Treats from Around the World, Here at Home

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There’s little argument over the best part of a meal. When all’s said and eaten, nothing is sweeter than the last course. And with the long history of immigrants in the Mahoning Valley, desserts are as varied as the people who came here.

“Our area, especially this strip on Belmont Avenue, has a very diverse [group]. You can always find what you’re looking for. Or maybe even some things you didn’t know you were looking for,” says Frank Occhibove, co-owner of Jimmy’s Italian Specialties, which offers a cornucopia of Italian pastries.

Just across the street, at Papa’s Puerto Rican Cuisine, Carmelo Morales has family recipes for tres leches and flan that are among his most popular items.

And in Boardman, Marta Mazur offers traditional Polish cookies, imported candies and other Slavic sweets such as kolachi.

Wherever you go in the Valley, desserts from around the world are sure to be found.

Never-Ending Options at Jimmy’s

If variety is the spice of life, then the bakery at Jimmy’s Italian Specialties has enough choices to flavor several lifetimes.

You’ll find tortas, pesche rum Italiano, eclairs, cannoli, Florentine lace cookies, pies and 30 varieties of biscotti, which sometimes isn’t quite enough to satisfy customers, says Occhibove.

Among the biscotti offerings: anise seed, blueberry cheesecake, mint chocolate chip, pumpkin spice, lemon and cranberry walnut.

Pictured: Tortas, biscotti and cookies are popular at Jimmy’s Italian Specialties.

“If you ask our customers, it’s not overkill. They ask for more. Thirty isn’t enough,” he says. “Biscotti is a twice-baked cookie. You bake it in a log, cut it and then re-bake it to make it nice and firm. They should kind of crumble when you bite into it.”

For more than 50 years, Jimmy’s, 3230 Belmont Ave., has offered customers Italian desserts the moment they set a foot inside. The bakery is 10 feet from the front entrance.

“When you walk into our store, the first thing you see is the desserts. You begin and end your meal with desserts,” he says. “Whether you’re eating it literally or figuratively, you’re enjoying dessert the entire time.”

The traditional Italian desserts have their roots in old family recipes that have been passed down and altered over the years to add new flavors – believe it or not, mint chocolate chip biscotti isn’t what most would consider a “traditional” Italian treat.

“I’ve been to Montreal, France, Germany, New York and I’d put our pastries up against anything,” Occhibove says.

But those family recipes aren’t laurels to rest on at Jimmy’s. The bakers are always on the lookout for new recipes or trends that they can apply to their pastries.

Among the recent additions to the menu are key lime pie, cream pies, cream cakes and pesche rum Italiano, a bread roll soaked in rum and decorated with icing and sugar to look like a peach.

“The staff who make the cookies and pastries have it in their hearts. … They love the art of what they do,” he says.

“Pastries go along with friends, family and food. You can start a meal with pastries and end a meal with pastries and everyone’s always going to be happy.”

Taste Slavic Traditions at Krakus

With all the treats available from the kitchen, such as paczki and chrust, and shelves – chocolates filled with espresso or vodka – at Krakus Polish Deli & Bakery, 7050 Market St. in Boardman, it may come as surprise that the most popular dessert the deli sells isn’t Polish at all.

“Kolachi is more of a Hungarian tradition, but in this area it’s the food.” says owner Marta Mazur. “We try to keep up the Slavic traditions. So to accommodate all of our customers, we added the kolachi.”

The store bakes about 50 loaves a day and offers the dessert year-round.

At first Marta and her husband, Jan, who bakes the kolachi, sold only whole loaves, but demand led to the addition of variations such as pre-sliced half-loaves and kolachi cookies.

“There are different schools of making kolachi. Some like more dough. Some people like a little more filling. We like to make a very thin layer of dough with a lot of nuts,” she says, a smile growing across her face.

The Polish equivalents, she adds, are makowiec, made with poppy seeds, and orzechowiec, made with nuts.

The store also offers paczki, a doughnut-style pastry filled with marmalade most often associated with Fat Tuesday, as well as chrust, a fried dough topped with powdered sugar.

The candies on the shelves, she adds, are imported from across eastern Europe.

“A lot of people have a nostalgic view. These are the candies they grew up with, so they’re looking for ones like the cream fudge candies,” Mazur says. “We’ve become a bit of a nostalgia store. … We have a lot of imported candies from Poland and eastern Europe. There are KitKat variations or chocolates filled with raspberry or creams.”

Puerto Rican Delights at Papa’s

When Carmelo Morales opened his restaurant, Papa’s Puerto Rican Cuisine in Liberty, 3225 Belmont Ave., a few years ago, there was no need to slave away in the kitchen to perfect his desserts. His parents had done that years before.

“This is something my mom and dad put together over 35 years ago,” he says, when they opened the original Papa’s in Campbell. “They’ve had this recipe for years and they handed over the recipes for cakes. I’m able to pay homage to the people before me.”

The most popular treats he offers are two family favorites: tres leches and flan. The former is a sponge cake soaked with three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream. Flan is a baked custard dessert.

Pictured: Carmelo Morales, owner of Papa’s Puerto Rican Cuisine.

“We try to stick to what we’re known for, which is East Coast – specifically New York – foods and Puerto Rican-inspired foods,” Morales explains. “We had a blend of lots of different cultures, a blend of Italian foods, Puerto Rican foods, American and just a little bit of everything.”

The tres leches, he adds, is topped with icing and white chocolate chips, making it a sweet wrap-up to a meal.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a complete meal unless you sit down, have a nice plate and finish it off with a good dessert,” Morales says. “It’s the icing on the cake. It’s what finishes off a great meal. So it’s important for us to have that good selection.”

And while he loves his family recipes, Morales adds that the Mahoning Valley, especially Belmont Avenue, is a treasure trove of delicious desserts.

“We have [Jimmy’s] across the street with Italian options. We have Puerto Rican options. There’s a Mexican restaurant down the street. There’s a Middle Eastern restaurant,” he says. “I love to see the diversity in the food. It gives everybody in the area more options.”

Pictured at top: Jan and Marta Mazur make kolachi year-round at Krakus Polish Deli & Bakery.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.