SOMERVILLE — Paper bunnies and decorated eggs adorn the picture windows at La Contessa Bakery Cafe here. Huge chocolate Easter eggs wrapped in colorful cellophane hang above the counter waiting for excited children. On a top shelf, along with a statue of St. Anthony, are boxes of sweet Italian bread baked in the shape of a dove. Amid these confections are the bakery’s prized ricotta pies, their light brown crust embracing a sweet filling, which dominate one of the glass-fronted display cases. Felix Sabatino and Annette Serrao, the lively brother-and-sister team who own La Contessa, are getting ready for Easter. Between 500 and 600 pies will emerge from the bakery’s ovens.
For more than 30 years, Antonio Bruno, the head baker, has been making the pies, beginning with pasta frolla, a sweet pastry crust enhanced with touch of orange oil. It cradles and covers the filling of ricotta cheese, sugar, and the powdered vanilla called vanillin. The fresh whole milk ricotta (pronounced ri-GHOT-ta or ri-GOT) comes from Purity Cheese of Quincy and the North End, another longstanding business. A slice of the pie, also called torta di Pasqua — or Easter torte — for its special place on the holiday menu, reveals a dense white filling that is both moist and not too sweet, surrounded by a soft, flaky crust. Ricotta pies are eaten throughout Italy, but with many variations — some with candied fruit, anisette flavoring, or chocolate. La Contessa’s plain version is southern Italian in origin.
In some respects, time has stood still in this corner of Somerville. While rents increase and trendy cafes move in, La Contessa continues its holiday traditions in much the same way they might be celebrated in Italy. Three tables offer customers a place to sit, sip strong coffee, and eat a pastry. No one here is working on a laptop — though cellphones ring now and again.
On this bright day, Sabatino is handing out slices of another Easter staple — pizza chiena (GAYN-a), sometimes called pizza ripiena, which means ”stuffed,” or pizza rustica. At the end of Lent, people who have given up meat can enjoy it again in this lattice-topped pie, which holds a 4-inch layer of cheese studded with cold cuts.
Serrao works the counter, addressing customers as ”honey” or ”sweetie.” She came to La Contessa first, in the early 1970s, when she was 17; her younger brother followed her a while later. He was 12. At the time, the bakery was owned by ”Papa” Joe Magliaro. The siblings were raised in Somerville, and Sabatino describes himself as ”a chunky kid in orange shorts standing on a crate washing dishes.” By 12, he was practicing making frosting roses after work. Magliaro told the boy: ”You have the hand,” Sabatino remembers.
After stints at Mike’s Pastry in the North End and at several hotels, Sabatino bought La Contessa in 2000 with his parents’ help. Actually, Armando and Emanuela Sabatino, who were from the Avellino province in Campania, had saved their son’s earnings without his knowing. The boy thought that his $20 weekly La Contessa wages were going directly to St. Benedicts school in Somerville. ”I thought I was paying for my schooling. But secretly my dad opened a savings account for me and deposited all the money. He did that for all his six kids,” Sabatino says softly.
Over the years, Sabatino has continued the tradition started by Magliaro, who was known as ”Joe Cookie” by legions of Somerville kids. ”Joe told me to always give a kid a cookie when they walked in the door,” says Sabatino.
Bruno, the baker, has been making Italian pastries since 1972. ”I got this job the second day I went looking and never left,” he says, scooping rings of dough from water boiling in a dented copper pot. ”We are making tarali,” he says. ”Like an Italian bagel.”
With three owners in 48 years, La Contessa is a fixture in Davis Square. ”It’s a little island,” says Bob Baker, an Arlington resident and patron for most of his 53 years. ”If I’m going through Davis Square, I’m going to La Contessa for a rum cake slice for my wife, Lin,” he says. Linda Baker has celebrated her birthday with a La Contessa rum cake since she was a little girl. Elizabeth Pizzi of Belmont practically swoons over the thought of the bakery’s lemon squares. And cannoli are shipped all over the country.
The bakery is usually filled with a cast of local characters, many at their usual tables. They convey all the enviable bonhomie and caring of a genuine community. Frank Privitera, a local lawyer, talks politics while he sips coffee and greets customers, urging everyone to try a cannoli. Bruce Curliss, a loyal customer who has become Sabatino’s best friend, calls La Contessa ”a great little treasure.” He shares a daily corner table with several local businessmen, who enjoy coffee, pastry, and friendly insults from Serrao. ”She loves us,” they insist. They flip a coin to see who pays.
When Serrao’s cellphone rings, the theme from ”The Godfather” fills the room. Linger long enough and you might even get her dating advice. Playing matchmaker for a young woman recently, Serrao says, ”We’re all miserable and married, why shouldn’t she be?”
And the day goes on, as customers hear her cheerful greetings and the pastry cases are refilled again and again. ”Goodbye, sweetheart,” she calls out as someone leaves the shop. By the end of the day, she’s said it dozens of times.
La Contessa Bakery Cafe is at 420 Highland Ave.,
Davis Square, Somerville, 617-623-9193.