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June 30, 2022

A Sweet Start: Antonio’s Pastries Welcomes New Pastry Chef

by Joe Bonadio

When Toscano Brothers Bakery opened in May of last year, it was something of a game changer for the people of North Beach. After all, the neighborhood hadn’t hosted a proper sourdough breadmaker since the closing of the venerated Italian French Bakery on Grant Avenue, way back in 2015. North Beachers love their bread, and all of that pent-up demand made for a blockbuster opening. The bakery’s first days saw lines stretching around the block, and on day one, they were completely sold out in about ninety minutes.

North Beach clearly loved Toscano Brothers from the get-go, and that warm response soon fueled even more invention. Within weeks both Dago Bagel and Antonio’s Pastries were conceived in the bakery’s cozy Vallejo Street space, adding both Italian pastries and world class bagels—a first for the neighborhood—to the mix.

Like Dago Bagel, Antonio’s Pastries was a hit, especially with the locals, who knew to get there early. Quality baked goods typically inspire regulars, and this little bakery’s no exception. In the morning there’s often a small crowd of them out front, blissing out with their pastry and coffee. It’s a fine sight to see.

Meanwhile, there have been some changes in the lineup. After helping Tony get the pastry shop off to a very respectable start, pastry chef Lisa Lu departed her role in March, and was replaced by Ericson Ngo. I’ve been wanting to talk with Ericson since I heard of the change, and we finally sat down together last week. Lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: So how long have you been the pastry chef here at Antonio’s?

Ericson Ngo: It’s been about a month and a half.

JB: So far your reception has been great, and people love your stuff. You stepped into some big shoes, and you seem to be maintaining the quality nicely.

EN: I’m flattered, actually. I’m just doing my best.

JB: Tell me something about your background. Where are you from?

EN: I’m Chinese, and I’m from the Philippines.

JB: When did you first come to San Francisco?

EN: I’ve been here for over 25 years now. I came here for school. I got my Bachelor of Arts, and after graduating I worked in corporate for 5 or 6 years. I eventually decided that wasn’t for me, and I decided to go to culinary school. I’ve been doing this for about 15 years now.

JB: Where did you go to culinary school?

EN: CCA—California Culinary Academy.

JB: That was a prestigious school.

EN: It was! They’re gone now.

Ericson Ngo working in the kitchen

Ericson Ngo working his magic in the kitchen at Antonio’s Italian Pastries in North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So you’ve been at this for 15 years. I understand you’ve got a pretty impressive resume.

EN: I’ve worked with some cool people. My first job was at Destination Baking in Glen Park. After that I was at Scott Howard, and that was actually a great experience. I also worked at Baker & Banker. The latter two are closed now.

JB: But they were both pretty well regarded.

EN: Yeah, they were. Baker & Banker is where I learned about using brown butter. I also worked at [Thomas Keller’s] Bouchon for a while.

JB: That’s a very big name.

EN: Yeah. That was really a sacrifice though, because the commute was just killing me.

JB: That’s Napa, right?

EN: Yountville.

JB: Oh, all the way up there.

EN: All the way up there! And I live in the city. So what I did, I actually rented an apartment up there. And they don’t pay enough for that! (Laughter)

JB: So that was an expensive entry on your resume.

EN: It was really expensive! So I decided to come back to San Francisco.

JB: They can never take that off your res, though!

EN: Right. I stayed there for about a year and a half, so I really went through it. It was just really hard to survive.

JB: Was it a good experience?

EN: Oh, yeah. It was a really good experience for me. It just elevated my game. I’m really clean in the kitchen, but they taught me a lot about being clean in the kitchen, clean in everything— and being a perfectionist.

I learned a lot. It was really worth it. But I didn’t want to lose my apartment here! You know how hard it is to find an apartment in the city. Once you find a good one you keep it. But paying for two apartments was really costing me a lot of money….so I decided to come back to the city.

JB: So how has your experience been here so far?

EN: It’s been great. Everyone is so friendly over here. They welcomed me with open arms. I love it here.

JB: They’re good people.

EN: Totally. Natale, everybody. Especially Tony. He’s really nice to me. It’s just a pleasure to work with them. I was just telling my partner that: they’re really, really cool people.

Flourless almond cake on the counter at Antonio's Italian Pastries

The flourless almond cake, one of Ericson’s newest creations, on the counter at Antonio’s Italian Pastries. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So tell me about some of the things you’ve created for Antonio’s.

EN: The first one I created, because it’s an Italian bakery, is the ricotta cake. Ricotta cheese is totally Italian, so what could go wrong? That’s the first thing that I made, and Tony totally loved it.

I also came up with a ham and cheese scone. And I’ve just been experimenting with stuff.

Lately, the new one is the flourless almond cake. I think that recipe is from Northern Italy, actually. It’s a recipe that I’ve worked with for a while. There are a lot of people out there who can’t eat flour, because of allergies. So I came up with the flourless cake for them.

JB: I love that! So you’re just getting started, and you’ve already got some hits. I tried your apricot scone, and it was probably the best scone I’ve ever had. of course I’ve had the ricotta cake. When i was growing up, my mother would make ricotta pie, only around the holidays. She got the recipe from my grandmother, who was from Calabria. It was a little heavier than what you’re doing, as a pie. A little lemon peel, not very sweet.

EN: I’m going to have to check that out.

You know, I actually learned how to bake when I was in Tokyo. I lived in Japan for about seven years, and the desert in Tokyo was amazingly good. I fell in love with it. I thought, oh my gosh— the Japanese pastry chefs are so smart! I want to get into this.

So I started working at small bakeries here and there when I was in high school in Japan. And I learned how to bake.

JB: At what age did you first bake?

EN: I actually learned how to bake from my mom first. My mom is a good baker, and a really good cook. She only cooked once a week, on Sunday.

JB: She saved it up.

EN: Yeah, she would cook a family meal on Sunday, a big Chinese banquet. I was always in the kitchen with her, washing dishes and stuff like that. And she would show me how to cook stuff. She never measured anything—she just knew.

When I’m cooking Chinese food, I never measure anything. Some oyster sauce there, some soy sauce there. Baking is totally different though.

My thing is I always try to balance my flavors, so it’s not too sweet. I don’t want a dessert to be really sweet, I want it to be balanced.

JB: I agree, I don’t like very sweet things.

EN: I’m not big on sugary foods, where the sugar is the first component of the flavor. I use a lot of brown butter, so I want the brown butter to stand out.

JB: So far you’ve told me what you learned from your mom, and the people at Baker & Banker, and from Bouchon. What’s the main thing you’ve learned here?

EN: I’m going to be honest with you. When the pandemic happened, I wasn’t baking at all.

JB: What were you doing?

EN: I was working for a psychiatrist, as a personal assistant. Research, and keeping everything in order.

So when I first came here, I really wasn’t quite sure. It took me a while to get the ball rolling. The first person I met was Natale, and he was just so nice. We talked a lot, and afterward I came back to meet with Tony. And I was like, well he’s pretty cool.

So I thought, you know what, I’m going to give it a try and see what happens. At first I was a little bit rusty, but then I got it rolling.

JB: It’s like riding a bicycle.

EN: Totally. You can never forget how to bake. I have to tell you though, the people I work with are really patient with me. They’re hugely patient with me. They didn’t yell at me or anything like that. They were just really nice. Just make this and make this—but don’t worry about your time, you know how much time you need, you come when you need to.

And I was like cool. That really works for me right now.

JB: So I understand you drive a Vespa. What’s it like taking a Vespa around the city?

EN: I love my Vespa. I can park anywhere, and I can avoid traffic. It takes me from point a to point b really fast. It’s heaven-sent, to be honest with you.

JB: Plus, it makes you look really cool.

EN: (Laughter)

JB: So, any other ideas coming down the pike?

EN: I’m actually thinking about chocolate cake, in the Tuscan style. I think you need to have something chocolate for the chocolate lovers. So I think that’s actually going to be the next thing, something with chocolate.

JB: Sign me up! I love it.

EN: Well, our chocolate bread with cherries is really good.

JB: Oh, that’s excellent. I think that’s the most popular loaf of bread here.

EN: It’s so delicious. When I tried it, I almost ate the whole thing. (Laughter)

JB: Well, I can’t wait to try the next thing you come up with, Ericson. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me.