Baking and Shaking at New York’s Finest

November 15, 2009
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Sal's ready to serve some fresh bagels hot out of the oven.

Sal's ready to serve some fresh bagels hot out of the oven.

Moving faster than a New York minute, Sal Mangiafreno, a Queens-born and raised baker now living in La Verne, is preparing bagels, baguettes, dinner rolls, turnovers, and deep dish Sicilian pizza before opening the doors at 6 a.m. to his New York City’s Finest Bakery and Café in West Covina.

His hands are a blur, pulling dough from the retarder (refrigerator), and then cutting, twisting, stretching, basting, and sprinkling the new shapes before placing them into a shiny stainless triple deck oven. No recipes or measurements needed.

“I do everything by eye, you know what I mean,” says Sal who sounds like Joe Pesci with a baker’s hat.

Moving his family out here in last November, he opened for business on February 12 this year, and really hasn’t stopped working since. He logs 18-hour days seven days a week, and loves it.

“Bread’s my thing,” Sal said. “When I do this, it’s like therapy for me. I enjoy doing it.”

Sal’s brother Carlo and mother Catherine still run the family bakery in Astoria Queens, called Angelo & Sons. He was one of the sons who moved west for the weather and the business opportunity. Before opening New York’s Finest, he spent weeks with his uncle scoping out the bakery competition.

“All the time, I’m thinking, ‘I can make a killing over here because they don’t have anything,’” Sal recalled, while putting slits in the top of bread loaves to let them breathe. “I really don’t have no competition because what I make they don’t make, you know what I’m saying.”

Sal wasn’t speaking from false bravado. He grew up in the bakery business. Although he’s only 39, he has been working in bakeries for 30 years, doing everything from sweeping the floors to perfecting the cream for his cannolis. Before he left for California and La Verne where his aunt and mother-in-law lived, he managed 20 employees at his parents’ bakery on Astoria Blvd. in the Queens borough of New York City.

Bread loaves on their way to being toasted.

Bread loaves on their way to being toasted.

He had hoped to open in one of La Verne’s shopping centers, but he said the leasing agents all wanted to see his financials before they would show him the keys.

“That was insane,” Sal recalled. “The guy says we need to see your bank account, and stuff like that. I just really want to go inside to take a look around the store, but they won’t even let you go in. In New York, they tell you take a look. When you first open up, you don’t have your pockets loaded or whatever.”

Finally, he found the West Covina location across the street from the West Covina civic center, home to a branch of the Los Angeles County court system, a library and police headquarters. While the location offered potential, the strip center was virtually deserted, another victim of the current economy.

“I was a little nervous on opening here,” Sal said, “because it looked deserted. There was nobody around. There was a check-cashing place next door. I saw nobody all day long.”

Because the location he was most interested in, a former Mexican restaurant, had been vacant so long, “they kind of worked with me,” Sal said. “They’re nice people.”

The owner retiled the 2,400-square-foot space and Sal brought in top-of- the-line baking equipment. “I wanted all new equipment. I like to operate that way, no Mickey Mouse stuff,” Sal said. There’s now a large seating area surrounding by quintessential New York mementos, from classic New York City street addresses, such as Park Avenue and Mulberry Street, to a bigger-than-life photograph of the twinkling Brooklyn Bridge.

Long gone are the old revolving bread ovens that were half the size of his present-day kitchen. “The way fuel prices are now, those things are dinosaurs,” Sal said. “They’re starting to get extinct because they’re just too costly to run. Plus, to make steam for the oven, you needed a boiler.”

Sal's always taking care of business in a flash!

Sal's always taking care of business in a flash!

One indication you know Sal is the genuine New York City article is the fact that although he lived within 10 minutes of both Yankee and Shea stadiums, he never once saw a ballgame there. Nor did he ever visit the Statue of Liberty or the twin towers at the World Trade Center before September 11, 2001. He visited the Empire State Building once when a relative came to town. He was always too busy working to do touristy things.

Although Sal’s a one-man show, he’s surrounded by women. His wife, Francesca and her sisters all help out. In fact, you’ll only find family members serving you, which is exactly how Sal wants it.

“I’m very picky on getting people to work,” Sal said. “Outside help can never serve the people the way you want to serve them. I’m behind the counter making your sandwich. With the kind of sandwich I’m going to give you, I know you’re coming back. If you get other people to work, they might be skimpy on the meat.”

At their New York bakery, sandwiches were named after actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Here the sandwiches follow a more New York-style theme, “The Manhattan,”  “The Times Square,” “The NYPD,” and his favorite, “The Queens,” a hero stacked with prosciutto, sopresatta, capicollo, salami, mortadella, provolone, sweet peppers, lettuce, oil and vinegar.

Sandwiches that come on a roll run $5.50; on a 12-inch hero, they run $7. Either choice includes a choice of a pickle, macaroni, or potato salad. “I try to make it a regular menu for working people, you know what I mean.”

Sal admits he’s not the easiest boss to work for.

“My wife and my sisters-in-law sometimes say they don’t like to work for me, because I pick on them all the time,” he said. “I say, ‘Don’t do this,’ and ‘I want it done like that,’ and they ask, ‘Why?’ and I say, ‘Just do what I say.’ I’ve been doing this for 30 years, you know what I’m saying.”

Because Sal and Francesca have three daughters, Caterina, Maria and Laura, there was talk about naming the bakery and café, “Sal and Daughters,” a play on the Angelo and Sons’ bakery back home.

“I said that’s a good idea, but we really need something that’s going to let people know we’re from New York.”

There’s plenty beside the name to let you know Sal’s from New York. Francesca, who’s originally from California, met Sal through family connections on a trip to New York in 1995. Three years later, they married. “I said, ‘This is the deal.’ ‘My store’s here in Queens. If you want to get married, you gotta stay here.’” For the reception, they had put a $5,000 deposit down on a restaurant just before Sal was diagnosed with lymphoma.

“I had it in my neck,” Sal said. “They radiated me and chemo-ed me. Everything looked good and then after a couple of months, it went to my liver. I lost my hair, the whole nine yards. I went down to 130 pounds.” But he beat it. “You kind of see things differently after you go through that,” Sal said.

Instead of a big restaurant reception, they got married at his dad’s house. “The priest came over there,” Sal recalled. The newlyweds did make it to Sicily, however, and a small village near Palermo where his family is from. That was the last vacation he and Francesca took.

He doesn’t begrudge the hard work. In fact, he celebrates it. A large gold cross dangles from Sal’s neck, reminding him that the good lord is looking after him.

He has more protection than that, however. On his way to Los Angeles to scout out some bakery locations, he stopped at Elvis’s Graceland Mansion in Memphis, Tenn. It was a boyhood dream. He took the $68 VIP tour and stayed at the Heartbreak Hotel. He visited Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his first songs. “I stood right on the ‘X’, where he recorded ‘Hound Dog.’ with the same microphone that he used.”

He also got a tattoo of an angel with the initials, TCB and a thunderbolt. “That was Elvis’s emblem. It stands for ‘Taking Care of Business’ in a flash.”

He called back home and told Francesca, he had had an “alteration.” That night he looked in mirror and he decided he needed a second tattoo on his right arm to balance out the first one on his left. “With just the one, it didn’t look even,” he said. His second tattoo features a rose and the names of his three daughters.

His wife’s name is missing. “You’re the mother, you’re the rose,” Sal told her when she pointed out the omission.

Sal has the bling, and he’s been making the cash register ring by offering quality, freshness, service and a real slice of the Big Apple. “If I see a loaf of bread that’s half crooked, I throw it in the garbage,” said Sal, who serves Boar’s Head cold cuts and premium Lavazza coffee. He also makes his own mozzarella. “Out here, you go to a deli and you ask for fresh mozzarella, and they’re like, what, what’s that?”

But mostly customers walk through the front door because he moves at a different pace. In New York, he had 20 people working for him. “I’m sleeping at night, they call me, ‘The oven doesn’t work,’ a guy doesn’t show up for work. I’ve been through all that.

“This is nothing over here (California),” he adds. “I’m flying over here. When I want to get something done, I jump on it. In New York, we kind of work a little bit faster than Californians. Everybody over here is laid back.

“Here I say, ‘Yo, let’s go.’”

New York’s Finest Bakery & Café is located at 648 S. Sunset Ave. in West Covina. For more information, call (626) 814-9900.


6 Responses to “Baking and Shaking at New York’s Finest”

  1. Thanks for the info! I live about 3 miles from this and didn’t even know about it. Now I’ve got to get some of my friends together and try it!

  2. Excellent article. New York’s Finest has the best in FRESH baked
    bread, cookies, pastries, rolls, calzones, sandwiches to die for…….can’t beat it anywhere East of Los Angeles. Everything baked on the premises with pride.

    Service can’t be beat. Alwlays with a smile friendly and fast !!

    You don’t know what your missing. Oh, by the way, the pizza is the best !!

  3. sure would have been nice for the “smart guys” in La Verne to keep him in town and local !!

  4. Wow!!! This hit the nail on the head. I have been going to NY’s Finest since a few days after it opened. From the very start Sal and his wife have made me feel like family, the service is excellent and the food superb. You just don’t find this type of service or quality very often. Make sure you check go pay Sal a visit.

  5. Lauren (your second cousin) from Lido Beach N.Y
    September 3rd, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Hi Sal, Francesca, Caterina, Maria and Laura,

    Congrats on your new bakery!! We miss you guys soo much!! Hope to see you soon!! We will definitely come and try your delicious pizza and cookies (that I love!)

    Love Lauren, Ivanna, Giovanni, Mom & Papa(Sal)

  6. I live in Glendora, and hadn’t heard of this place, we’ll have to try it out definately

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