REQUIEM FOR A CREAM CAKE

One dessert that disappeared won’t be forgotten

requiemCreamCake
Above, from left to right: Robert’s grandparents (Mae and Joseph Centola),
Robert and his brother (David DiGiacomo) celebrating a birthday
sometime in the late ’60s with Ciminera’s cream cake. Ciminera’s cream cake
may be no more more, but other stalwart bakeries carry on the tradition.

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Clockwise from top let: Termini’s rum cakes await the final layer of butter cream icing stages;
Termin’s butter cream icing bags; Isgro’s storefront; Varallo Bros. finished cream cake, Varallo Bros.
cream gets a coating of nuts; Varallo Bros. cream cake being frosted.

Photography By Brett Thomas

Even now, a quarter-century later, my family still regrets the cake that got away. This wasn’t some plain vanilla job, but the “cream cake” of our dreams (or Italian rum cake to those who aren’t of South Philly descent).

In my family, we take cakes (and really all sweets) seriously. I come from a line of skilled home bakers, who reliably turn out Christmas butter cookies, pizzelles, biscotti and all manner of desserts, but have utmost respect for what a good bakery (or cake shop, as my Pop-Pop called it) can accomplish.

For us, the only cream cake that mattered came from Ciminera’s, a humble-looking corner bakery located in what was then an iffy neighborhood and is now up-and-coming Newbold.

Ciminera’s version had the proper light touch, from the layers of airy sponge threaded with rum-flavored chocolate and vanilla cream to the icing, which wasn’t cloying and certainly not made from Crisco—one of my father’s pet peeves. The only choice was whether to pick chopped peanuts for the sides or chocolate sprinkles. My Aunt Lois, who was the only one to opt for the latter, was perhaps the most attached to Ciminera’s: She had one practically every year for her birthday.

Like most institutions, Ciminera’s had certain rituals that had to be observed. When you picked up your cake, the old-school ladies wearing hairnets behind the counter gave strict instructions about handling it, as if you were transporting something delicate and unpredictable, like a newborn baby or a bomb. They would grill you: Hon, how far are you going with that cake? Followed by: Make sure you put it on the floor of the car, and keep it refrigerated until you’re almost ready to serve it.

Ciminera’s knew how to stoke demand with scant supply. You had to order cream cakes in advance, and the place only baked so much of its other items, like moist spice cake squares with dark chocolate icing to die for, or St. Joseph’s cakes (aka zeppole) with Bing cherries instead of the typical maraschino. After Ciminera’s (quickly) sold out on a given day, that was it.

Then one day, Ciminera’s was just gone—closed for good, with no warning.

We went through the various stages of grief, lingering especially long on the hunger stage, without ever quite getting to acceptance. In the years since, we have tried to move on. We went back to Termini’s, the source of my parents’ cake for their wedding in 1956, but that sponge had sailed. There were other cream cake disappointments that I have blocked from memory. My mom and dad now swear by one from a South Jersey bakery called Gallo’s, but I have yet to fully embrace it.

The end of Ciminera’s also signaled changes in my family and South Philly’s place in our hearts. My parents had “crossed the bridge” to New Jersey during the first big suburban wave of the late 1950s, but brought us back to South Philly regularly. We celebrated holidays at the homes of my mother’s parents and dad’s mother, who conveniently lived on the same street, albeit six blocks apart (which meant different neighborhoods); attended the Mummer’s parade and a yearly mass in honor of my DiGiacomo grandfather, who died right after Christmas when my dad was 19; and made trips to Passyunk Avenue to shop for shoes, cheese and the occasional First Holy Communion outfit.

By the time Ciminera’s closed, our direct ties to the old neighborhood had begun to loosen. My maternal grandparents had died and Nana, my dad’s mother, would soon begin her long descent into dementia. I graduated from college around this time, but South Philly didn’t appeal. Instead, I rented my first apartment in the Rittenhouse Square area and lived in Center City for the next decade, but have now come nearly full circle; I make my home with my partner in the new “South Philly”— Bella Vista.

Meanwhile, the cakes kept coming. We favored Termini’s lemon cooler cake for the summer birthdays and tried the chocolate-strawberry- banana-mousse cake from Isgro’s. We frequented Sweet Eats in South Jersey, where you could mix and match cake and icing flavors, enjoyed pound cakes from the buttercream wizards at Brown Betty, and oohed and aahed over an especially memorable custom creation from Whipped Bakeshop on Belgrade Street for my mom’s 80th birthday.

Meanwhile, my sister, Jane, has become the star baker in the family, turning out gorgeous creations from recipes by Dorie Greenspan, Maida Heatter and other expert sources. They have all been varying degrees of delicious, just not “the one.” As a result, no cake-worthy occasion goes by without someone, usually as the first slices are being handed out, lamenting, I wonder what happened to Ciminera’s.

 

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