245 East Main Street, El Cajon
The cookie monster’s calling. You know me and my sweet tooth. Having apple-strudel dreams again. ’Specially now, as night comes on, and you feel like a little reward for having gotten through the day. Trouble is, wandering down Main Street in El Cajon, there’s you and half a dozen other people, period. It’s like looking for a dessert in a desert here. Heh-heh. I mean, where is everybody?
By now I’ve passed the downtown park, and it looks like I’m headed for a long street of nothingness when I spot a sign: “New York Bakery.” Great. I can get some homemade dulces after all.
Inside is way-big. Cavernous, if you include the large kitchen. The counter’s top cabinets are stuffed with rows of cookies covered in shocking-pink icing (greens and yellows, too) and pastries and birthday cakes. Plus giant, multi-tiered wedding cakes. In other words, this is your typical 1950s, back-East, back-then bakery.
The one other customer in here, a lady named Liz, says she’s waiting for a rum cake to take to a birthday party. “You go ahead. They’re boxing my cake right now.”
I see three or four people in the kitchen shaping pastries, adding icing, boxing cookies. “Do you have, like, anything savory?” I ask when a lady comes out. Just curiosity, but then I think, No, I need salt more than sugar right now.
“Oh, yes,” she says. Her name’s Salena. She takes me down to a loaded cabinet. “We have calzones with sausage, spinach, and ricotta cheese. We have this pizza rustica by the slice…”
She points to a thick slice of pizza loaded with ricotta clumps, tomato, black olives, Italian sausage, green spinach leaves. Looks great. Costs $3.
“…and these rice balls [$3.50],” she says. Turns out they’re a Sicilian specialty known as arancini di riso, “little oranges.” Fried rice, with ground beef and peas and cheese inside.
You can see why they call them that — the fried balls are golden orange. Seems they’ve been a part of the Sicilian diet for a thousand years. But the ingredients tell the island of Sicily’s story, too, because they come from all the people who invaded the place. Canestrato fresco cheese arrived with Greeks, saffron and the rice came from the Arabs, the meaty part, the ragout, came from the French, and, finally, the tomato sauce is from the Spanish, after they conquered the Americas. “The story of Sicily is wrapped up in one rice egg,” says this other lady, Silvana, who turns out to be Salena’s mom.
Huh. Amazing what eating teaches you. So I order a “little orange” and a sausage, spinach, and cheese calzone ($3.50).
Oh, and a coffee ($1.95).
“Would you like a danish with that?” asks the gal, Salena.
“It’s free. We offer a free mini-pastry with every coffee we serve, all day.”
Wow. That’s cool. Very cool. I search the cookie cabinets and settle on a cheese-filled danish. It’s delish. Oh, man. Now I remember why I stopped: sweet things. But then Salena arrives with the calzone and rice “egg.” It’s wrapped in the front page of The Times of London, dated Wednesday, January 17, 1785. Talk about late delivery. You can just see the calzone peeping out.
So, okay, the calzone’s ends are a little leathery, but once you get past that, the main body is scrumptious and tender and bursting with oozing ricotta cheese and sausage and spinach. The rice ball has a skin of golden crumbs. I suddenly fear it’s going to be just…rice. But, inside, the green peas and a ball of ground beef appear.
I mean, yes, never intended to have a meal, but this sure does the job of filling me up. And the calzone is moist and delicately flavored.
Somewhere, Percy Sledge belts out “When a Man Loves a Woman…”
I feel, well, good in here. Comfortable. At home. Partly it’s the food, partly it’s the atmosphere. This is traditional — real traditional, right down to the mom and daughters living above the shop and all working here below. Silvana’s other daughters, Ella and Lola (who’s eight and claims she pretty much runs the place), are here now, too, working the counter, bringing trays back and forth. “My father was Italian, a Marine,” says Silvana. “He baked bread for the Italian Marines. He ended up in Brazil. That’s where I was born. Then we moved to New York. I grew up in bakery kitchens, mainly in Brooklyn. I got drafted to help at age seven. You can never get away from it. I hated the bakery. I’ll never do this, is what I swore to myself. And now look at me. Look at my daughters.”
No sons? “All three refused,” says Silvana. “One did say, ‘I’ll hang up my guns to come help you, Mom.’ He was a police chief up in Washington. He lasted six months. It consumes your life. I come downstairs to work in the dark, I go back upstairs at night in the dark.”
Now it’s Frank Sinatra, “My Way…regrets, I’ve had a few…” Me, too. Like, that I didn’t also go for a hot sandwich, the eggplant parmesan ($6.95 for the 6-inch or $9.95, 12-inch). Or the hot meat pie ($3.50) because these are such deals. Next time, though, I’d like to come early morning — when Silvana says local medical people are getting off the night shift — and have a cannoli and coffee with them. Finally satisfy that sweet craving.
It’s eight o’clock and they’re closing. I’m surrounded by dessert options, but, lo and behold, I’m too full. The cookie monster’s gonna have to await another day. ■
The Place: New York Bakery, 245 E. Main Street, El Cajon, 619-334-5164
Type of Food: American
Prices: Coffee and mini danish, $1.95; hot eggplant parmesan sandwich, $6.95 (for the 6-inch) or $9.95 (12-inch); meat pie, $3.50; slice pizza rustica, $3; stuffed rice balls, $3.50; ham-and-cheese calzone, $3.50; New York hotdog, $3.50; green salad with tuna, $6.95; strudel tart, $6.95
Hours: 6:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. daily; 7:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Sunday
Buses: 815, 816
Nearest Bus Stop: Claydelle at East Main