Buddy Valastro, the owner of Carlo's Bakery in Hoboken, N.J., and the star of TLC's "Cake Boss," makes pizza rustica, a traditional Italian-American dish for the holiday.
Ol’ blue eyes is gone, so these days in Hoboken, they’re lining up for someone else. On a recent Monday morning, brown-eyed Buddy Valastro, the owner of Carlo’s Bakery and the star of TLC’s “Cake Boss,” “Kitchen Boss” and “Cake Boss: Next Great Baker,” stood in his office on the second floor surveying the hundred or so people waiting to get in. He opened the window and waved.
“Look! It’s Buddy! Oh my God!” Cameras flashed, people applauded. “Buddy, how’s your baby?”
“He’s good,” Valastro called. “Thanks for coming.” The window closed.
Not for long, though; never for long. “Cake Boss,” which debuted in 2009 (it is now seen in 160 countries), is a reality show that follows most days in the life of Valastro, a preternaturally talented baker, as he decorates 50 wedding cakes in a week (black stencils on white fondant, try that at home) or takes on challenges like replicating the Tuscan villa where Rachael Ray spent her honeymoon — in cake. He constructed a confectionary Sesame Street for its 40th anniversary, with all the characters sculptured out of modeling chocolate, and reproduced the Leaning Tower of Pisa as a four-and-a-half-foot-tall wedding cake.
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Along with Valastro, a show biz natural with a personality that’s winning without being cloying (at least most of the time), the consistent draw is his crew. This, as he says at the top of each show, consists of “mia famiglia.” Think the Loud family, only louder: His four older sisters, who run the bakery counter when they’re not screaming at him or at one another (two of their husbands are among the bakers); his mother, who likes to scold her 34-year-old son for his penchant for practical jokes (“You may be the cake boss, but I’m the real boss!”); his three adorable children under the age of 7; and his remarkably good-natured wife, Lisa, who gave birth to their fourth child on Valentine’s Day. Actual footage of Carlo Salvatore’s birth was included in a new episode, along with tears, congratulations, back slapping and 3-year-old Marco trilling, “Is it out?”
“It’s a show about family, how could I not have included it?” Valastro said.
I had come to Carlo’s so he could show me how to make pizza rustica, a traditional Italian-American dish for Easter, or as his family calls it, cold-cut pie. It is a deep-dish cousin to quiche, packed with deli meats and cheeses, and it is the only savory item the bakery makes. It is available there for just three weeks, from March 30 through Easter (April 24 this year).
First, we sat in his office, drinking coffee. Valastro is alternately low-key and laser-focused. His television persona is all hugs and cupcakes, punctuated by strategically placed fits of temper. But in person, he is deliberate and systematic, thinking three steps ahead; if his eyebrow even lifts, there are plenty of staff members available to interpret his needs. An exacting bakery boss who is also a star who is also an entrepreneurial businessman is a dangerous person to disappoint.
His television shows aside, Valastro is in the midst of a major expansion, outfitting a factory in Jersey City so he can move the baking out of this building to make room for more customers; he can also increase his volume and sell his products nationally. He plans to move Fior d’Italia, the pizzeria owned by Lisa’s father in Union, N.J., to a spot around the corner from Carlo’s, augmenting the menu with family recipes of the sort he prepares on “Kitchen Boss.” And April 12, a Cake Boss cafe will open at Discovery Times Square, an exhibition space on West 44th Street.
Buddy (Bartolo) Valastro is a fourth-generation baker whose father was born on Lipari, an island near Sicily, where the family was so poor they resorted to eating other people’s garbage. They emigrated, and once Buddy Sr. was in his 20s he started working at Carlo’s, which he bought in 1963. By the time Buddy Jr. was 11, he was working there on weekends. When he made the football team, his father forbade him from joining because games were played on the weekends. His son did not resent this; the two were unusually close.
Buddy Sr. died of cancer at 54. Buddy Jr., who was 17, dropped out of vocational high school to take over the bakery.
“Losing my father, my best friend, idol, mentor, was crushing,” he said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to live or die at that time. And people were mean. They’d say, ‘The bakery isn’t the same, it’s going to go under.’ I wanted those people to eat their words. I had to step up. I was a good kid. The problem was that I was expected to be my father. I talk to 17-year-old kids now and I’m dumbfounded. How could I do what I did?
“I had to learn things the hard way,” he continued. “People look at me now and say, ‘He’s lucky,’ like I hit the Lotto. This has been years in the making. Getting into bridal magazines, showing up at bridal events. I was my own PR person, I marketed myself. I’ve always been driven. When I started doing cakes, I would take them apart five or six times or throw them in the garbage and start from scratch.”
We went into the kitchen where he assembled the cold-cut pie, rolling out the dough, leaning often on his forearms. Valastro’s hands are his fortune and he knows it.
“My hands? Forget about it,” he said. “I don’t cream them, though. They’re in butter all day.”
At the first cut of the pie, the other bakers dropped their work and lined up. Delicious.
“People eat it at room temperature for lunch or brunch,” Valastro said, “but we eat it out of the oven.”
By 11 a.m. we were done, but his day was jammed with meetings on the bakery, its expansion, the restaurant and the three TV shows (“Next Great Baker” is a competition; the winner works at Carlo’s).
“It’s like an avalanche that started that I can’t stop,” he said. “How many people have three shows on the air that get renewed? I’m doing cakes I should think are crazy, but fans want to see me pushed to brink of insanity. It’s part of my job and I embrace it. I believe if I do something it’s not going to fail, if I put my heart into it and try my hardest.”
He allowed himself a smile.
“I’m not talking about world peace,” he said. “But certain things, I get.”
Adapted from Carlo’s Bakery, Hoboken, N.J.
Time: 2 ½ hours, plus time for cooling
Yield: One 10-by-15-inch pie
For the dough:
6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
¼ teaspoon salt
1 pound chilled salted butter, cut into large pieces
5 large eggs, beaten
For the filling:
12 ounces prosciutto, in ¼-inch dice
8 ounces boiled ham, in ¼-inch dice
8 ounces pepperoni, in ¼-inch dice
8 ounces soppressata, in ¼-inch dice
8 ounces mozzarella, in ¼-inch dice
8 ounces provolone, in ¼-inch dice
2 pounds ricotta
4 ounces grated pecorino Romano
10 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon pepper
1 large egg, beaten, for brushing crust.
1. For the dough: In a large bowl, whisk together 6 cups flour and the salt. Using a pastry cutter, large fork, or two knives, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add eggs and knead for 1 minute. Add about 1 ¼ cups ice water, a little at a time, to form a cohesive dough. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until it forms a large smooth ball, about 5 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes.
2. For the filling: Mix the meats, cheeses, the 10 eggs and pepper in a large bowl.
3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Divide the dough into two pieces: two-thirds for the bottom crust and one-third for the top. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger portion of the dough into a rectangle to line the bottom and sides of a 10-by-15-inch glass baking dish, with some overhang. Add the filling and smooth it lightly. Moisten the edges of the dough with a little water.
4. Roll out the remaining dough to cover the top of the dish with some overhang. Trim off excess dough and crimp the edges to seal. Poke several sets of holes across the top with a fork. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and brush top and edges with the beaten egg, then return to the oven until golden brown, another 45 minutes. Let pie cool completely before serving.