Villabate is the name of the New York Metropolitan area’s finest Sicilian bakery and pastry shop. It is also the name of the ancestral town of the Alaimo family, who have owned and operated this Bensonhust institution for 35 years. For family and historical reasons, their hometown of Villabate, Sicily is now the primary setting for Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily, a novel that the Alaimos are helping to support and promote.
“This may be a case of the Princess and the Pastries, or of the Bourbons come to Brooklyn,” said author Anthony Di Renzo, whose roots also extend to Villabate.
For contributing money and resources towards the book’s production and distribution, the Villabate-Alba Bakery and Pastry Shop will appear in the novel’s acknowledgment section.
Di Renzo’s collaboration with Villabate-Alba honours Sicilian family, Sicilian history, and Sicilian craftsmanship. “After all,” he said, “the Alaimos are artists, too.”
“Corporations aren’t the only ones who support the arts,” Di Renzo noted. “Small businesses are just as important.” His collaboration with Villabate-Alba honours Sicilian family, Sicilian history, and Sicilian craftsmanship. “After all,” he said, “the Alaimos are artists, too.”
For three generations the Alaimo family has created the finest Sicilian pastries, cakes, cookies and breads, whether in or in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn or back in Villabate, Sicily. The author’s mother, Maria Coffaro Bilo, and Angelo Alaimo, the founder of the Brooklyn pastry dynasty, were distant cousins and childhood playmates.
When the economic recovery from World War II proved too daunting, Angelo and his son Emanuele immigrated to America. For over a decade, the two worked hard as simple breadmakers in bakeries all over Brooklyn, earning a reputation for quality and craftsmanship. Encouraged by their neighbours and customers, father and son in 1979 started their own place: Villabate of 18th Avenue. On opening day, Di Renzo’s 48-year-old mother, who had moved to America several years before Angelo, drove in from New Jersey to be among the first customers.
Since then, Villabate-Alba has passed from Emanuele Senior to Emanuele Junior, Anthony, Lina, and Angela. As the family explained in a 2010 feature on Brooklyn Independent Television, Manny, “the quiet one,” runs things in the back; Anthony, “Mr. Personality,” entertains customers and handles the advertising and public relations; and Angela “basically bosses everyone around.” The new generation is proud of its Sicilian roots and visits Villabate almost every year. However, Trinacria became a rich source of knowledge, providing the Alaimo family a whole new perspective on their roots and their ancestral town’s actual history.
From the days of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Villabate, a suburb of 20,000 people, has been an important agricultural centre in the Conca d’Oro, or Golden Conch, the fertile plain surrounding Palermo. In 1700, Antonio Agnello, an aristocratic abbé and an amateur botanist, founded a commune to develop the hardy strands of olive and citrus that became the area’s chief crops. Most of the town, not incorporated until 1858, would be parcelled from the abbé’s huge estate; hence came the name Villabate, a contraction of Villa dell’Abate (Abbot’s Villa).
This land forms the heart of Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily. The book’s title derives from the ancient Greek name for Sicily. Trinàcria refers to the island’s triangular shape and the three-legged gorgon on its regional flag. It is also the nickname of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Zita Valanguerra Spinelli (1794-1882), Marchesa of Scalea, who moved from Bagheria to Villabate to grow prized blood oranges. Her turbulent life mirrors Sicily’s rocky transition from feudalism to capitalism.Guernica Editions, an independent literary press in Toronto, Canada, plans to release the novel by November.
The Alaimo family played a key role in the book’s online campaign and live fundraising event, both sponsored by the Italian Cultural Foundation and Casa Belvedere and organized by consultant Roberto Ragone. The Villabate-Alba Bakery and Pastry Shop not only contributed money but supplied a large tray of ossi di morti for the November 29th reception at Umberto’s Clam House in New York’s Little Italy. Shaped like human bones, these traditional almond-paste cookies are served throughout the month when All Souls Day falls. They seemed a fitting symbol for a book whose narrator speaks from beyond the grave.
“We’re pleased to do whatever we can to move this book forward,” said Antonio Alaimo, “but we’re just as pleased to reconnect with a long-lost relative. Cousin Anthony and I share the same heritage. Sicilian stories and Sicilian sweets: who can get enough of them?”
Di Renzo agrees. “It’s about the tasting the past. I think of that passage in Proust, where he bites into a madeleine and remembers his childhood. A slice of cassata or a pistachio cannolo has the same effect on Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans. It unlocks memories and brings back the dead, whether in Palermo or Brooklyn. In fact, I hope this all inspires post-St. Joseph’s Day orders for zeppole and sfingi from Villabate-Alba.”
Readers may sample authentic Sicilian pastries at the Villabate-Alba Bakery and Pastry Shop, 7001 18th Avenue, Brooklyn.
Business hours are: Monday through Saturday, 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM; Sunday, 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM; Holidays, 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Villabate-Alba also ships practically anywhere. Order through their website at http://villabate.com and taste the past.