Holly DeSantis says I’ve known her since she was a baby. Well, maybe not since she was crawling, but when she was Holly Olchak, proprietor of Party Girls—the hippest, rock ‘n’ rolling-est catering company ever.
Next to me she’s still a baby, but now she runs Bis.Co. Latte, the hippest, rock ‘n’ rolling-est hand made biscotti shop and café in NYC— 667 Tenth Ave. at West 47th, to be exact. The heart of Hell’s Kitchen.
“We’re probably the only café/bakery in the city to focus on the specialty item of handmade biscotti,” said Bis.Co.’s co-owner Antone DeSantis, Holly’s husband—and like me, a music business veteran who’s seen better days in the music business. “Many focus on other dessert-type stuff like traditional cookies, cupcakes and other treats, but we chose to specialize in the Italian cookie.”
He’s referring, of course, to the biscotti. The plural of biscotto, the word is Italian for biscuit, originating from a Latin word meaning “twice-baked.” It can refer to any cookie, but in America it’s specifically the rock-hard, ultra-thin, elongated and flat-bottomed cookie that is dunked in coffee—or for those of us with early morning toothache who didn’t know they were supposed to be dunked, eaten as is. They are indeed baked twice to optimize storage over long duration.
“They’re different and also healthy,” Antone continued, “low in calories, fat and carbs–and they contain less sugar and more vitamins and minerals than most standard cookies.”
And at Bis.Co. Latte, they come in many styles, if not shapes. In fact, Holly has concocted some 50 different biscotti flavors. When I dropped in on St. Pat’s Day, she had a “Black & Tan”—the black being chocolate chips, the tan being butterscotch, and the beer being Guinness. It thereby joined such other alcohol-assisted biscuits as Sambuca Almond and Kahlua Chocolate Espresso Bean. For Valentine’s Day she had a Cherry Cordial.
But most of her biscotti are strictly wholesome. Among the most popular are Oatmeal Cranbery Crazin Raisin, Oatmeal Chocolate Chip, Chocolate-Covered Strawberry, Coconut Macadamia Nut, Apricot Almond and Cherry Hazelnut. Other special holiday biscotti include New Orleans Praline (with pecans and brown sugar) for Mardi Gras, Chocolate Roses (with rosewater and chocolate chips) for Mother’s Day and White Chocolate Lavendar for Valentine’s Day.
Like the names suggest, Holly uses various combinations of dried fruits and nuts, and like the menu says, “Wheat/Gluten or Sugar Free and Vegan Flavors Available.”
“The secret is utilizing what I have most on the shelf,” she explains, “rotating the ingredients, mixing and mingling the flavors and keeping everything fresh. Like Mango Chocolate Cashew: It’s the only thing I use mango in—but I always have mangos in stock!”
At any given time she has at least 35 different biscotti varieties in big jars on the shelves—some 50 at the time of this writing.
“I always keep the classics and house favorites up there—and a balance of funkier flavors,” Holly continues, revealing a recent Cherry Apricot number spiked with cardamom. “Biscotti is traditionally about dried fruits and nuts–almond or hazelnut, or maybe with little chocolate chips. Rarely anything more elaborate than that. And it’s made without added fat–and very low sugar so it makes them a healthy alternative. I took it a step further with lots of fruits and different nuts, and keeping it low in sugar. I don’t call them fat-free because they’re made with eggs, but with no butter for the majority of them.”
Holly has since carried her biscotti concepts over to other Bis.Co. Latte offerings including scones, muffins, cupcakes, soups, risottos, and steel-cut oatmeals.
“Steel-cut?” I asked, wondering if steel-cut oatmeal was what I tore out of those eight-to-a-box instant oatmeal packets I add hot water to when I want to pretend I’m eating healthy.
“There’s steel-cut, rolled oats, instant oats—and the instant packages don’t even rate!” she said, stuffing me with a spoonful of Almond Maple Mango and stifling me before I had a chance to ask anything else. “Steel-cut is unprocessed roughly-chopped whole grain that has a ‘nuttiness’ that feels nicer on the mouth. People feel that oatmeal is a paste-y babyfood but this has a little more texture to it.”
And no, she doesn’t stay up all night cutting it with a razor–as I had surmised. She’s too busy baking. In fact, “normally I wouldn’t even have done oatmeal here, but I already knew all about nuts, fruits and whole grains used in biscotti and thought I could incorporate those ingredients and build on it. So I started topping oatmeal only with hazelnuts since they’re Italian–and thus made sense.”
Like everything else, Holly expanded her oatmeal selection, and risottos, soups, etc., etc. It all kind of reminded me—what with the mixing of ingredients, and all–that she used to be a painter.
“Yes, I think of the whole picture—the whole creation of the store,” she replied, “keeping the biscotti and the vision.”
She seemed puzzled that I brought up the painting angle—and tried to tie it in with the store. But the vision was one she had had for quite a while, at least since Party Girls. (I just remembered: I still have a Party Girls wine bottle opener somewhere!)
“I wanted something that wasn’t already out there,” she said, “not like a Starbucks or a fast-food place but more like a little European café that’s all about coffee and biscuits or sweets—a continental breakfast. We provide Wi-Fi as a service, but we don’t want you just parking your computer and making it your office [Umm, are you talking about me specifically?] but sitting down and talking to your neighbors [Huh? We have neighbors?].”
She opened the 600 sq. ft. Bis.Co. Latte in the summer of ’07. In keeping with the specialty, the décor is “modern Italian with a touch of old world,” she says, denoting the acid green, bright orange and neon pink color scheme, the turquoise blue tiles on the counter, cast iron tables with marble tops. There’s neon lighting and lots of mirrors and a store logo that evokes Nabisco’s.
Then there’s the music–an iPod shuffle-play that evokes just about everything. Antone’s been a sales and marketing executive for various record companies, but he’s also done tons of party and club DJ-ing, and the music he programs at Bis.Co. Latte is as good and varied as the biscotti.
“It’s a mix of café-friendly songs from older to current, going back as far as old blues and jazz—Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong–to ‘60s and ‘70s by Dylan, John Prine, Leonard Cohen, Laura Nyro, Elvis Costello,” said Antone. Current female singer-songwriters like Leona Naess and Neko Case are also big, same with British rockers like Radiohead and Oasis, and alt-country artists like Gram Parsons and Wilco.
I was still eating my oatmeal when a song I hadn’t heard in some 40 years or so came on, “Tar and Cement.” But it was clearly not the singer I remembered—or the language. Sure enough, one-hit wonder Verdelle Smith had a No. 38 hit in the U.S. with it in 1966 (you can hear it on youtube), but it turns out that the tune, which is about a small-town girl who moved to the city and longs for the grass and lilacs of her youth over the “tar and cement” of her reality, was written by Italian pop singer Adriano Celentano, who had a hit with it as “Il ragazzo della via Gluck” (“The Boy from Gluck Street”). It was apparently translated into 18 languages, including Françoise Hardy’s hit 1966 French version, “La Maison où j’ai Grandi” (“The House Where I Grew Up”)–the one that played on the Bis.Co. iPod.
“You always play good music here,” said a customer who walked in during the Mama’s & the Papa’s’ 1967 hit “Glad to Be Unhappy.”
“It’s like a Ramones’ song,” responded Antone, referring to its runtime. “One minute, 59 seconds.”
I was still eating my oatmeal.
(Shameless plug: I wrote the first Ramones book, “Ramones—An American Band.” On the bookshelf at the front of Bis.Co. Latte is a copy of my latest book, “John Mellencamp—The Concert at Walter Reed.”)
In between spoonfuls I marveled to Holly at how wonderful the place is–then typed it into my laptop. She laughed, embarrassed. One of those people who get self-conscious when they’re being interviewed. Especially when the interviewer is gleefully typing down the most inane comments.
“You know, this really is the greatest place!” I said, thinking it would put her at ease. This prompted another guy who just walked in to say how he had never stopped anywhere for morning coffee “until there was you.” This in turn prompted Antone to exclaim, “See! She’s performing a community service!”—though it was virtually drowned out by my thoroughly inappropriate and horribly off-key rendition of “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man.”
I just couldn’t help myself, just like I couldn’t help asking about her All-Natural Carob Chip (Puppy Friendly) biscotti; I mean, I don’t have a dog.
“Chocolate isn’t dog-friendly, so I use carob,” she said. “No white sugar, either.”
But she played down the dog biscotti, having discovered that it encourages people to bring in their dogs—“a major health department issue,” as Antone noted. “And the dogs get too excited, because they remember!” Holly added.
The dogs get too excited? You should have seen me when she brought out a bowl of soup, bowl of risotto (she said what kinds they were, but I was too busy wolfing them down to make note of it) and a bowl of “some kind of soy latte, I think” (that’s what I told the woman who walked in and witnessed what must have looked like a hopelessly famished homeless man in the throes of Bis.Co. Latte-induced passion). But I can report that the Chocolate Egg Yolk Butter Cream Cupcake that topped it off was out of this world.
“I also make an egg white cupcake, that’s healthier and more stable,” Holly said. Then she explained that “more stable” means “holds it’s shape better.”
And that’s something I’ll never forget.