On September 23, 1894, one of the East Village’s longest-running businesses, Veniero’s Pasticceria, opened its doors. This venerable local institution has been serving confections, cakes, and pastries to New Yorkers and visitors ever since from its home at 342 East 11th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues, in the heart of what was once the East Village’s own Little Italy, and remains one of the few surviving businesses from that once-thriving community. Located just down the block from our offices, we have a special love for Veniero’s — from which we have been known to indulge in a treat from time to time (or more) — and a special insight into the beloved business’ rich history, thanks to an oral history that Veniero’s current co-owner Robert Zerilli, grand nephew of Veniero’s original founder, conducted with us in 2014.
Veniero’s is not just a great East Village and small business story, but it’s also a wonderful immigrant story. In fact, in 1994, to mark its hundredth anniversary, Governor Mario made this declaration about Veniero’s:
I, Mario M. Cuomo, Governor of the State of New York, do hereby cite Veniero’s Pasticceria & Cafe as a true New York immigrant success story and extend best wishes for continued success – Governor Mario Cuomo, August 30, 1994
Antonio Veniero immigrated to New York from Italy in 1885, in the period following Italian unification when poor Italians, especially southern Italians, began to leave the country en masse, seeking better lives and opportunities. At 15 years old, Antonio began working in a candy factory downtown. By 1894, he bought today’s 342 East 11th Street, a pre-old-law tenement built in 1865-66. Originally the business, then called Antonio Veniero Confections, was founded as a social club, complete with pool tables. Antonio sold homemade candy and espresso, the beans of which were roasted in the backyard. Veniero hired other Italian immigrants also skilled in confectionery. This part of the East Village was well populated with Italian immigrants, mostly Sicilian, although Antonio was from Naples. No. 342, which had residences above the ground floor, housed 13 families, all Italian immigrants or of Italian descent, according to the 1900 Federal census.
The same census and 1900-1901 New York City directory show Antonio living with his wife and children across the street at No. 345, a no longer extant building. In his oral history, Robert Zerilli explains that the business evolved from Antonio’s founding to serve baked goods such as biscotti and cakes, later renaming itself Veniero’s Pasticceri. Following Antonio’s death in 1931, the business would continue to be run by members of the family. In 1970, Frank Zerilli, Robert’s father and a cousin of the Venieros, bought the business. As a teenager, Frank Zerilli had worked in the bakery and learned a great deal working under Antonio.
Zerilli shares great stories of both the family and the neighborhood connected to Veniero’s, including Antonio’s managing to avoid firebombing by the Black Hand, (Mano Nero gang — a mafia extortion racket), neighborhood quarrels with other bakers and pushcart sellers, and a legal fight over the ownership of a coffee-sipping parrot.
Zerilli was born in 1962 and by that time his family lived in New Jersey. He would sometimes join his father for the workday in the East Village, and in his interview, Zerilli shared the sights, smells, and sounds of the East Village in his early years through the eyes of a child. One of the sounds that dominate his memories was the constant mix of English and Italian throughout the streets and small businesses in the area. As a teenager, he would work at Veniero’s, and lived in one of the apartments in the upper floors at No. 342, rent-free.
The neighborhood has changed quite a bit over the course of Zerilli’s tenure, and he talks about gentrification, as well as changing ethnicities and business and building ownership. On a side note, he mentions the East Village’s punk rock scene, and Joey Ramone coming to Veniero’s to buy a cake. Veniero’s itself has changed over the years too, adding items like red velvet cupcakes, which Zerilli discusses his reluctance to include. One of the many things that hasn’t changed, though, is that Veniero’s is still very much a family-run business, with Robert and his three sisters at the helm as co-owners.