Stand outside Potito’s Bakery at 16th and Ritner in South Philly on any given day and the sweet aroma of homemade cookies and cakes greets you before you even open the door.
In past years, the lines on Christmas Eve for this family-owned South Philly Italian American bakery have formed as early as 4:45AM and owners Matthew (Matty) and Cristina Benigno expect the same next week. Santa usually makes an appearance that day to entertain the customers before closing up shop at 6:00PM.
Just how different are the weeks leading up to Christmas, compared to say, a week in June? “It’s now or never like the Elvis song,” says Matty. “Business is up about 1000 percent,” with not just walk-in customers but all of the outside orders for corporate gifts and custom cakes and cookie trays for parties. “Controlled chaos with a capital C,” chimed in a bakery worker. It’s obvious that the owners and staff enjoy the extra buzz and, most importantly, helping their customers, many of whom are neighbors and friends.
Cristina’s parents, Carmen and Maria Potito, opened the bakery more than 30 years ago. In 2009, the year Carmen passed away, Matty and Cristina bought the business. Cristina’s grandfather Antonio still works his craft behind the scenes in the basement bakery kitchen, rolling dough by hand for many of his creations.
Over the years, the business has expanded to include high-end wedding and exotic specialty cakes, like the one designed for former Phillies player Shane Victorino, and recently into new markets, like Center City (in 2012 Potito’s moved into one of the retail storefronts at 1315 Walnut, where Hidden City’s offices are located) and Spring Garden. Visitors are always happily surprised to see the “Colossal Cannoli,” created by Matty, for events and parties. At $99, there are 60 mini cannoli nestled inside an impressive two-foot cannoli.
Honeyballs, cannolis, vibrant red cakes wrapped in fondant like a gift box, green cupcake wreaths, Ricotta cakes, anisette biscotti, cannoli trees are all available, but the stars of the season are traditional Italian cookies. “It’s all about the cookies,” says Matty. “Starting at about $16 to $19/pound, we have Italian and butter cookies. Everything is made fresh here on site, the cookies are not imported from elsewhere. We use real authentic ingredients like almond paste, the best we can get.”
This is indeed the season for the bakery to deliver the goods. So take a number. It’s now or never. The cookies can’t wait.
Step behind the counter of Potito’s Bakery in South Philadelphia. Photographs by Theresa Stigale.