It isn’t even Christmas Eve yet — that’s when police will be outside directing traffic to contain the cannoli chaos. But Laura Carlino and her crew are racing like elves on deadline.
“The bakers,” she says, as I pull her from behind a counter at Carlino’s Market a few days ago, "they’ve been here since Jerry started at 8 p.m. last night. The other two took over at 4 a.m. and will keep going till maybe 4 in the afternoon.”
There’s flour on Laura’s black shirt. Her bangs are pulled into a clump atop her head. It’s the no-nonsense look of an Italian mother in a busy kitchen and it is a thing of beauty — just like everything that comes out of this we-do-everything place that her immigrant mother-in-law, the late Mama Carlino, founded in a former house four decades ago in Ardmore.
They say the best Italian food comes out of Philly. They would be wrong. Because here on the border of Lower Merion and Haverford Townships, in a row of former two-story attached homes on County Line Road, there is Carlino’s. A place like no other.
With help also from a block-long storefront and basement kitchen in downtown West Chester, they do it all — homemade pasta, bread, pies from berries frozen in the summer, savory chicken, lasagna, sides, hoagies, olives, gourmet cheese, salads, tomato pie with a special ingredient in the “sauce.” The list is endless.
Customers order by the piece, by the fillet, or by the trayful. Tired parents splurging for a break; Main Liners with Teslas; law firms catering parties; and folks who just want a slice of pizza and a seat in the heated patio out front for a midday breather.
“It’s been nuts,” Laura tells me one day last week, and it’s only two hours after their 9 a.m. opening.
She shows me the upstairs where cooking is happening at incredible volume: tray after tray of tortellini rosa; mushroom ravioli in a brandy cream sauce; chicken marsala; “grown-up” macaroni and cheese; roasted golden beets; butternut squash heading into the oven.
In the bakery I see gingerbread Bundt cake with cream cheese icing; raspberry streusel with rum and cheese -- “we can never figure out what to call stuff,” explains executive pastry chef Jessica Perez; chocolate decadence cake with ganache and fudge icing; apple dumplings; and on and on.
She walks me through a Plexiglas door where I see hand-rolled semolina bread loaves piled onto racks six feet high.
“Mayhem” is how pastry counter worker Laniya Matthews, 38, of West Philadelphia, describes Christmas Eve. “When you open those doors, it’s like the floodgates open.”
In South Philly, stories about crazed holiday food runs usually involve shops that maybe only bake great bread (Sarcone’s) or make great pasta (Talluto’s), or have built the buzz of a franchise off a family cheese business (DiBruno’s).
Carlino’s, in a dense sliver of suburbia that feels more like a Philly neighborhood than anything else, is typically overlooked like Rudolph and Land-of-Misfit-Toys pal Hermey the dentist-elf.
But like those lovable Christmas heroes, Carlino’s is the real treasure. For 36 years on the Delaware County side of Ardmore, the family who run what began as a small market — and the staff who say they, too, feel like family — have been dishing out the love of an Italian grandmother in each and every morsel.
Angela “Mama” Carlino was a hardworking farm girl from the village of Casoli in Abruzzo. She spoke little English but taught a generation of even American-born workers to cook and live with love. It’s a legacy her son, Pat, and his wife, Laura, continue, along with many other family working there.
“Every few years we’ll go through her ‘bible’ — recipe notebooks all full of clippings, and handwritten,” says 41-year-old pastry chef Jessica, who learned to bake at Mama Carlino’s side for the first 10 of her 20 years there.
They’ll rediscover forgotten recipes in that book. Jessica deciphers them like an archaeologist trained in Mama Carlino hieroglyphics.
“She was my best friend,” Jessica tells me as fellow bakers stack cakes and pies onto maybe eight stainless steel prep tables. “She didn’t really speak a lot of English. We had our own language.”
Jessica best knows how to make the tiramisu cake that Mama Carlino invented. The ricotta and non-ricotta cheesecakes, too. The cannoli, the irresistible carrot cake, the devastating buttercream made in enormous tubs every few days.
She learned it all as Mama Carlino dispensed other unforgettable wisdom, too.
“She gave me a lot of advice about marriage," Jessica tells me. " ‘Just try to find a hardworking man. Someone who never yells at you or swears at you. And who makes you laugh.’ ”
With that, Jessica begins to cry. She apologizes and says she always cries when she thinks of Mama Carlino.
In the block-long basement of the family’s West Chester store, across from the Chester County courthouse, I find another acolyte. He’s tending to 140 gallons of homemade sauce. He is executive chef Lou Pietrantonio Jr., and his dad grew up right behind Carlino’s.
Lou, now 50, has worked there for 27 years, bitten also by the family’s passion for food that spares no effort.
“Mrs. Carlino always told me if you make it from the heart you’ll be successful,” he says.
Lou tells me he’ll be sleepwalk-working come Christmas Eve. No exaggeration: The Fitbit on his wrist shows he’s already walked 18,776 steps (nine miles) — and it’s only lunchtime.
Granddaughter Angela Carlino Milani says it’s so busy you have no time to breathe. Which is why, she says, Mama Carlino would make everyone pause at her own Christmas dinner table after the doors had closed on the shop.
“ ‘Just take a moment,’ ” she would say, “ ‘and think about all the people who are eating all the things that we made. And be proud.’ ”