Known for its fluffy Boston Cream pies, Italian butter cookies and layered cakes, Conti’s Pastry Shoppe has been a staple in Morris Park for a century. On Oct. 23, the bakery celebrated its centennial.
Founded in 1921 by Augustino Conti, the bakery quickly grew to a popular place in the neighborhood. Located at 786 Morris Park Ave., people would flock there for cakes, coffee and comfort. For three generations, the bakery was owned by the Conti family until 2001, when owners Safet Paljevic and his two partners, Senada Paljevic and Christina DiRusso, took over.
“It’s not just a job for us, it’s a part of our life,” DiRusso said. “We’re all kind of nostalgic people and we love the idea that we’ve been here 100 years.”
Safet Paljevic told the Bronx Times that while Conti’s was once a magical place, it went downhill when the grandson of the original owner took over in the ’90s. It was only open a few days a week and didn’t have the same allure it once held in the Bronx.
DiRusso, 36, who began working behind the counter at Conti’s when she was around 18 or 19, first told Safet Paljevic about the opportunity to take over the place. And with a background in real estate, he took a leap of faith and purchased the property.
“I didn’t know anything about the bakery business,” said Safet Paljevic, 46.
DiRusso added that when the trio took over it wasn’t a “sexy” place to be — people came for coffee, a muffin or a cake, that’s it.
“We were really lucky because he believed in what he saw,” DiRusso said about Paljevic. “He saw passion and I was very passionate about the store. When he first bought it the allure of a small bakery wasn’t what it is now.”
According to Safet Paljevic, from 2003-2009, they were just making enough to pay the bills at the store and stay afloat. In fact, when they took over the bakery, the trio ran the front of the store, which allowed them the benefit of getting to know their customers.
Safet Paljevic said the biggest issue was finding ways to bring in new customers. Before the advent of social media, they used to print out flyers and placed them on people’s cars. “We had nothing to lose, but everything to gain,” he said.
Then everything changed in 2010 when the NYC Department of Health shut the business down for two weeks. During that time, the owners realized they needed to focus more on the people and less on the profits.
So DiRusso and Senada, 40, watched videos on how to make specialty cakes and slowly introduced those to the store. For decades, the bakery was known for its cream pies, but they wanted to offer more. DiRusso noted people in the Bronx often had to travel to the city to find a specialty-layered cake.
But with their new approach, they changed the game in the area.
“We wanted to figure out how to take it to the next level,” DiRusso said. “We were able to teach ourselves a lot of these cakes.”
The boost in the business allowed them to expand the store, create more space for cake decorating and an office, and increase their catering operation. Soon with the new influence of social media, Conti’s became the talk of the town again.
Like many places, the scariest time for them was during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were closed for three weeks in April and there was uncertainty if or when they would be allowed to reopen. “Truthfully, we’ve never been apart from each other that long,” DiRusso said.
While DiRusso and Safet Paljevic were both diagnosed with the coronavirus, the owners were more concerned about the health and safety of their customers. However, the summer of 2020 turned out to be one of their busiest with everyone shuttered home. “Even through the pandemic we were able to still survive because people still wanted their birthday cake,” DiRusso said.
Since taking over, the place has become their second home and often they are there when the sun rises and also when it sets.
“I don’t think anyone in this business could outwork us,” Safet Paljevic said. “It’s not a job. I love coming here.”
Over the years Conti’s has been recognized on more than one occasion. It has received awards from the Edible Bronx, WeddingWire Couples’ Choice and Bride’s Choice Awards, and has been featured on NBC and News12 The Bronx.
But the owners said the credit goes to their employees. One of them is manager Gianna Giampia, who has been with the bakery for a decade. Giampia, a lifelong Morris Park resident, said Conti’s has become her second home.
“As many hours as I work here I never feel like I’m working,” Giampi said.
Reach Jason Cohen at email@example.com or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.