La Segunda Bakery Interior

photo by: La Segunda

Preservation Magazine, Winter 2023

6 Historic Bakeries Where You Can Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth

Around the turn of the 19th century, Mario Isgro arrived in Philadelphia from Sicily with little to his name—except for his recipes. Classically trained in the pastry and culinary arts, he kept a tight hold on his methods for making traditional Italian desserts: cannoli, sfogliatelle, rum cake, torrone, and Italian cookies. By 1904, Isgro had earned enough money to buy a rowhouse in South Philadelphia, where he and his wife, Crucificia, operated their fledgling bakery out of the basement and first floor and lived upstairs. “They never really closed,” says their great-grandson A.J. Isgro, who now runs Isgro Pastries with his brother, Michael. “Someone would knock on the window [at night] and they’d come into the bakery and fill a couple cannoli.”

Isgro Bakery Family Photo 2021

photo by: Dom Episcopo

From left, Michael, A.J., and Gus Isgro of Isgro Pastries in Philadelphia.

The 119-year-old bakery follows regular hours now, but the longtime recipes and techniques remain. A.J. and Michael’s father, the semi-retired Gus Isgro, added items such as brownies and layer cakes to the menu, while creating an Italian-style ricotta cookie for good measure. The family regularly maintains the building’s ornate brickwork and its red, white, and green sign, which is several decades old. Some of the customers’ families have been coming in for decades, too. “People will say things like, ‘For 40 years, we’ve gotten our Isgro rum cake,’” A.J. says. “When you hear stuff like this, you know you’re doing the right thing in the right place.”

Exterior, Lee Lee's

photo by: Cole Saladino for Thrillist/Vox

Alvin Lee Smalls of Lee Lee's Baked Goods began baking professionally circa 1965.

New York City baker Alvin Lee Smalls understands the importance of guarding one’s recipes. Nobody outside the inner circle of Lee Lee’s Baked Goods, his 650-square-foot bakery in Harlem, knows the secret to his acclaimed rugelach, which The New Yorker described in 2018 as “transcendent.” The South Carolina–born Smalls worked for nearly 30 years in the kitchen at New York Presbyterian Hospital, rising to become head baker. Though he didn’t grow up eating rugelach, he began experimenting with making the time-honored Jewish pastry during the 1970s, trying different ingredients and strategies until he came up with a recipe that made him happy. He started his own bakery in 1988 and moved to his current location 22 years ago.

In 2021, the National Trust and American Express chose Lee Lee’s as a recipient of a $40,000 Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant. Smalls used most of the funding to produce new signage and upgrade the bakery’s lighting and outdoor seating. Customers enjoy their chocolate, raspberry, and apricot rugelach outside the cheerful storefront—along with slices of Smalls’ carrot cake, another bestseller.

Cakes (specifically a hot-milk sponge cake, used as the base for a variety of fillings and frostings) are the signature item at Roeser’s Bakery in Chicago. German baker John C. Roeser Sr. immigrated to the United States by way of England and, like Mario Isgro, he brought his treasured recipes with him. Roeser opened his business in an Italianate building in the city’s Humboldt Park neighborhood in 1911, and it’s been there ever since.

“We use my great-grandfather’s formulas for pretty much everything we make,” says John C. Roeser IV, the fourth-generation owner. That includes the recipe for the sponge cake, which entails rapidly whipping air into the batter to create a fluffy texture and then adding hot milk at the last minute, just before the cake goes into the oven. “It’s a fairly time-sensitive process,” Roeser adds. “Not a lot of people are doing it anymore.” A fresh-strawberry filling and buttercream frosting are the cake’s most popular add-ons.

In addition to using old-fashioned pastry techniques, the family has kept the original space intact—including its distinctive 1950s neon sign and terrazzo floors. “I don’t want to get new display cases in and make the place look more modern,” says 34-year-old Roeser. “There’s a whole nostalgia aspect you get when you come here. [Customers] want to go somewhere that brings comfort.”

Roeser's Bakery Exterior

photo by: Chicago Architecture Center/Anna Munzesheimer

Roeser's Bakery in Chicago.

Even when a bakery hasn’t remained in one family or under one owner, it can still serve as an important throughline for a community. The building that now houses The North Bend Bakery in North Bend, Washington, about 30 miles outside Seattle, has continuously held various bakeries since its construction in 1926. The masonry structure’s current owner, Steve Teodosiadis, renovated it about a decade ago, removing a Bavarian-style facade and returning it to its simpler 1920s storefront. “I did research and got pictures from a local museum of what it had looked like,” he says. “We were able to get it all cleaned up and back to where it was before.” A county grant helped fund the project, which involved exposing the old windows and roofline.

Teodosiadis ran the bakery himself for a few years, in part to keep it from becoming any other type of shop. “I didn’t want to see it not be a bakery anymore,” he says. He still owns the building, but in 2018 he sold the business to Seattle baker Aaron Raff, who moved to the area with his young family and renamed the bakery after the town. Raff has doubled down on the ever-popular doughnut, adding varieties like pumpkin, apple spice, and blueberry. He also serves savory items, such as specialty sandwiches, soups, and quiches, and keeps a steady rotation going of pies, cookies, and other sweets. “We try to keep it well-rounded,” he says.

Employee at La Segunda Bakery

photo by: American Express

An employee at Tampa, Florida's La Segunda Central Bakery.

La Segunda Central Bakery in Tampa, Florida (shown at top), also offers both savory and sweet options, including a popular guava turnover. But by far its best-known item is its traditional Cuban-style bread, which it sells to retail customers as well as local restaurants and grocery stores. Owner Copeland More’s great-grandfather Juan Moré traveled from Spain to Cuba in the late 19th century and ended up in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood. “[He and others] started a business making Cuban bread, mainly feeding cigar industry workers,” says Copeland. “They had a few bakeries, and the second one survived. That’s why it’s called La Segunda.”

Many of the company’s bakers are veteran La Segunda employees; some have worked there for 30 or even 40 years. They know exactly how to manage each loaf by hand so that it retains the classic Cuban bread characteristics: a slightly sour taste; a “lightly crunchy” crust, according to Copeland; and a traditional palmetto leaf used to score the bread and then baked into the top, a flourish Juan Moré learned in Cuba. “The building is not temperature controlled,” says Copeland, who runs the bread bakery and a couple of bakery-and-cafe branches. “The bakers are making judgments and decisions from minute to minute, to make sure the bread comes out the way it’s supposed to.” In 2022 La Segunda Central Bakery received a Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant, which it used to repaint its 1961 building and replace the windows and doors.

Sign_Phoenix Bakery

photo by: Claudine Klodien/Alamy Stock Photo

Phoenix Bakery in Los Angeles' Chinatown.

As with La Segunda, Roeser’s, and Isgro, the longtime success of Phoenix Bakery in Los Angeles involves multiple generations of family members. Fung Chow Chan and Wai Hing, immigrants from China living in L.A., missed the pastries from back home, so they started the bakery around 1938. “There weren’t a whole lot of opportunities for Chinese people in those days,” says their daughter Kathryn Chan Ceppi. “My dad said, ‘In good times or bad, people celebrate, and you need sweets for that.’” Chan sent his brother, Lun F. Chan, to culinary school in Hong Kong so the bakery would have a trained pastry chef.

The shop’s traditional almond cookies and moon cakes quickly gained a following. Lun created a more Western-style strawberry cream cake that also took off, and the bakery thrived through the decades amid major changes in downtown L.A. In 1977 it moved to its current Chinatown building, topped by a sign with the bakery’s logo of a little boy holding a gift, designed by the celebrated Disney animator and family friend Tyrus Wong. The brightly colored sign beckons customers, who come from all over the region to purchase their Phoenix Bakery treats—especially the strawberry cream cake, the almond cookies, and sugar butterflies (wonton wrappers that are folded, deep-fried, and then dipped in a syrup mixture).

“This is L.A.,” says Ceppi, who co-runs the business with her brothers Ken and Kelly Chan and other family members. “People will drive anywhere to get special things.”

“It’s a lot of people who grew up in Southern California,” adds Ken Chan. “Your grandmother came here, your mother came here, and now you’re coming here.”

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Headshot Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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