Senior Editor Lori Moffatt talks to Beaumont bakery owner Jake Tortorice about cake, vintage mixers, and Sicilian tradition.
“If you meet an Italian in the Golden Triangle, “says Jake Tortorice, owner of the small chain of Rao’s bakeries in Beaumont and southeast Houston, “I bet you a dollar to a doughnut that they’ll be Sicilian. I can tell you. I am 100 percent Sicilian. Both of my grandparents grew up in Sicily and came over in their teens. In the early 1900s, you know, a lot of Sicilians came through Ellis Island, but a lot also came through New Orleans and ended up here. Someone would come over, and write back about the opportunities.
“I grew up here in Beaumont, about five blocks from this place [the original Rao’s, on Calder Avenue], but I love going to the big cities. I pick up a lot of ideas for new items. I still have cousins in Sicily, so when I visit them, I load up on pastry items and take a camera.
“The man who started Rao’s was Italian, too. Johnny Rao. He was working at the commissary at the Magnolia–now Exxon-Mobil–at the port. That was the first refinery here. So he was baking, and doing cookies and pastries and things like that, and his coworkers said, ‘Johnny, you need to do this on your own.’ So in 1941, he leased this building. His wife, Helen, worked with him. It was in the family until 1998, when the Rao family approached me. I said I’d try it.
“When I bought Rao’s, some people here had never heard of gelato. But now people come in for it special. But we won’t make money on gelato and coffee. The reason we can have them is our cakes. We sell 30-40 a day at our Calder store alone. We can do cakes all day long. In the old days, they had probably eight or nine selections, but now, we can make 50 different kinds. As long as we have a decorator in the house, we can knock one out in a few hours.
“We have an old mixer from 1941 that we use to make icings—that’s easy on it. We also have an old Middleby Marshall oven. Every day we make the sign of the cross that it cranks up."