Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pastry wars: Italy vs. Japan

First, Beard Papa - a Japanese creme-filled pastry chain - landed on our shores and set up shop on the Upper West Side about five years ago. I remember walking over on opening day and standing in a line half way down the block. The lines have long since disappeared.
Now, Bombolini comes to the West Side serving up... bombolini - Italian creme-filled pastry. Keeping with the recent ebb in creativity, the establishment is named after its main offering. And so the great Japanese-Italian pastry war began. Two also-played countries on the losing end of WWII, now doing battle on the Upper West Side.

After two failed attempts owing to Con Ed-related issues, I finally found the storefront lit up. It turns out that problems it took almost a week for their inspection. On my way out, the proprietor said that my elevated expectations would not be let down.

On price, Bombolini undercuts Beard Papa by a good margin - selling for only $1 each. The 6 for $5 deal would seem better if there were six or more varieties on offer. But traditional (actually vanilla I think), valrhona, rasperry, apple and pistachio do not add up to six. Sure, I was only buying three.

On freshness, it was pretty much a tie. Some bombolini had just come out, some were already sitting in the case. Going to Beard Papa you may get a pastry straight from the oven, or there may be a pile of pastry just waiting to be filled. The longer a Beard Papa sits, the less contrast there is between the warm pastry and cool vanilla custard. A resting bombolino has issues as well; the custard starts to work its way into the surrounding pastry, leaving a soggy snack.  With either pastry proprietor, you never know when your order was made.

Comparing the two is a little difficult. Beard Papa is a light puff filled a squeeze of custard, sprinkled with sugar. The novelty wore off years ago. Now it is just there whenever I want one, which is not very often. I remember being there on opening day, waiting with a coworker in a line that stretched halfway down the block so we could bring this new novelty back to the office. Fast forward and Grom - the Italian gelato chain - attracts much more of a crowd next door, and the lines in front of Beard Papa are but a distant memory.

In contrast, a bombolino is much heavier, with a denser custard filling. Not all of the flavors were created equal either. I expected the traditional to blow me away, but it was more like boston creme filling in a superior doughnut.  The valrhona was lacking in uniformity of texture, but was quite tasty. The apply was a pleasant surprise as I was not expecting much; it had a light tartness that balanced out the heavier pastry.

When I stopped by during its opening weekend, Bombolini had no line. There were two people in front of me and one was getting gelato, bypassing the namesake bombolini altogether. Bombolini may be a victim of location; in the 60's on Columbus (vs. 70's on Broadway for Beard Papa) and one block away from Magnolia Bakery. Perhaps this should have been written about the battle between Magnolia and Bombolini for west 60's dessert dominance. In the end, I don't think there is any real competition there. Go and decide for yourself. Beard Papa and Magnolia (overrated as it may be) will get my business 9 times out of 10.

Bombolini, 187 Columbus Avenue (between 68th and 69th streets)

Beard Papa, 2167 Broadway (between 76th and 77th streets)

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