Walk down Avenue X in the early morning and you’ll surely feel it. Not the warmth of the dawning sun or the quiet of a neighborhood yet to rise for the day, but the enticing smell of fresh baked goods coming from Cuccio’s Bakery on W 1st.
A staple of Gravesend for 80 years, Cuccio’s has been a family run business since it opened its doors in 1937, earnestly making it through a world war, depressions, recessions, and countless trends in baking (are rainbow bagels still a thing?).
On Sunday morning, Cuccio’s might as well have a revolving door that won’t stop spinning. Customers are coming in from the very early hours of the day for one of the bakery’s multinational delicacies, a staple that always brought in the neighborhood. And their secret lies in three key ingredients: perseverance, family, and a dedication to both tradition and smart expansion.
But before Cuccio’s was taken over by Gaetano and Santina, it belonged to a different family: the Castellis. Gaetano Cuccio, who was a Florist by trade, worked at the original bakery before buying it and renaming it after his own family in 1937. Ever since then, it has been a family affair with his sons and daughter taking over the business to his grandson and third generation owner, John Cuccio.
John has fond memories of his grandparents and growing up in the bakery, where he started working at 11-years-old. His grandmother paid him a penny for each pastry box he would fold. Before long, he was promoted to janitorial services, a laborious job he was paid $4.50/hour for in the late 1960s.
During the early 1940s, things became scarce as the war effort made availability of essential supplies (butter, sugar, flour) limited. But Cuccio’s persevered. It was after the war that things really took off.
A German man named Gus was brought in. He brought the German line of buns, danish, and strudel, expanding what the bakery offered. Including what is arguably one of the greatest American snack food: the doughnut. But these weren’t your typical mass-produced doughnuts. They were the thick, doughy, plump hand sized treats made in the traditional German recipe. The customers loved them then and they still love them now.
Along with the traditional Italian and the expanded German line, Santina and Gaetano Cuccio added American options such as chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, and a wide variety of pies. And that’s when Cuccio’s really became Cuccio’s.
Business was booming but the sense of family was never gone. Santina, who had trouble walking, would make it a priority to cook for the staff every day.
“She would have a pot of sauce cooking all day,” recalls John. “I would walk by and dip a piece of fresh bread into it. There’s nothing better than that.”
For as long as the Cuccio’s family was dedicated to each other, they were also dedicated to the Gravesend community. During Thanksgiving, the large-scale ovens would provide cooked turkeys for the neighborhood. The family sometimes even celebrated the holiday in the bakery, setting up a table in the back.
In the 1940s, Gaetano Cuccio would deliver fresh baked bread to the neighborhood in the early morning hours.
“He was like the milkman,” says John. “Only with bread.”
Back in the 1930s, only 320 Avenue X stood. The surrounding buildings weren’t buildings at all, but pig farms. At the end of the the day, Gaetano and the other bakers would scrub the wooden floor of the bakery and sell the leftover scraps to the farmers to feed their pigs. Whatever had fallen on the floor from the day’s prep (sugar, flour) would be collected. The bakers even scrubbed the bottom of their shoes.
After many years, Gaetano and Santina passed away and the bakery was taken over by their sons John and Joe Cuccio. When John wanted to retire in 1996, his nephews John and Frank bought the business. Catherine, the only Cuccio daughter, ended her education at grade six and went to work at the bakery. And she worked there until she passed away, assisting with the front end.
Currently, John is the one in charge, but the hours are long and the work is hard, so he trusts the front and back end responsibilities to Edel Salas, who has been working at Cuccio’s for 22 years, having been originally hired by John’s father. Edel oversees operations ensuring the traditional recipes that embedded Cuccio’s into Gravesend are still alive.
“We’re doing the same thing that my grandfather and father did,” says John.
Edel and John both admit that business has decreased in the past few years. Their biggest competition, Costco and other large supermarkets, provide customers with things they can’t offer, such as larger quantities at lower prices. But Cuccio’s has something the large chains don’t: the old recipes, made with fresh ingredients, entirely from scratch.
The top two best sellers are the jelly doughnut and the peanut butter and jelly doughnut. While it was Gus’s contribution that introduced doughnuts to the bakery, John credits a customer with a special request, evidence of Cuccio’s ability to both adapt yet still keep with tradition.
“A customer came in and said ‘why don’t you make peanut butter and jelly doughnuts?’ so we decided to add them,” says John. Along with the traditional jelly doughnuts, Cuccio’s also sells a Nutella stuffed doughnut.
But what abundant foodie trend won’t you encounter at Cuccio’s? The bacon sensation! John is not a fan of combining less traditional flavors and the customers seem to love the safety of the reliable jelly doughnut.
Polly Catanzaro, a local resident, has been a patron of Cuccio’s for 40 years.
“Back then the doughnuts were 10 cents,” says Polly. “And they were always delicious and are still delicious.”
Some loyal customers come back because of their own families’ traditions of having Cuccio’s boxes on the table during the holidays, which is the busiest time of the year. Edel knows the large meal holidays (year-end and Easter) bring people in from all over. The lines are almost always out the door and some patrons travel from other boroughs and even as far as Connecticut just to have Cuccio’s.
One of the secrets of Cuccio’s success is to consistently update. John expanded the business by bringing in a cake decorator to design all the beautiful full-sized cakes. At one time, he pursued shipping cookies through internet orders, but the system couldn’t quite be perfected to their liking.
In the future, John hopes to take Cuccio’s to 100 years. And who knows? Maybe John will change his mind and add bacon to the peanut butter and jelly doughnuts?