To walk into Veniero’s, the beloved Italian pastry shop on East 11th Street, just off First Avenue, is to step into a dreamscape of buttery cookies, cannoli and tarts heavy and trembling with jewel-colored fruit. On one side of the double-fronted building is the main cafe. On the other is the store, inside which, on long glass shelves, are the pastries — including, on a mid-December visit, those made only at this time of year: Neapolitan struffoli, a little Vesuvius of golden fried dough balls glazed with honey and made merry with rainbow-colored nonpareil sprinkles and candied fruit; pignolata from Messina — more fried dough but in large irregular shapes and covered in vanilla-lemon or chocolate icing; susumelle, a soft almond biscuit flavored with honey and orange oil; and three kinds of torrone, the Sicilian nougat candy. There are also yule logs, for which Veniero’s will provide, on request, and little signs that read, “Merry Christmas,” “Happy New Year” or “Happy Hanukkah,” because, as Robert Zerilli, the store’s co-owner, along with his three siblings, and manager, says, “This is New York. We celebrate everything! We sell delicious rugelach.”
The Zerilli and Veniero families are inextricably linked, he says. Zerilli, 60, is the great-nephew of Antonio Veniero, who founded the shop in 1894, which, he explains, makes him the fourth generation of the dynasty to run the place. Sipping espresso with us at the back of the store is Frankie Zerilli, Robert’s son, a talented drummer who will be the fifth generation; at 34, he already helps with deliveries and much else.
Recently, my doctor said it wouldn’t hurt to lay off the sweets, but does that mean, I wonder, that I can’t try the pizza rustica, a sort of piquant Italian quiche stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, prosciutto, salami and ham? Almost certainly off limits is my absolute holiday favorite, the roccoco cookie, a Neapolitan specialty shaped like a doughnut with a hole in the middle; made with almonds, cashews, cinnamon and vanilla, it’s spicy, sweet and crunchy. “A roccoco is best for dunking,” says Robert Zerilli. “You can dip it in an espresso, or a glass of vin santo.”
The cookie is traditionally baked and sold from Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, to Epiphany (Three Kings Day) on Jan. 6. “By mid-December we are locked and loaded for the holidays,” says Zerilli. He tells me that, over the next few weeks, the store will probably…