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Hometown U.S.A.: Hoboken, N.J.

Reality show is just icing on the cake

Carlo's Bakery has been a fixture in Hoboken for 99 years, but TLC's show 'Cake Boss' gives it a whole new layer of fame.

August 09, 2009|Tina Susman

Dawn Zimmer is the mayor of Hoboken. No, Peter Cammarano III is -- a sign inside City Hall says so. No, David Roberts is the mayor. A sign outside City Hall says so.

The political musical chairs has played out so rapidly in this Hudson River city lately that sometimes it seems the town can't keep pace. But while mayors come and go -- Zimmer took over July 31 from Cammarano, who resigned just a month after replacing Roberts following the spring election -- one thing remains constant: Carlo's Bakery, the 99-year-old institution across from City Hall that is the subject of "Cake Boss," another in the stream of television reality shows.

"I just made his [inauguration] cake!" Buddy Valastro said of Cammarano, who resigned after being indicted on charges of accepting bribes. "I'll have to bake the next one, I guess," the master baker continued, as reporters did their stand-ups outside the stately municipal building.

Since "Cake Boss" began airing this season, Carlo's fame has spread far beyond Hoboken, N.J., best known as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and baseball.

The day Cammarano departed -- the latest fallout from a federal investigation that targeted two other New Jersey mayors and a horde of rabbis, and featured allegations of illegal kidney sales and bribes stuffed into a box of Apple Jacks -- people outside the bakery weren't interested in the City Hall news.

They were clamoring to get into Carlo's, to gaze at the brilliantly colored edibles and have their pictures taken with Valastro.

The downside of fame is that nowadays, Valastro has to spend most of his time upstairs in the bakery, striving to meet customers' sometimes outlandish requests while TLC television network cameras roll and microphones pick up every utterance. "This is where the magic happens," said Valastro, whose caterpillar-like eyebrows dance across his forehead as he eyes the culinary progress.

On this day, bakers, decorators and assistants -- Valastro's close relatives as well as art school graduates who prefer working with modeling chocolate rather than clay -- were absorbed in several tasks.

Frank Amato was smoothing buttercream across a cake fashioned after a giant bottle of Oban Scotch for someone's 40th birthday. Across the room, a team was putting the finishing touches on a life-sized chocolate football.

Valastro was working on a round, car-tire-sized cake covered with sweet gum paste molded and colored to resemble cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and pepperoni slices. A blast with a steamer and a shot with a dryer produced the slightly singed look of a genuine pizza.

Daniella Storzillo was studying a photograph as she re-created a family in 3-D, complete with its pet boxer lounging across a woman's lap. When finished, the figures would grace a multilayered birthday cake. Storzillo twisted dark brown paste into hair swirls. Specks of black formed eyebrows and lashes.

As with virtually everything Carlo's produces, every detail was edible -- not something Storzillo wanted to think about as she went about the painstaking work.

"I could never watch someone eat it," she said. "It would kill me."

Despite the tangle of cameras and microphones, the atmosphere in the bakery was calm, a sign that Valastro had entered "the zone" -- the otherworldly state of concentration that takes hold when he is doing what he enjoys most: creating an edible work of art.

"When I'm in the zone, I'm happy," said Valastro, whose late father, Bartolo (a.k.a. Buddy Sr.), bought the bakery in 1964.

Not all days are like this. "Cake Boss" has featured yelling fests over things such as sugar shortages (the bakery goes through 2 tons a week), erotic-dancer designs for a bachelorette party cake (Valastro's mother objected) and delivery mishaps (a concern when traversing the potholes of New Jersey and New York in a truck full of gravity-defying cakes).

A 6-foot-high replica of the Empire State Building made it to its destination in one piece, as did an edible biplane crafted for a children's hospital, and a 400-pound prehistoric-mammal cake for the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Not so fortunate was the upright Easter bunny, whose buttercream fur fell off its back before it reached the delivery van.

And though the reactions of customers overwhelmingly are ecstatic, there are exceptions. One bridezilla saw her creamy, silken-looking cake, exclaimed, "It's so ugly!" and squirted it with colored gum paste.

Valastro swallowed his anger and delivered a colorful new creation to the still-glowering bride the day of her wedding. It's part of the job, said Valastro, whose goal is to maintain Carlo's personal touch as its fame spreads -- something he says his late father would have wanted.

"You don't want to have that factory feel," said Valastro, who is booked with specialty orders through October.

Even so, he is reluctant to turn down the odd last-minute requests that pour in, be they for mayors, marriages or, in one case, a zombie party.

"I used to say, 'I don't want to do that,' " he said. "Now when I hear a crazy idea, I think, 'Hey, that's a good idea for a show!' "

--

tina.susman@latimes.com

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