There’s nothing like a rousing debate over gender equality to pique one’s appetite. Luckily, the United Nations sits along one of New York City’s secret gastro-arteries, a stretch of First Avenue, from 50th to 57th Streets, curiously crammed with sweet things to eat.
Call it Sugar Town.
Within 11 short blocks of the UN’s front door, hungry globalists will find an assortment of gooey confections and caffeinated beverages — perfect pick-me-ups at around 3 P.M., when diplomatic deadlocks can try a woman’s soul.
Befitting its UN adjacency, Sugar Town speaks many languages — Italian, French, German, Hungarian and New Yorkese — yet is united by a cause. From ancient Greek shortcrust to Turkish baklava, Hungarian strudel, French viennoiserie, Danish pastry and Italian sfogliatelle: All are based on a shared belief that pastry dough can never be too rich or too thin.
Our favorite stop-off during a recent insulin-shock tour, a tiny, bustling spot called Crumbly Cafe & Bakery, leans more toward old-school pies and cakes, served in portions that redefine that quintessential American measure of pleasure: supersize.
The cafe-bakery, which incidentally takes orders for bespoke cakes, turns out to be run by an Egyptian family, the Mostasas: Mom and Dad and their Serbian son-in-law in the kitchen, daughter Mia out front. They arrived in the States only 10 years ago and opened Crumbly in 2021.
Along with pies, coconut cream and carrot cakes, cookies, scones, “oreo balls” and vegan chocolate croissants, Crumbly’s offers coffee from Italy, challah-on-Fridays and seasonal Irish soda bread (only in New York City!). It has no seating inside, but offers sidewalk tables, an Instagram following (#crumblynyc) and a line out the door when the school day ends — sugar rush-hour in Sugar Town.
“We got our name from crumb cake, our top seller, which my mom has been baking and tweaking for 20 years,” Mia says, adding that the latest version includes apples.
While Germany gets credit for inventing the crumb cake — two parts sturdy, buttery yellow cake, one part soft, clumpy brown-sugar topping, ideal with strong coffee — New York City has made it its own, thanks in part to Entenmann’s, a 125-year-old Brooklyn-born industrial bakery made famous in supermarkets.
Crumbly’s version ($4.75) boasts an unusually velvety supporting layer, the better to hold up its equal-size crowning crumb. The influence of Egyptian cuisine is unclear, but one thing is certain. “Word has been spreading and we are getting a lot of repeat customers,” Mia says. “Some come by every day.”
You don’t have to be a Francophile to fall for Chez les Frenchies, a sunny gathering place with tables indoors and sometimes out, just north of the UN campus at 50th Street
(Overheard on the street during the heavily attended conference on women’s rights — and a reminder that bakeries typically lack WCs — “Did you bring the list of bathrooms?”)
This is the second location for Frenchies’ owners, two women, one French, the other Belarusian, who opened their first place, on the Upper East Side, only a year before Covid struck and managed to stay in business the whole time. “It was tough and scary,” says co-owner Michèle Saint Laurent, “but we knew we had to do whatever we could.” They got creative with deliveries, hung in there and opened their 50th-Street spot in September.
Frenchies is an inviting scene, with cozy tables visible from the sidewalk and the requisite Italian espresso machine. The cafe draws in early birds craving viennoiserie (imported from France in a frozen state), quiche-seekers at lunch and pastry cravers midafternoon. Look for French classics like tarte au citron and an eclairlike creation filled with cream-lightened hazelnut custard, imported from a New Jersey pâtissier. And don’t miss the mini-épicerie in one corner, stocked with Oliviers & Co. olive oil, LU cookies, Michel Cluizel chocolate bars and Mariage Frères teas.
Farther up First Avenue, above 57th Street, sit three sweet spots in a row. If you can’t find a snack here, maybe you’re not hungry.
Rawmantic Chocolate (yes, its real name) sells dairy-free, gluten-free organic chocolates and doesn’t quite qualify for an afternoon fix. But the other two evoke European-style coffee breaks, carbs compris.
Frolla Cafe occupies a space so narrow it’s best to check out the options in the window before sidling in sideways. The cafe and delivery business — no seating and not a lot of space to stand — opened last October under the direction of an Italian entrepreneur, Ciro Casella, who took along regional recipes when he left home on the Amalfi coast.
His most enticing window candy is the sfogliatella riccia, a small, crispy pastry shell shingled with filo-thin layers and stuffed with creamy ricotta and bits of Italian dried fruit. You’re also going to want an espresso out of that big countertop machine, as these things go together like spaghetti and meatballs.
Making sfogliatelle is a laborious affair involving much pounding, pressing, stretching, rolling, twisting, shaping, filling and baking — it’s a wonder that they are only $6 apiece. A second, less labor-intensive version, sfogliatella frolla, is also on hand, along with flavored, cream-filled bomboloni ($7.70). The bomboloni may be less than transporting, but you must give credit to one that is filled only after you order it.
Then there’s strudel, another treat popularized by bakers with big biceps. It calls for a tough lump of unleavened dough that must be heaved and beaten before being stretched and pulled to the size of a tablecloth, then filled, rolled up, sliced and baked. (When French bakers introduced yeast to the party, and plenty of butter, voilà, the croissant.) At Andre’s Strudels & Pastries, a couple doors north of Frolla, fillings include bland apple, grainy poppyseed and nicely undersweetened cherry.
Andre is Andre Heimann, a Hungarian émigré who got his strudel start in the 1970s working alongside his mother. He has since moved to Florida, leaving the bakery, tucked away in Forest Hills, Queens, in the hands of a new generation.
At this First Avenue outpost, don’t think you’ve died and gone to Budapest. But as they say, any strudel in a storm.
Crumbly Cafe & Bakery is open Monday-Saturday, 7 A.M. to 7 P.M., and Sunday, 8 A.M. to 6 P.M.; 997 First Avenue at 55th Street; (917) 409-3008.
Chez les Frenchies is open Monday-Friday, 8 A.M. to 5 P.M., and Saturday-Sunday, 8 A.M. to 4 P.M.; 882 First Avenue at 50th Street; (347) 462-5346.
Rawmantic is open Monday-Friday, 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., and Saturday-Sunday, 1 P.M. to 5 P.M.; 1053 First Avenue at 57th Street.
Frolla Cafe is open daily, 7 A.M. to 5 P.M.; 1045 First Avenue at 57th Street; (516) 518-5661.
Andre’s Hungarian Strudels & Pastries is open Monday-Friday, 7 A.M. to 6 P.M., and Saturday-Sunday, 8 A.M. to 6 P.M.; 1049 First Avenue at 57th Street; 646-669-7784.
When the weather warms, tuck into your treats at a nearby green space:
• Well-spaced tables for private schmoozing at James P. Grant Plaza, next to Unicef headquarters; E. 44th between First and Second Avenues.
• Get above the fray by climbing the stairs to benches and manicured walking paths in Tudor City Greens; Tudor City Place, above E. 42nd Street at First Avenue.
• Benches, foot traffic and a Wednesday-only farmers’ market fill Dag Hammarskjold Plaza; E. 47th between First and Second.
• Comfy chairs and tables face a dramatic waterfall at Greenacre Park; E. 51st Street, between Second and Third.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on these sweet shops?
Deborah Baldwin is a veteran editor and writer, most recently for This Old House; previously, she was an editor for The New York Times, working on the Style section and other parts of the newspaper. She and her husband, Irwin Arieff, wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s.
Hi Debby & Irwin, my mouth is still watering after reading Debby’s article & Irwin’s photos. I would love to try Crumbly Cafe & Bakery’s Oreo Balls, their challah on Friday, and their Entenmann’s themed crumb cake. My mother used to buy Entenmann’s crumb cake for us when I was a kid. I loved it.
Great article Debby!
In the mist of an international crisis, keep calm and eat cakes. Thanks Deborah for addressing a under-estimated issue among UN affairs workers!
Passed this great item along to friends, with a note that PassBlue usually deals with more weighty matters, such a corruption within the UN, problems with the Security Council etc…. this is proof that there can be an upside to every downside: Thanks much!