The construction industry is struggling, perhaps because it uses the wrong materials, like steel and concrete. Joanne Bruno works in fondant, cake flour, buttercream and more than a little styrofoam, and she can hardly keep up with the demand for her constructions, which keep getting taller, wider and more outlandish.
Among her best customers are celebrities, some even A-list. In June, Palermo Bakery—the Ridgefield Park business Bruno runs with her husband, Jerry, and their two oldest sons—delivered a diorama of a cake depicting the career highlights of Tom Cruise, who was being honored with an Entertainment Icon award by the Friars Club in New York on his 50th birthday. Last year, when the Friars held a testimonial dinner for Larry King, the designers on Palermo’s staff of 45 put heads together to fashion a cake for the talk host in the shape of an old-fashioned radio microphone on a podium. Palermo has made fanciful, outsize birthday and other special-occasion cakes for Martin Scorsese, P. Diddy, Howard Stern, comedian Tracy Morgan, Sherri Shepherd of The View, Dina Manzo of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, the cast of Jerseylicious, author Victoria Gotti and even the Situation and JWOW of Jersey Shore.
Custom-designed wedding cakes ($5 to $25 per slice) are the backbone of the business. From April to October, Palermo (palermobakery.com) delivers more than 200 a week. Bruno says custom cakes for grooms is a growth area and, in the Latin-American community, so is creating lavish cakes for quinceañeras (like Sweet Sixteens, but at age 15). “They’ll spend more money on a [quinceañera] cake than on a wedding cake,” she says. “They wait for that day to come.”
The bakery, which the Brunos founded in 1989, is called Palermo because that’s where Jerry (christened Gennaro) was born. He grew up in Toms River in a family of bakers. Joanne (whose given name is Giovanna) grew up in Brick. They started Palermo delivering Danish, muffins, buns and doughnuts to hotels in their Camaro. They still bake those items (and cookies, biscotti, coffee cakes, pies, pastries) and sell them in the often-packed retail store. But vans deliver the wholesale orders. Five years ago, the Brunos converted an adjacent storefront to a gallery where consultants work one-on-one with customers to dream up custom cake designs.
“I never say no,” Bruno declares. “We keep taking orders until we’re busting at the seams. But somehow we get everything done on time.”