Many Italian restaurants, caffes, pastry shops, bakeries, and delicatessens preserve the culinary traditions of Italy in a general way, maintaining high standards in the making
of venerable recipes even if they are run by non-Italians who have learned their art in specialty schools. Yet it is rare to find an establishment where the excellence of the products can be directly traced back to a specific locale in the old country, historically and geographically, as one would plot the rise and flourishing of a great dynasty.
Such is the case with Caffe Aurora in Poughkeepsie, New York, which over the last year has been celebrating its 75th anniversary as the premiere Italian pasticceria in the Mid-Hudson Valley. Opened in December 1941 by the late and fondly remembered Signor Paolo Strippoli, who came to America as a teenager from a village near Bari, it continues to thrive and excel under the faithful stewardship of his son Louis, universally known as “Lou.” “One of the reasons why Caffe Aurora continues to run successfully is that I listened and learned from my parents,” Lou Strippoli explains. “They served the Italian community here, but also expanded to cater the events of local institutions and corporations. The business grew with Poughkeepsie, yet retained not only its Italian flavor, but the particular baking traditions my father learned growing up near Bari and as an apprentice in America. Although we have people coming from across the country and the world to Caffe Aurora, we still take care of the families that work for us, and whom we work for.”
Born in 1917, Signor Paolo had his first experiences before an oven in his village bakery, though his son insists that they were “nothing serious.” Yet they must have laid a very solid foundation, for when he came to America in 1934 he soon landed a job at the famed Caffe Puglia on Park Hill Avenue in Yonkers, where in the tradition of the old Italian botteghe he rapidly advanced from apprentice to a master ready to strike out on his own. His teachers were paisani who taught him the full spectrum of Italian baking while emphasizing their barese specialties. “Many of the things we do here, my father learned at Caffe Puglia,” Lou relates. “Italian ices, molding Easter chocolates, making pastries and cookies from scratch. But the best example of the regional lineage is the taralli, a pretzel-like confection which is not sweet. They are such standard fare in Puglia that the old proverb goes, Tutto finisce con taralli e vino –. “Everything finishes with taralli and wine” — because that is what they break out at the end of every social gathering, when the time has come for convivial conversation. Of course we make the classic taralli baresi, consisting of wine and fennel, but have also developed pepper and garlic taralli as well. Alas, the Caffe Puglia is gone, but we still get many people here who remember it, and are aware that we continue its tradition.” By the time he was 24, Signor Paolo had saved enough money to think about opening his own business.
He chose Poughkeepsie, which had a vibrant Little Italy dating to the 1880s when Italian immigrants built the railroad bridge over the Hudson, because he had an uncle who operated a coal and ice company there. The first establishment opened on Main Street across from his uncles’ place in early December 1941 – yet world events soon forced the young entrepreneur to adapt to changing times. “Shortly after the opening, Pearl Harbor was bombed,” Lou explains. “With Italy at war with the United States, my father was advised not to choose a very Italian name for his caffe, so he chose “Aurora,” the Roman goddess of the dawn and a literary name for the sunrise even in English. And his initial time behind the counter was short, for as a new citizen he felt obliged to defend his country and enlisted in the army on October of 1942, turning over the operation of the caffe to his sister Gina. He served in Italy, laughing off the hardships of the war as ‘a free vacation.’ When he returned home in 1945, he found that Gina had done a great job running the place, and he could resume work where he left off.” With an important addition, however: his wife Filomena, affectionately called “Menina,” a baresa whom Signor Paolo married soon after the war, and who her son recalls as “the heart and soul of the business. She knew how to deal with people. My dad made the stuff, my mom dealt with our patrons. They raised three children, Sabino, Lucretia, and myself, and instilled in us their values of work and family. Our holidays were spent working together in the caffe.”
One of the Caffe Aurora’s greatest challenges came in the early 1960s, when what most Poughkeepsie residents still regard as an ill-conceived urban renewal campaign swept the city, resulting in the demolition of entire historic neighborhoods. The building that housed the caffe was condemned to make way for the scheme, so Signor Paolo acquired three vacant buildings closer to the heart of Little Italy, knocked them down, and built the present structure at 145 Mill Street, which opened in August of 1962. “Things should be allowed to grow gracefully, and not be forced,” Lou muses about that experience. “Thought should be given to the relationship between businesses and their neighborhood, the viability of the proposed project, and its potential negative effects. To this day, the site of the original Caffe Aurora is still a vacant lot.”
Yet the forced move seems not to have so much as broken the caffes’ stride, for the expanded space was complemented by a diversification of its culinary repertoire that can be seen as soon as one approaches the display cases. Side by side with the old mainstays of cannoli, sfogliatelle, bigne, marzapane, pasticotti, and deliziose, one can opt for baba au rum, eclairs, petit fours, napoleons, Linzer tarts and carrot cakes, not to mention the essential apple and pumkin pies of the American holiday season.
“You have to change; you can’t stand still,” Lou affirms. “We went from Italian to European to American, even making danishes for a while before it became evident that we were not meant to be a breakfast place. Another of our initiatives was to focus on the quality of the taste of the cakes, even when they are large, as was the replica of Vassar College’s Main Building we created for its 100th anniversary in 1961, or wedding cakes. We continually receive five star reviews for the latter; people write telling us that they are not used to having wedding cakes taste so good.”
Although Lou Strippoli apprenticed with his parents, he originally had no intention of taking over the family business, looking to other fields by earning a bachelors degree in Business Administration at SUNY Plattsburgh. Yet a tight job market in the early 1970s caused him to accept employment with his father, and when Signor Paolo decided to retire after Filomena’s tragic death in an auto accident in 1979, Lou took ownership of Caffe Aurora., deepening his expertise with a degree from the culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Signor Paolo remained a venerable and warm presence at the caffe until his passing at the age of 83 in 2000.
“I’ve worked here my whole life,” Lou concludes with a grand sweep of his hand as a diverse group of patrons lines up at the counter to be served by Emily Paonessa, the caffes’ indispensable veteran employee, while old men speaking Italian sip what the inhabitants of il bel paese cannot do without – a fine caffe espresso. “We have gone through some tough times, but the product quality and the human quality people experience when they come here have always seen us through, and made for our special reputation.”