There’s only a limited time left to experience an era when people came to coffee shops to talk rather than stare at a computer screen. De Robertis Caffé is scheduled to close for good on Dec. 5, Bedford + Bowery has learned.
For more than a century, the pasticceria and cafe has served Italian coffee, pastries, cookies and ices in the East Village at 176 First Avenue. Four generations of the De Robertis family have preserved the store’s early-20th-century ambiance. The hand-cut mosaic wall tiles, pressed-tin ceiling and patterned floor tiles were already there when the shop opened in 1904.
Along with the economy, the age and health concerns of the four De Robertis siblings played a part in their decision to sell the building.
John De Robertis, whose grandfather started the business 110 years ago, talked with us about what he and his customers will miss when the doors close for the last time.
John De Robertis
My grandfather Paolo came over from the Bari region of Italy. The family always liked the coffee business. So he rented a store on 12th Street between First and Second Avenues, where P.S. 19 is now. It was a little store and all he did was make espresso and anisette toast. Very simple.
His friends used to come in and they used to make coffee and talk. Somebody told him, “There’s a store on First Avenue, it’s for rent.” They looked at this place and they said, “OK, we can make more stuff, we can make more cookies and more coffee.” So they rented it in 1904.
They made pignoli, the seeded cookies, and they made coffee, cappuccino and as refrigeration came in they started making pastries, cannoli. Then as time went by they started making lemon ice. They catered to the Italians because that’s what everybody around here was used to.
My grandfather had the business for about 10, 15 years. Then he got homesick, he wanted to go back to Italy. My father John came here when he was 10, 11 years old. He worked until he was 83. Seven days a week, 13 hours a day. In those days nobody thought of vacations.
When they rented the store, my father told me, it was at the time they were building the subways. In the subways the walls all had tiles. There were a lot of immigrants at the time building the subways. I guess they took that idea and put the tiles on the wall like the subways. The tiles were in already when they rented it. So this is pre-1900. The building is from the 1850s so it’s over 150 years old.
The pressed-tin ceiling at the time was very popular, like Sheetrock is now (laughs). When you buy this kind of floor tile now, you buy it in sheets. This was done one by one. It was craftsmanship, patience. They did it pretty level. The spacing was perfect. They put a lot of pride in their work and it lasted a long time.
After I got out of college I went to work at Metropolitan Life. My father was having a lot of problems physically so I felt compelled to help. I have two other brothers and my sister and they all worked here as kids too. So I left Metropolitan Life in ’76 and I worked here.
Being of the younger generation – my father was about 60 at the time – I wanted to change things around, add more items, croissants. “Croissants?” he said. “We don’t sell croissants.”
But I said people ask for that, we’ve got to change with the times. So we started adding more American items, nut cakes, cheese Danish, cookies with M&M’s on it, which was almost like a mortal sin.
The heyday of the store’s popularity was in the ‘60s. I remember as a kid, I wasn’t tall enough, they’d get a milk crate for me. I used to stand behind the counter, stand on the milk crate and make coffee. And in those days, Saturdays and Sundays were extremely busy. As soon as church was over, whatever mass people went to, they all piled in here. We were packed. They came in for coffee and cannoli, sfogliatelle, whatever.
The ’70s were kind of rough because of the economy, the city was almost in bankruptcy at the time. But we survived it. The ’80s were good, the ’90s were good. There’s always a problem with something, a snowstorm, there were plenty of transit strikes, blackouts. Businesses would close because they couldn’t overcome all of that. But we had a good family relationship. My father sometimes had to go into the hospital for an operation. I would come in here after school, my brother would take a leave of absence from his job, my mother would chip in. We had pride in keeping it going.
The toughest part is around the holiday season because everybody is going to see their families and having a good time and taking 10 days off, a week off. We were working. It’s the busiest time of the year for us. And we felt a little jealous because we had to work more. Our normal hours plus extra because we had to fill all the shipping orders, cake orders, cookie trays. I remember my mother and father would close at 10 p.m. and they would stay here until 1 or 2 a.m. making all these things. Then go upstairs and get up a few hours later and open up again.
In 1946, 1947 they were renting. Whoever owned the building at the time wanted to sell. So my father – he didn’t go to college, never finished high school – said, “I want to protect my business. I’ll pay the taxes, the maintenance, but I want to protect my business.” So he bought the building. And that was the greatest move he ever did. Because if we were subject to someone else’s rent increases, we would have never survived.
They’ve filmed numerous movie scenes here. Woody Allen did a scene from Manhattan Murder Mystery. Addicted to Love was filmed here. Spike Lee did a scene from Malcolm X. They did the first episode of Sex and the City here.
Steve Buscemi did In the Soup here. That was before he became famous. My mother Antoinette was even in it, she showed Jennifer Beals how to make cappuccino behind the counter.
Woody Allen was very private, you couldn’t really get close to him. Spike Lee was friendly, he let my son take a picture with him. Denzel Washington, very classy guy. Sarah Jessica Parker was very nice. She was more impressed with the cookies here than me being impressed that she’s an actress [laughs].
We’ve had boxers, sports figures. There used to be a priest, his name was Father Joe DiSpenza. He was a sports psychologist and he used to bring in ballplayers, Yankees players.
I remember Phil Rizzuto coming in a couple of times. The day he came in here, back in the early ’80s, he said, “I want to try one of your cannoli.” So we gave him one and said, “Phil, when are you doing your next broadcast at Yankee Stadium? I want to send you a box of cannoli.” So I sent him a box and on the broadcast, he said, “I’m having one of these delicious cannoli from De Robertis.”
People’s buying habits have changed. They’re weight-conscious and don’t want the items that we sell in their diet. People always tell me, why don’t you change the nature of the business, change the items that you make. You know, you are what you are. To sell fruit and sandwiches, I don’t know if that will fit here. It’s not in my blood to do that.
I’m having a sign made up, I’m going to put it in the window. We’re going to thank all our patrons for their loyalty, for making us successful for 110 years. The people were the reason why we’re here. I learned from my father and mother: “Always give quality – people come back.”
I was talking to a lady this morning, she was so unhappy. She said, “I used to come here, I met my husband here on my first date. I used to come here all the time to do my homework.” There are hundreds of those kinds of stories. I think people felt the warmness when they came in here.
When people came in here, they knew the people working behind the counter. We felt a closeness. 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. Everybody has a job to do. You give the order to this person, this person makes it, this person gives it to you, that person cashes you out. Here, I think people felt at home.
We never really had people come over to our apartment because we were always working. My father said, “This is like my living room. I can’t have people over my house because I’m always here so this is my living room.” And people like that. It’s that love that you can’t get from a chain store.