The dough goes on

John Colosi dusts an ice cream doughtnut with powdered sugar. He reintroduced the treat, a childhood favorite, when he took over the bakery from its retiring owner.
John Colosi dusts an ice cream doughtnut with powdered sugar. He reintroduced the treat, a childhood favorite, when he took over the bakery from its retiring owner.

"Superior Donuts," which opened at the Arden Theatre this week, is setting the stage with fresh-baked treats from a South Philly institution.

Posted: March 10, 2011

This is what happens when art imitates life: a Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes a comedy about a doughnut shop whose owner is urged to sell the place to a neighbor.

The theater producing the play needs 18 fresh doughnuts per performance (times 36 performances equals 648) and wants to get them donated, so a staffer there calls around.

And wouldn't you know it - she unknowingly calls a place where the owner recently sold to a neighbor, just like in the script.

"It's ironic, isn't it," says John Colosi, 43, who bought Frangelli's Bakery at Ninth and Ritner a year ago when Anthony Frangelli turned 72 and wanted to sleep late.

Colosi is supplying fresh doughnuts that are being used as props and sold at intermission.

Sure, lots more happens in the play, Superior Donuts, by Tracy Letts, at the Arden Theatre now through April 3, a story that brings home the value of these neighborhood stores and looks at what happens when both the owner and the community have to grapple with the inevitability of change. But, God willing, that stuff will never happen at Frangelli's.

 Colosi grew up in this part of South Philadelphia, near Ephiphany of Our Lord where he went to grade school. Here the two-story brick rowhouses have identical plastic awnings in lieu of shade trees, the neighbors still sweep their steps, and on-street parking is easy enough in the daytime.

This is the land of the corner store. Groceries, pharmacies, delis, and bakeries dot every other intersection, and each draws loyalists who stop in more for the company than anything else. These days the pharmacy sells lottery tickets and casino trips, but other than that, it's the same as it ever was.

When he was a kid, Colosi bought doughnuts with his father at Frangelli's; as a teen when he hung out at the corner of Ninth and Ritner; and later, when he worked construction ("brick pointers union, local #1," he adds quickly).

Colosi would sit with Anthony Frangelli in the bakery and pass the time.

"It was a welcoming place, very friendly," says Colosi, who kept the ambience as well as the recipes that date from 1947.

"I grew up here," Colosi says, spreading his arms as if to indicate that this neighborhood is his world and preserving this way of life is all he wants, all he ever wanted. More than that, his smile says buying this bakery made him the happiest man alive.

Everything is from scratch here: the jelly, buttercream, and Italian custard fillings for the doughnuts; the chocolate and vanilla frostings; cupcakes, Danish, cinnamon buns, cheese cake, Italian rum cake, and fluffy squares of genuine gingerbread with chocolate topping.

Next week they'll make St. Joseph's cake, in anticipation of the holy day March 19, filled with Italian cream, chocolate cream, and ricotta cheese. After that, Easter Bread hand-shaped like a basket and topped with a hard-boiled egg; and traditional Pizza Gane, a savory 8-inch-round Easter cake filled with ham and cheeses.

Even the prices here are from the past: 75 cents for a doughnut; Danish and cupcakes, $1.

"They tell me we're a little behind in our prices," Colosi says with a shrug. "What are you gonna do? It's a neighborhood store."

He's not interested in gaining another nickel only to lose a customer who comes in for the morning special: two doughnuts and a cup of coffee for $2 before 11 a.m. on weekdays.

The rest of the time the coffee (on a help-yourself table in the front) is either $1 or free for the taking when you sit at one of the two vinyl-covered chairs while waiting to pick up your order.

Frangelli sold the shop because he was getting tired of getting up at 4 a.m. every day and driving in from Washington Township, Gloucester County.

"I knew he wanted to get out," Colosi says. "We talked about that a lot."

When Colosi took over, he introduced cannoli cakes ("Like cannoli, but cake") and brought back a Frangelli favorite from his childhood: the ice cream doughnut.

For that he takes a fresh whole doughnut (no hole in the middle, no filling), slices it in half horizontally, puts a square of Neapolitan ice cream between the two halves and dusts the whole thing with powdered sugar. So good.

The staff has stayed on: Jennifer DiSalvo, Joe-the-baker Sergio, and Theresa Walker, who has been behind the counter 13 years, mostly out of habit.

"If I didn't work, I'd be sitting home looking at the four walls," she says.

Kathy Dramis, who started as a kid, is here 30 years now and remembers Colosi as a boy, coming in with his father for ice cream doughnuts.

What isn't sold each day goes home with the staff or finds its way to the local police district at 12th and Moore, says Jennifer Ozlek, Colosi's ex and the mother of his two grown children, who works here now too.

"She needed a job and I helped her out," Colosi says. And if that's not enough of an explanation, he adds this:

"I'm all Italian [as in, on both sides of his parentage]," he says, "so I'm family-oriented."


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

 Superior Donuts


is at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. in Old City, through April 3. Details and tickets: 215-922-8900 or www.ardentheatre.org.

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