Circo’s classic storefront has lasted the ages on Knickerbocker Avenue. — Photo by Diego Cupolo
With its inoperative neon signs and crowded windows, Circo’s Pastry Shop is a classic fixture of Knickerbocker, conspiring with the domino players and pizzerias to give the avenue that inimitable Brooklyn look. It can be taken in at a glance as a charming relic or bit of local color, but there’s always more going on with these time-warp businesses. A shop doesn’t just sit around forgotten like antique furniture: it requires constant dedication, adaptation, and customers. The changes Bushwick has undergone since 1945 have left very few businesses standing, and the continued operation of Circo’s through these 65 years in this neighborhood may be one of the great feats in New York pastry history.
The bakery, larger on the inside yet still packed and stacked with goods, carries a dominant aroma of almonds overlaying much else. Display cases on three walls and shelves of cakes behind leave little room for customers or counter staff, though there is still space for a table of boxed butter cookies and a gelato window that will be opening up any day now for summer. Sal, the picture of the Brooklyn baker, comes out of the back to talk, excusing himself a few times when loud noises racket out from the functional side of the bakery. He and his brother are Bushwick bred, and he runs through the family and business history without a pause.
Sal’s father Nino Pierdipino was hired by Signore Circo himself in 1966, just days after moving to Bushwick from Sicily. Pierdipino was only 18 but had already been working in a dolceria back home since he was 11. He and fellow baker Michele Vinci bought their workplace in 1973, running it as partners for 32 years. Now Pierdipino runs the bakery with his two sons Salvatore and Anthony.
The encyclopedic range of baked goods produced by Circo’s today is the result of changing demand sharing shelf space with a commitment to tradition. None of the original Sicilian goods have been discontinued, so there’s still the full range of filled-to-order cannoli, sfogliatelle, and anything else that can be stuffed with sweetened, delicately flavored ricotta. Most eye-catching is the Family Cannoli, a toaster-sized cannolo filled with four dozen ordinary cannoli. Opposite, an entire side of the shop is given over to butter cookies, a New York standard often maligned as dry and lifeless husks of Italian pastry past. Sal defends his wares, though: "a lot of bakeries will sell you plain cookies with different colored sprinkles and call it an assortment. Every one of ours has a different flavor or filling."
In the old days the corner pastry shop didn’t just sell treats, it provided an essential social currency. "You went and had a big meal with your family every week," Sal explains, "and you had to take some cookies. Even if you were just meeting someone for coffee you had to show up with something." The surrounding blocks were full of Sicilians, who used to "walk the avenue" for all their needs, visiting a fruit stand here and a shoe shop there. As Sal tells it, though, they one by one outgrew the neighborhood and its railroad apartments and moved away.
We all have our ideas of the Bushwick of the ’70s and ’80s, but the Circo’s experience presents something of an alternate history. The Italian stretch of Knickerbocker stood largely protected from the larger state of violent decay by a tightly knit community, protective shopkeepers who lived above their businesses, and a certain amount of mafia presence. "Above Troutman and below DeKalb were other stories entirely, but we didn’t have problems," Sal insists. "The ’80s were the good times. We had Reagan, there were factories running out here, employing our customers. The real hard times are now."
The challenges the pastry shop faces include lower funds in the collective neighborhood food budget, an ever-changing community with new patterns of consumption, and the proliferation of supermarkets. An Associated or C-Town cake may be a mockery of the fresh cakes Circo’s produces (which even come filled with cannoli cream instead of frosting), but it’s good enough for many birthday parties. Mother’s Day sales, "which used to start at least two weeks before the day," brought in only a few customers on the day itself this year.
But the owner and his sons are adapting as always. "We gotta reach out, I can’t just wait behind the counter for customers to walk in any more." Circo’s now has a website with online mail orders and has begun wholesale deliveries to retailers all over the city, from gourmet shops to Key Foods, "just to get our name out there."
Meanwhile the bakers are also learning to serve the new communities. "We like all of our customers, however they pronounce our name," Sal promises "CHEER-co" is proper. Bushwick’s Latinos have their own bakeries, but they started coming in and buying plain brioche, which the Sicilians traditionally serve alla crema. Circo’s now keeps the plain sweet rolls in ready supply. The market for decorated cakes has also come to dominate business in the decade of Ace of Cakes, but most new customers like wide sheet cakes that make a better presentation than the traditional layered towers, so the bakers have learned to provide these.
The mail order deliveries, on the other hand, mostly go to one-time neighbors looking for a taste of home. This week, packages are on their way to Texas and Florida. Other former Bushwick residents drop in when visiting the Old Neighborhood from Long Island. Many ask the brothers, incredulous, "you’re still living here?" Sal’s typical response is, "do you have a bakery on your street corner out there?"