When I first meet Salvatore Giacalone, the stout, 50-year-old Sicilian is wearing a huge smile over a bright red apron. In a very thick accent, broken English really, he's peddling a colorful array of pastries spanning the length of four folding tables under a banner for Pueblo's East Coast Pizza & Bakery.
It's late March and we're inside the cavernous Broadmoor Hall that's about to be jammed with some 1,400 vendors and food-and-drink samplers for the Colorado Restaurant Association Pikes Peak Chapter Food and Wine Expo.
Gesturing through a pair of latex gloves, Giacalone (pronounced JAH-kah-lone-ay) points down his well-stocked spread while rattling off descriptions, hardly able to contain his pride, as if each creation were a kid of his that had just won the state spelling bee or something.
His tour takes me over one deep foil cake-pan after another, each brimming with wavy whipped cream acting as grout to plump strawberries and other fruit garnishes. Mini chocolate-dipped cheesecakes rest in rows alongside a giant sheet tray of alluringly muddy tiramisu.
And then there's the stacked almond-cookie (dolce a mandorla) army, some plain and pinched on top resembling dimpled mountain peaks, others bearing glistening jam fillings like apricot and blackberry in their cratered centers. Each bears a powdery white sugar resin on its edge, like the flour-dusted crust of a good rustic bread loaf.
Giacalone's gaze follows mine as it finally settles on the pinch cookies, and then measures my reaction as I light up under the influence of a piquantly sweet, texturally coarse but uniquely soft almond paste burst. Frangipane filling aficionados will understand this particular kind of ecstasy rendered from sugary almond essence, one of the bakery realm's greatest gifts.
I probably excitedly muttered something like, "Oh my God," or "Holy shit."
What I do remember is Giacalone's joyously satisfied expression, following whatever it was I said with a humble, "Tank ew, sir."
The real deal
A month later, I'm in East Coast Pizza & Bakery's dining room, just off I-25 on U.S. Highway 50. It's a burgundy-and-beige-hued space decorated with photographs of iconic sites like Rome's Colosseum, certainly bright and clean enough for a nondescript, recessed strip-mall storefront. Italian TV occupies flatscreens, but I'm totally tuned into the three beautifully bloated deli cases displaying 50-plus affordably priced desserts ($1.20 to $5 mostly, with platter deals such as 24 cookies and 12 pastries for $39.99).
I feel like a pilgrim finally reaching Mecca, having often thought of that almond cookie since the CRA event and overjoyed to trace it back to its source. I'm not alone, as I later chat with a woman in line who says she drives 40 minutes round-trip regularly for the bakery's goodies.
When it comes to Italian pastry, devotion is part of the package. Back to Pagan times, sweets and seasonal harvest items were incorporated into ritualistic offerings. Nuns in Middle-Ages Italy apparently supported their convents — and directly contrasted the austerity of their lifestyles — by creating fancy pastries. Specialties arose from the competition; Sicilian nuns in particular inherited the phallic cannoli, a fertility symbol, from earlier Arab rule.
Today, any city worth its sugar in America sports a notable Sicilian bakery, often dating back to early-20th-century immigrants. And just as French fundamentals now dominate the savory end of fine dining, many foundational Italian practices inform today's pastry chefs.
All that said, I personally don't often geek out over these kinds of delicacies. Sure, there was a pretty addictive rum cake at this nice Italian place I worked at for a few years in high school. And I easily fell prey to gelato's allure when travelling through Europe a decade ago. But I largely found the lauded Mike's Pastry in Boston to be a mass-production tourist trap, and am generally unmoved by the majority of tiramisu and the like that I run across in the course of a given year here.
I think that's why at the CRA event I found myself, amid pistachio pâté, elaborate game meat and artful sushi, so taken aback by a simple cookie: because it smacked of total authenticity and superiority. The depth and proficiency of the whole spread, for that matter, bested any pastry case I could readily conjure in the Springs. Giacalone's persona perhaps threw a little fairy dust (or powdered sugar) in my eyes, but even after it cleared, I was pretty confident that this was something different, something special, something veritable.
A baker is born
Today, just as he'd done at the Broadmoor, Giacalone treats me to a full walk-through of his sweets display, creating quite a challenge to keep straight which items bear the pastry cream, Bavarian cream or ricotta cream. Some sweets simply rearrange one ingredient or garnish — think superior, cinnamon-laced cannoli half dipped in chocolate chips and sauce, or left bare — and a decent amount, including the amazing almond cookies, is gluten-free.
Piecemeal, I learn Giacalone's story of becoming a chef, which is practically a Hollywood cliché, which is to say a totally charming treacle. As he tells it, he grew up the baby of his family, under five brothers and three sisters. Relatives owned a bakery in the southwestern Sicilian town of Mazzara and as a little boy he was already in the kitchen getting underfoot.
Before immigrating to the U.S. in 1997, he worked a stint in the late '80s in Boston, starting as a dishwasher, but getting his break one day when his employer's baker quit, weeks ahead of the Christmas rush. Giacalone, through a translator, explained that he could bake, but the owner didn't believe him. Persuaded by his wife to let him try, the owner was later floored when the Sicilian — who never attended culinary school — stuffed his cases masterfully within a week.
"Da guy like shock for me, say, 'Wow! Look I believe da guy — da chef is right here. Dis isn't da dishwasher.' I got a job. I gottalotta money, because dis is my passion."
Later, Giacalone followed his then-boss from Boston to Denver, where he spent nearly a decade creating pastries for Vincenza's Italian Bakery in Wheat Ridge. There he first met Dominic Mannino Sr., who coincidentally grew up in a town just five minutes away from Mazzara.
Giacalone allowed himself to be lured to Pueblo two years ago to join the then five-month-old East Coast Pizza, owned by Mannino's children Kristi and Dominic Jr. (Mannino had operated two earlier iterations of East Coast downtown for roughly a decade beginning in 1980 and '81 respectively.) Regarding Giacalone, the patriarch says simply, "We clicked."
With quick success at the newest East Coast, Mannino and Giacalone attempted a second business called The Sicilian on the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo last June, but a vicious act of vandalism took it out of action just before the New Year. Describing thousands of dollars of stolen alcohol, smashed dishware, ruined appliances and food emptied from coolers, Mannino says he's still working with his insurance company on the matter.
The universe was much kinder last month, when it bestowed on East Coast a People's Choice Award for the second year in a row at the Pueblo Food & Wine Show. East Coast also won Best Dessert there in 2012, to say nothing of its two awards in the Pueblo Chieftain's Best Of 2012.
Between bags of spongy ladyfingers and a six-layer-deep stack of hard cinnamon-almond biscotti (a stunning-cheap $5 for 24), Giacalone holds up a raspberry twist that's longer than my forearm. Powdered sugar clings to the thickly braided puff pastry whose raspberry grooves contain chopped walnuts and pecans, honey, cinnamon and coconut flakes. Giacalone announces, "Eetsah nice with da coffee ... dis costa three dollar fifty."
Moving past his Italian wedding cookies, half-chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons the size of fists and a giant "elephant ear" puff-pastry wrap coated in glistening sugar, Giacalone displays his grandmother's ricotta pie, an elegantly under-sweet construction of ricotta cream with a thin layer of raspberry filling encased in doughy-tasting house pie crust. Then both regular and gluten-free cheesecakes, a dome-shaped, ricotta-and-raspberry stuffed Piece of Heaven, and slices of rainbow cake — which he pronounces Rambo cake — a mix of Italian sponge cake and almond paste creating three semi-dense layers split by raspberry filling inside yet another chocolate dip.
I could of course go on and on. And to stuff the cases this full, Giacalone obviously has. He says it took him over a year of meticulous tinkering with his recipes to adjust for altitude and achieve his preferred textures. He imports select flours and cheeses and a special almond paste that he blends 50-50 with his own from-scratch, traditional paste for the cookies.
"If he doesn't get something perfect, he doesn't sleep at night," says Mannino. "He'll throw it away — he doesn't relax until it comes out perfect. I've seen him here at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning because the night before something didn't work out the way he wanted, so he was back here doing it again."
Giacalone's usually in at 5 a.m. weekdays, and spends his weekends back in Denver, where his family still lives. Even given the Sicilian connection with Mannino and the fact that they refer to each other as brothers, Giacalone's commitment to this Pueblo strip-mall outlet might seem unlikely. But Mannino explains it like a man who owns 17 businesses across Pueblo, which is exactly who he is.
"I'm the type of person that when I make money, everybody makes money," he says. "We try to make things happen ... he's got his expertise and I've got the business expertise."
Already, Giacalone's bakery arm accounts for around 30 percent of East Coast's business. In the next couple months, Mannino expects to start selling Giacalone's pastries online, nationwide. And, he says, Giacalone will have an ownership stake in the even bigger business development to come.
The whole pie
This December, tentatively, the current location is slated to turn into a baking commissary for the online business. Meanwhile, East Coast's bakery and pizzeria will move two miles southeast to 3204 N. Elizabeth St., a 16,000-square-foot space that will also accommodate the rebirth of The Sicilian as a fine dining option.
It's three separate entities for branding purposes, but all under one Italian umbrella.
"This will be something not previously seen in Southern Colorado," says Mannino, emphasizing a new "pastry bar" concept aiming to run between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. and built around the intermingling of alcohol and pastries à la contemporary Sicilian café culture. (The closest thing like it geographically and stylistically might be Denver's Crave Dessert Bar & Lounge.)
As one example of the sugar-and-hooch fusion, he mentions the Sicilian habit of dunking the almond cookies into Marsala wine for "a taste you wouldn't believe," and pairing specialty cupcakes with other wines. Other pastries, such as rum bells and bon bons, would incorporate the booze into the bites in much the same way that some truffles incorporate liqueur.
Mannino says he'll also add breakfast hours.
"We Sicilians eat a lot," he says. "We'll be open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. — from the time you get up to when you go to bed."
Depending on how well the whole Italian enclave is received, Mannino says they'd like to bring the same concept to Colorado Springs as soon as 2014's end. Which is great news for those currently commuting for cream puffs, an act which itself appears to be validation of the potential for all this to take shape as splendidly as those Italian wedding cookies. Plus Giacalone proved long ago that he's the right man for the job, and ever since, his sweets have spoken volumes in a universal language that's just as colorful and winsome as his own.