La Dolce Vita: Junior's finds its sweet spot | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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La Dolce Vita: Junior's finds its sweet spot

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MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Got Sfogliatelle? That rhetorical question, printed on the back of promotional T-shirts, is aimed at people hungering for authentic Italian goodies in ethnically challenged Vermont. The slogan was devised by four partners in a new Colchester venture. The Bakery at Junior’s, expected to open this week, offers an array of pastries, cakes, cookies, tarts, tortes and breads with Old World flair in the refurbished basement of Junior’s pizza parlor and restaurant on Roosevelt Highway.

Sfogliatelle — thin layers of semolina pastry filled with riccota and candied orange peels — is just one of the exotic delicacies that have, until now, been virtually impossible to find in the Green Mountain State, according to Rob Bean of Grand Isle. He’s the partner responsible for most of the actual baking, although he calls South Hero resident Kym Mooney “the biscotti queen” of the operation. Partners three and four are Frankie Salese, Jr. and his wife Laurie Graziano, the couple who opened Junior’s in 1993.

Bean, 30, has been working at Junior’s since last winter. He came up with the idea for a bakery when he realized that a 1000-square-foot space on the restaurant’s lower level was being used only for storage. “My grandfather is a chef and baker in Maine,” he says. “When I was a student at the New England Culinary Institute, I found my passion was pastry. I did an extended internship with an Italian pastry chef.”

Once Bean’s research determined that many popular Italian treats are not available locally, Salese saw the potential. “It seemed very appealing,” he recalls. “I could help Rob’s dream come true and provide in-house fresh bread and desserts for the restaurant. And I am a true go-getter, a very aggressive businessman.”

Salese was only 8 when he began helping out in his family’s three Long Island eateries. At 19, he opened his own enterprise, St. Mark’s Pizza in Manhattan’s East Village. The business is still there, but he is not.

“We moved to Vermont to get a better upbringing for our kids,” he explains. “I started off working at [the now defunct] Bambino’s, then nine years ago found this little pizzeria here for rent. I had a vision this area would be the next hot spot in Colchester.”

Two years after launching the first-floor pizza parlor, Salese turned the second floor into a “fine dining” restaurant with a menu specializing in “the whole spectrum of Italian cuisine.”

The basement now features polished wooden counters, art on the walls, plants on the windowsills and coffee machines serving a variety of Speeder & Earl’s roasts. The back room houses gigantic ovens for turning out the sfogliatelles, cannolis, profiteroles, Neapolitans, pignolis, Florentinas and baci di damas — more than ample enticement for anyone partial to pastry.

Junior’s may be the only contemporary outlet for Italian sweets in the region, but old-timers still fondly remember the Star Bakery in Winooski, which opened for business in 1912. The place is reputed to have been the last-known purveyor of traditional confections in these parts.

“My stepfather, John Trono, was the owner and I worked there from about 1920, when I was 6, till it closed in 1957,” recalls Frank “Chi Chil” Perrino, now 88. “My brother-in-law, Joe Mazza, was the head baker. He used to go to Boston bakeries to get his recipes.”

For 60 years, Perrino has lived in the West Canal Street apartment above what was once the Star Bakery. In 1938, he cut back from full-time to weekend duties. The store folded not long after the nearby woolen mill closed, but for more than four decades it had supplied customers with a range of edible delights. “We carried everything, even American breads and Jewish bagels, but my stepfather had to stop making cannolis because the workers would eat them all,” Perrino says with a laugh. “That’s how delicious they were.”

Anthony Trono of Burling-ton — John’s nephew — also worked at the bakery occasionally. He particularly remembers the penny cakes. “They would take all the stale pastries and put them in the mixer with raisins, nuts and more eggs. From that, they made flat sheets of cake with frosting and sold them for a penny,” he says. “They were really tasty. That was always the thing I went for first.”

The bakery also made deliveries to local grocery stores and homes. Anthony Trono’s late brother Mike drove one of the trucks.

When Joseph D. Maietta was growing up in the Italian enclave that once flourished near the Burlington waterfront, his grandmother baked for the family. As a grown man, he’s been forced to shop in Montréal and Boston for the authentic pastries he adores. Consequent-ly, the 72-year-old connoisseur is excited to learn that his beloved sfogliatelle will be coming to Colchester.

At 87, Stella Cavoretto Chastenay of South Burlington chuckles when she recalls one special Star Bakery item that could brighten lackluster meals on “meatless Fridays” during the Great Depression. “We’d take home bread dough from the bakery, fry it up in hot, deep fat, put on butter and maple syrup — that was delicious,” she says. Her childhood was spent on Chase Street in the Queen City, where church-going Italians then dominated Ward 1 and the downtown district.

Her nostalgia does not eclipse present realities, however. “I’m quite a cook myself,” Chastenay points out, “but I will definitely become a customer of the Junior’s bakery.”

That should be very good news for Frank Salese, who stands to inherit the Star Bakery legacy. “When you get the real Italians in here, you know you’re doing something right,” he observes, although his establishment — like its Winooski predecessor — will also turn out Jewish breads like challah and New York rye.

The effort to turn a basement into a bakery has proven enormous, and the opening has been pushed back several times. “We had to restructure the whole building to get up to code,” Salese explains. A wall also had to be built around the parking lot.

Meanwhile, Bean has been practicing his craft in preparation for the big day. “I’m pretty proud of my tiramisu,” he boasts.

But Bean’s sfogliatelle benefited from some helpful advice. “We consulted my brother-in-law’s father, Uncle Pete, who owns Basta’s Bakery in Brooklyn,” says Salese. “They’ve got great sfogliatelle.” He pronounces the word as his ancestors in Naples did: svi-ga-dell, instead of the phonetic svo-glee-a-tell.

Either way, as the T-shirt implies, you gotta have it.

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