bobby.
Shortly after Christine arrived, we enjoyed a short break, where I was able to sample some of their pastries. I’ve always been a simple eater, so all I wanted was a mini Linzer Tart, but I was encouraged to choose something a little more elaborate. I picked a mini tart with fresh fruit—strawberries, kiwi, mandarin orange and blackberry. At 9am, I figured the healthy fruit could justify such a delicious treat. There was no justifying the “mousse mice,” however. Chocolate mousse covered in dark chocolate with an almond cookie bottom—it was absolutely scrumptious. I could’ve sat a lot longer, but in a few minutes it was back to work.
For the next couple of hours, I watched the brother and sister team, and Maria, who frosts the cakes, and observed the hustle and bustle surrounding me. Two young girls at another table were busy filling the cakes. In the back of the building, four men baked the cakes and other pastries while a few of the women filled the tart shells, cannoli and other pastries.
It seemed as if the enormous mixer was running all day, adding to the constant background noise, turning out bowl after bowl of whipped topping, the frosting used for the majority of the cakes. Every so often a worker would walk by pushing baking trays full of just-out-of-the-oven pastries, leaving a wonderful aroma in the air.
I think I was more concerned with the dozens of cakes in line waiting to be frosted then anyone else there. But working in an assembly line style, Maria, Bobby and Christine diligently turned out cake after cake—for birthdays, retirements, baptisms and a few that simply read “Congratulations.”
The next wedding cake was “The Classic” design—five tiers with the top two stacked, followed by “Simply Elegant,” a three-tier stacked cake with a scroll and pearl design. Unlike the first cake which was more involved, these two were simple in design, but elegant, with whipped topping frosting and designs in white—all done using a pastry bag.
Many times, the cakes are finished off at the banquet hall by the florist or wedding coordinator who adds fresh flowers or a cake topper.
“We produce, on average, about 20-25 wedding cakes in a week and about 150 other cakes on top of that,” said Bobby. “Last year we decorated over 640 wedding cakes, which was up 15 percent from the year before.”
Villa Italia employs 37 workers who help smoothly run the operation. “What has made our business successful over the years is the dedication and care that each of our employees contributes.”
Typical work hours are 7am-3pm, but during summer, their busiest season for wedding cakes, the workers sometimes come in at 4am or 5am. The bakery’s business hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 7:30am-6pm and Sunday from 8am-2pm.
“In winter, I’m here dark to dark,” said Bobby, who puts in at least 70 hours a week.
Considering he is the sole full-time person who decorates wedding cakes, you would think his stress level would be high, but it’s not. “If you’re confident in what you’re doing and you have a good grasp on what needs to be done, there is no need for stress,” he said.
The history of the bakery dates back 40 years ago when Bobby’s father, Joseph, immigrated to the United States from the small town of Minturno, Italy, where his parents owned a bakery. In 1965 he purchased Villa Italia, which had been operating as a deli and pizzeria. Slowly, he began introducing pastries and cakes and eventually eliminated the deli products. Together with his wife Elena, they ran the bakery while raising three children.
In 1983, Joseph decided to try something new, in addition to the bakery, and with a partner opened DiBella’s Restaurant in Schenectady.
“My father recognized the similarities between both businesses,” said Bobby.
In 1991 Joseph took the business over entirely and renamed it Mallozzi’s Restaurant and Banquet House. Today, his son John runs it, while Christine heads up Mallozzi’s Belvedere Hotel, which opened in May of 2003 and is located on the same property. It seemed like a natural step for Bobby, the youngest, to follow in his siblings’ footsteps, but it wasn’t his original plan.
“My father thought I would be the least likely to be involved.”
But, as with many who are born into successful family businesses, he found himself working full-time at the bakery after graduating high school. Two years later his father turned the business entirely over to him. Bobby acknowledges the many “old world European bakers” of Hungarian, German and Italian origins that he was lucky enough to work with.
“From them I learned the basics,” he said. “The creative skills I use to decorate wedding cakes are things that I taught myself through the years.”
When the bakery first opened there were only two flavors of wedding cakes available—strawberry and rum. Today, due to changing demands of customers, over 15 different types are available including chocolate mocha, pina colada and milk chocolate mousse.
“Our priority is to make a quality cake,” said Bobby, a self-described perfectionist who takes pride in everything he does.
Villa Italia provides wedding cakes for many local banquet halls in the area including: Hall of Springs, Italian American Community Center, Glen Sanders Mansion, Franklin Plaza, Appel Inn, The Desmond, Saratoga National Golf Club, Wolfert’s Roost Country Club, Gideon Putnam Hotel, Turning Stone Casino and The Georgian Hotel. They have also delivered cakes and other pastries for events as far as Syracuse.
With the launching of a mail order business in 2000, Villa Italia also serves customers from all over the country, including Hawaii.
Bobby proudly boasts that there is no other bakery like his in the area. “We buy all the best ingredients,” he said, explaining that their rum and extracts are imported from Italy and their chocolate comes from Belgium.
In 1994, Villa Italia received national recognition after being named Retail Bakery of the Year by Bakery Production & Marketing Magazine.
Around 12:30pm, with my stomach growling, we finally broke for lunch—Bobby invited me to dine with his family at their restaurant. (I should note at this time that I still haven’t tried my hand at cake decorating, but have watched intently all morning). The big joke centered on the many artichokes that were on the table—stuffed, steamed and grilled (it kind of reminded me of Forrest Gump and the shrimp). It’s one of the few vegetables I don’t eat, but I enjoyed my salad and pasta, happy to be sitting and eating. For the first time ever, I had a cup of espresso, which is a very strong black coffee. I come from a traditional Italian family (on my father’s side) where my father and grandparents would drink espresso with a drop or two of anisette or sambuca, but I’m not a coffee drinker so I’ve never tried it. However, I needed a pick-me-up, and quick. Three sugars in the demi tasse cup and it was sweet enough for me to drink without wincing.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent standing and watching Bobby work. Since I sit in front of a computer eight-and-a-half hours a day, I thought being on my feet would be welcoming. That might have been true had I worn the right shoes, however, heels were not the wisest choice for this day in the life subject.
Finally, Bobby said the words that delighted me: “Should we let Mary Beth try to frost a cake?” I was so psyched! Maria started to give me a lesson on how to hold the pastry bag, but I insisted that I knew how. Afterall, I had been watching them for the past six hours.
Well, as easy as it looks, I quickly learned that it’s not. I had frosting on my hands, my shirt and my pants by the time I got done wrestling with the awkward pastry bag. What should’ve taken a mere five minutes to frost, took me about 20 minutes. But, I was a proud student, eager for positive feedback.
“There are crumbs in the frosting. You have to scrape it all off and start over,” Bobby said.
So, I tried again, this time just frosting the top, at Maria’s advice. She showed me how to spin the cake and hold the spatula at a certain level so the frosting would spread easily. Out of pity, she frosted the sides for me, while I started on another cake top. When I completed that, she asked me if I wanted to do the border decoration. I did! But, first she wanted to test my skills on a piece of wax paper. After seeing my work, she quickly retracted her offer. While the three of them finished up the remaining cakes, I had fun teaching myself the art of making borders.
End of a legacy, beginning of another
This fall, after being in the same location since 1965, Villa Italia will relocate to 226 Broadway in downtown Schenectady and unveil a new look.
The new bakery will carry the same line of cookies, cakes and pastries, but will also offer sandwiches, gelato, a frozen dessert line and a coffee bar. There will also be a lounge so patrons can sit and enjoy the atmosphere. The bakery will increase in size from 5,000 square feet to 7,000 square feet.
“We wanted to join the rebirth of downtown Schenectady,” said Bobby, who is eagerly anticipating the move.
Moving an established business from a well-known suburban spot to a city location might deter a few customers from following, but he isn’t worried. About 85 percent of his current customers come in to pick up orders.
“That’s the part of business that won’t be affected. We’ve become a destination location to get a specific product.”
He expects the new bakery to be much busier, due to the foot traffic of the hundreds of state workers nearby. “We’ll definitely get more exposure.”
The new bakery will also have an authentic Italian feel to it. It’s currently being built in Italy by a company that has built pasty shops in Asia and Europe. This summer the store will be shipped over in sections and reconstructed on site.
“It’s the first pastry shop this company will be building in the United States,” said Bobby, who described the new design as a combination of retro and contemporary with an art deco feel to it.
Around 3pm, with most of the cakes completed, I was finally able to sit down and talk with Bobby. One thing that was evident is how proud he is of his family and their success.
“We’re passionate about everything we do in life.”
He praised his father for understanding the need to reinvest in the business over the years, whether purchasing new equipment to help automate the bakery or simply changing its appearance for an updated look.
“That is what has kept the bakery always interesting—for me, our employees and our customers,” he said.
As far as remaining in the bakery business, Bobby said he would do it as long as it is fun and interesting. “It’s not for everyone,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and energy.”
I didn’t leave the bakery until after 6pm. It was by far the longest workday I had in quite some time. Three things I learned that day: I should forego any thoughts of decorating cakes. I should’ve worn sneakers. The bakery business is hard work, but the rewards are plentiful. Read on to learn more.
Q: What is the most popular cake flavor and filling/frosting flavors? “Our Italian Rum cake, frosted in whipped cream, is still the most popular with adults, but younger kids tend to enjoy the sweeter cakes, like chocolate devil’s food cake or marble with frosting icing.”
Q: What is the most unusual request you’ve ever gotten? “I once did a wedding cake that had a wilderness theme with deer and trees on the cake.”
Q: What is the biggest cake you’ve ever decorated? “A 10-tiered cake.”
Q: What are the popular trends in wedding cakes these days? “Stacked cakes, colored frostings, chocolate icing, fresh fruit and groom’s cakes. Different shapes like square, oval, or hexagon are also popular.”
Q: Is there a particular design you prefer doing on a cake? “I don’t have a particular design I prefer, but I like it when the bride allows me to have creative control.”
Q: What would you be doing if you weren’t a pastry chef? “I would probably be involved with something in the arts.”
Q: Being around sweets all the time, do you get sick of them, or do you have a sweet tooth? “I’ll never get sick of sweets. In fact, I’m constantly sampling so I know if the product needs to be improved.”
Q: What is your favorite pastry and favorite kind of cake? “My favorite pastry is a hot from the oven Sfogliatelle. My favorite cake changes with the season. Right now, I’d have to say yellow cake with whipped cream and strawberries.”
Q: What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a pastry chef? “It’s good to have on-the-job experience so you can learn the business inside out. It’s also important to like what you’re making. If you don’t enjoy sweets, you might not be a good pastry chef.”
Q: What is the most popular seller? “Our cannoli. The week of Christmas, we fill about 20,000.”
Q: What do you do at the bakery when it’s off-season and you’re not that busy with wedding cakes? “I work in production and make pastries.”
Q: I have heard that some wedding cakes are “dummy cakes” and the slices served come from a sheet cake. Is that true? “I have heard some bakeries do that, but not in our area.”
Q: Do you ever think of opening up multiple locations? “I don’t really want to expand. We have a unique product that people travel for. No one offers what we have.”
Q: What is the average cost of a cake? “Between $3-$5 per serving.”
Q: Do brides usually pick from one of the 24 varieties of cake designs you offer, or do they come in with an idea of their own? “Most of the time, one of our designs will incorporate some of the same characteristics that her idea may have had.”
Q: Do you think you’ll be decorating your own wedding cake someday? “Of course!”
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