Astoria Characters: The Bakers Who Are Sweet on Each Other

It is pouring down rain, but Michael Dellapolla, the owner of Gian Piero Bakery, doesn’t notice the deluge.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gian Piero is at 44-17 30th Ave.

What he sees are the customers pouring in. Sure, he wishes the sun were out, but in the 23 years the bakery has been in business, he’s weathered far worse weather.

He goes out to do some errands, leaving his wife, Anna, in charge. When he returns, the rain has eased and there’s a line outside his door.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael and his family came to America when he was 11.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was tough going in the beginning because Gian Piero was selling all-natural breads and baked goods when nobody else was.

“Our breads have a hard texture,” he says, “and customers thought they were old.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The bakery opened in 1995.

He smiles, watching the Italian and American flags flutter out on the street in front of the shop.

Michael has a lot to be thankful for. Gian Piero, which has 30 employees, sells not only to customers who stop into the shop for a loaf of bread or a fancy cake but also to more than 200 restaurants in the metro area.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anna has been working at Gian Piero since it opened.

The bakers work in two shifts, which necessitates Michael and Anna and their son, Gianni, being on the premises pretty much all the time.

Gian Piero, which is named for his son and his former partner, is Michael’s third successful business.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker ices some cookies.

This is all the more extraordinary given the fact that there are no precedents for cookies or cakes or commercial concerns in Michael’s family.

He, his two sisters and his parents left Nusco, a small town in Italy’s southern province of Avellino, when he was 11 years old.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gian Piero’s products are all-natural.

They moved to Astoria, where Michael’s uncles owned property.

“My dad worked two jobs, and I started working after school at a hardware store when I was 12,” he says. “My older sister and my mother worked as seamstresses. It took us two years to save $11,000, which we put down on a six-family house in Astoria that we bought for $36,000. Our family still owns it; I live across the street from it in a two-family house.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Oven mitts at rest between batches.

By the time Michael graduated from high school, he not only was working for a hardware store but also was a locksmith and burglar-alarm expert.

Michael didn’t get much time off, so it took him a decade to return to Italy to visit family. While he was there, he met Anna.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker gets the bread ready for the oven.

Anna, who was working on her family’s farm, liked Michael immediately and thought coming to America would be a great adventure.

“I didn’t know any English,” she says, adding that they were each 21. “But Michael’s family spoke Italian, so I didn’t feel alone.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Working the dough.

When they married, Michael started driving a bakery truck to make more money.

“I did this for nine years, seven days a week, working from midnight until 2 p.m. the following day,” he says. “The money was good, and I built up a wholesale business. I was able to buy a house in two years.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker gets ready to cut a cake.

Before long, Michael had a restaurant in Manhattan and Gian Piero in Astoria. In addition, for five years, he owned a bakery in Brooklyn.

“I was never home,” he says. “At one point, I had all three businesses together, and all I did was go from one to the other. Eventually, I sold the Brooklyn bakery, and I had to close the restaurant because the building was going to be torn down.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Panna cotta ready for the mouth.

This gave him more time to devote to Gian Piero, which is where you’ll find him and Anna every day. She generally comes in at 5:30 a.m., and he follows at 6.

Sometimes she comes in in the afternoon and leaves a little early, but generally she stays until 10 p.m., closing time. Michael, however, is always around until midnight.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker puts the finishing touches on the biscotti.

Their 38-year-old son, Gianni, works with them. Their daughter, Laura Garfalo, grew up working in Gian Piero. She owns Senso Unico, a recently opened Italian restaurant in Sunnyside.

Gian Piero, which opened 90 days after Michael bought the building and renovated it, specializes in authentic Italian fare.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Oh, chocolate!

“We’re known for our Stasi Napoleons,” he says. “They are made from an old recipe I got from an old-school bakery in Corona that opened in 1950. It’s very simple – it has layers of dough and powdered sugar on top. It’s a light dessert.”

The Corona bakery owner, a bachelor who had been in business for decades, finally retired, but Michael and Anna are too busy to think about such things.

They assume that Gianni will take over Gian Piero, but things could change. After all, he has a family and would like to spend some time with them.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gian Piero has over 200 wholesale clients.

“That’s why we’re still here,” Michael says. “To make sure he wants it; if he doesn’t, we’ll have to sell it.”

Michael and Anna, who generally take a couple weeks’ vacation every couple of years, talk, rather vaguely and unconvincingly, about traveling.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The open door of the sfogliatelle cabinet is so enticing.

“My life is work every day,” Anna says, adding that one of her primary roles is filling in for staff members who are ill or on vacation. “I get very tired, but I cannot leave the business alone.”

Michael figures they have about seven working years left; Anna doesn’t disagree with this.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

I’ll have that. And that. And that.

A staff member sticks his head into Michael’s office to tell him he’s going to make a delivery.

Michael nods and gives him the OK; a few minutes later, he standing on the sidewalk with Anna and Laura greeting customers, who arrive with umbrellas under their arms and leave with white boxes tied with green and white string.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019. It’s a free, public event.

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Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;
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Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling