For almost 80 years, Caffè Aurora in the City of Poughkeepsie has been a sweet part of weddings, birthdays, christenings and other special occasions for too many residents to count.
Paolo Strippoli opened the Italian pastry shop Dec. 3, 1941 — just days before the United States entered World War II.
In 1980, his son, Lou Strippoli, bought the business. Through the years, the shop’s customers have ranged from residents to music icons and even a first lady of the United States.
But, after running it for around 40 years, Lou Strippoli is ready to retire. A large sign hangs from the awning outside the pasticceria in the historic Little Italy district at 145 Mill St. announcing the sale or lease of the business and property.
“I’m retiring, and ideally selling both the business and the real estate with it,” said Lou Strippoli, whose father died in 2000. “Dad retired at 63 and I am going to be 68 this year so I gave him an earlier exit than I got. He got paid for it and still got to boss people around the business.”
Because the U.S. was at war with Italy at the time, Paolo Strippoli heeded the advice of friends to choose a name for the business that did not have “a strong Italian flavor,” so he chose “Aurora,” which means “dawn.” Paolo Strippoli’s sister, Gina, operated the business from October, 1942 until December, 1945, while he served in the Army.
Lou Strippoli said he is proud of his business accomplishments over the years, but is ready to move on.
“Ideally, I would like to be a snowbird. I love the Hudson Valley but don’t want to shovel snow any longer,” the Salt Point resident said.
He said he plans to be out of the business within a year.
“I have a lot of allegiance to the area and the neighborhood,” Strippoli said. “I’m not selling for the sake of selling. I’m not in any rush. … I believe the City of Poughkeepsie is on a rebound and I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I will be very particular with what goes in.”
Strippoli, who has long been involved with community fundraisers and projects as a local business owner, well knows the ups and downs of progress in the city.
“I’ve watched the city slide and then come back,” he said. “The reason we are in the space we are in now is one of those negative things. My dad was forced to leave his former location at 201 Main St. for urban renewal (across from Schatzi’s Pub and Bier Garden) and it’s a parking lot to this day. Mass productions and developments and housing projects take away from the city rather than enhance it. Without private equity money coming in, there is no allegiance.”
Brushing with history
For now, Strippoli is busy moving many of his father’s vintage candy molds, scales, manual typewriters, stamp machines and other tools of the trade out of storage in the basement and displaying them on the counter tops in the shop. Italian pastries are showcased behind glass display cases, espresso and sodas were once made at the vintage soda counter, and house-made Italian ices are still served on hot summer days at the walk-up window.
Longtime customers often can be found chatting in Italian as they sip on demitasse, sitting around the glass-topped tables under which laminated newspaper clippings feature stories about the business and the neighborhood folk, including one table with obituaries.
“It is going to be bittersweet,” Strippoli said. “We have always been a part of the community in Poughkeepsie.”
Known for its variety of Italian pastries, such as sfogliatelle, cannoli, biscotti and struffoli, and specialty cakes and holiday breads, Caffè Aurora has serviced the likes of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose limousine would pull up to the curb and her chauffeur would run in for a box of petits fours to take home to Hyde Park.
“We have made cakes for a lot of people over the years — Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm — and an accounting firm (Coopers & Lybrand) that used to take care of the New York State Lottery. They threw a party and we had to make a cake in the shape of Michie Stadium for 2,000 people,” Strippoli said. “We will miss it.”
Strippoli credits his chief cake decorator and coordinator, Emily Paonessa, who first started working for his father, with helping to make the business a success.
“She is an amazing person and I would not be operating without her,” he said. “To me, she is family.”
A ‘family ‘operation
Paonessa said she started working for Paolo Strippoli when she was 15.
“It was my after-school job and on weekends,” she said. “I graduated to decorating and it just came naturally to me — Louie taught me the tricks of the trade.”
So many people have told her that they got their wedding cakes made at Caffe Aurora, and Paonessa always tells them, “I probably made it.”
Paonessa, who was born and raised in the neighborhood and grew up with Lou Strippoli, left the business to raise her four children after moving to Hyde Park when she got married. After her husband, Victor, died in 2007, she moved back to the Little Italy district and now lives in an apartment in the original home where she was raised.
“For me, I would come to work every day, that’s what I did. We’re more like brother and sister,” she said about Strippoli, rather than boss and employee. “It’s also time to take a break. I’m with Louie; whatever he does, I’m with him.”
Luigi Coppola, 50, one of the owners of Coppola’s restaurants in the Hudson Valley, said he grew up with Strippoli and has been a loyal customer for decades.
“When my father, Antonio, opened the restaurant in 1961 he broke away from a very popular restaurant in the area to open his own,” Coppola said. “All of the purveyors were told not to do business with him. So Louie’s dad, Paolo, extended credit to my father and we have been loyal customers ever since then.”
Coppola said some of his earliest memories as a child are going to the pastry shop during the holidays.
“When I was 4 or 5, I remember going in at Easter time and there were the giant chocolate rabbits,” he said. “I’ll never forget the smells, and looking in the corner seeing the old Italian men playing cards and sipping espresso.”
Occasions for cake
Caffè Aurora supplies his restaurants with cakes for weddings and special occasions, not to mention all the sweets for his own family.
“For my wedding, Louie made me a seven-tier napoleon,” Coppola said. “I’ll never forget that taste.”
He still shops there during the holidays and special occasions.
“Easter’s always the Italian grain pie, Christmas a cheesecake and for my birthday, I always get a raspberry cheesecake with chocolate ganache,” Coppola said. “Whenever there was a special occasion we would always get a rum cake.”
Strippoli said what he won’t miss are the long hours that come with being the proprietor of a business.
“I would average 18 hours per day,” Strippoli said. “It’s nowhere near that now. We used to stay open on weekends until 11 at night. Now we’re open 10 to 5, seven days a week.”
Strippoli said what he will miss most about the business are the people and the satisfaction that comes with completing a job.
“We have done some amazing culinary things over the years,” he said. “The beauty of this job is you actually create something and can see it when it’s completed. Sometimes you can’t see the fruit of your labors. I’m very proud of some of the things we have done. … That it tastes good is primary, and then it looks good, too.”
Barbara Gallo Farrell: [email protected]; 845-437-4979; Twitter: @PJBarb
On the web
Caffè Aurora: 845-454-1900; www.caffeaurora.com