Philip's Confectionery opened in Port Richmond 2 years ago, after serving sweets to Brooklyn residents for 70 some years
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
By DIANE C. LORE
STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE
Philip's Confectionery is a sensory delight and, ironically, it's your nose, not your mouth, that takes in the very first treat. Open the door to this Port Richmond sweet shop and you're awash in the pungent smell of fresh-roasted nuts, fresh popcorn, candied apples, peanut butter clusters, chocolate fudge and sugar-spun cotton candy.
It's the smell of candy and confections made the old-fashioned way, by hand, which is the way Philip's has been doing things for 70 years, back when it first became a Coney Island landmark. Had the candy shop at Surf Avenue and the boardwalk in Brooklyn not been forced out to make way for the reconstruction of the Stillwell Avenue subway station, Staten Islanders might never have gotten the opportunity to see a real carnival-style sweet-shop in action. But two years ago, Philip's, like so many others from Brooklyn, made the move, crossing the Verrazano Bridge and reopening at 8 Barrett Ave, just a stone's throw from Forest Avenue near Forest Avenue Shoppers Town.
The two responsible for the goodies dished up at Philip's are 74-year-old Staten Island native John Dorman of Randall Manor, and his partner, Peggy Cohn of Brooklyn.
Dorman was a skinny student at McKee High School in 1947 when he went to work part-time for Philip Calermares, wiping up the counter and mopping the floors in Calermares' self-named candy shop in Brooklyn. It took Dorman three hours to travel to Coney Island by ferry and subway back then, and three hours to get home. During summers, when the store stayed open after dark, he'd often find himself rolling home after midnight.
On steamy weekends in July and August, when upwards of 1 million people would visit the famed Coney Island boardwalk, the store would be crowded beyond belief. It wasn't long before Dorman graduated from mopping the counter to serving up vanilla egg creams and counting out candied apples, salt water taffy and hand-made fudge. And it wasn't much longer before he learned to make the stuff, stirring up just the right combination of sticky sugar, corn syrup and other ingredients over a fiery-hot stove in the back of the store.
When, in the mid-1960s, it came time for Calermares to retire, Dorman was only too happy to buy him out. He went into partnership with Ms. Cohn, but kept the shop's original name. Like Dorman, Ms. Cohn, 59, had been working at Philip's since she was in high school.
Dorman and his partner may be in a new location, but they are wedded to their old ways. They still have the original Coney Island cash register of heavy, red metal in the Port Richmond store. It clangs when Dorman rings up a sale. They also have the original scale used to weigh fudge, taffy, and nut clusters. "This scale's about 50 years old. If you put a dime on it, the scale will weigh it," says Dorman. He demonstrates by placing a single chocolate-covered grape on the scale and watching the needle register.
In one corner of the window is an eye-catching wooden carousel horse, another reminder of the store's boardwalk beginnings. Dorman and Ms. Cohn also salvaged the original pots and utensils from the Coney Island store.
And chocolate-covered fruits, including grapes, luscious strawberries, bananas and apples, continue to be one of the specialties at Philip's.
On a recent steamy afternoon, 18-year-old Elizabeth Stilwell of Westerleigh stopped in on a break to pick up some goodies for her colleagues on the job. After glancing longingly at the fudge and chocolates, she went lower-cal with chocolate-covered grapes and strawberries, which Dorman weighed and wrapped for her.
"This is great. My whole family can just walk down here," said Miss Stilwell, who lives a block away from the shop. "We all like the homemade fudge and chocolate," she said.
"When you walk in here you feel as if you're at the shore, as if you've walked into one of those little shops on the boardwalk," said attorney Rodney Stilwell, Miss Stilwell's dad. "It brings back memories of Coney Island, when my dad used to take me and we'd watch the fireworks."
The boardwalk element may be missing, but none of the ingredients have changed.
"Just about everything starts with sugar and corn syrup," Dorman reveals.
Whole milk and condensed milk also go into making the chocolate and fudge. Dorman and Ms. Cohn roast their own cashews, walnuts, peanuts and pecans, which are later blended into fudge or nut clusters. They can make up to 60 pounds of fudge at a time, in seven varieties. After it has cooled the fudge is sliced into one-pound bricks, or bite-size pieces that are sold by weight.
They also make and sell custard ice cream by the dish or cone, as well as milkshakes and egg creams to order for customers who walk in thirsty.
Philip's also prepares candy orders for commercial and residential parties, and sells seasonal candy and chocolates at Christmas, Easter and Halloween.
"She does most of the cooking," said Dorman, gesturing toward Ms. Cohn, who was finishing a candied apple at the stove. "I do the tasting. We taste everything we make for quality, before we put it out to sell."
Dorman's personal favorites are the chocolate cashew clusters, while his partner prefers the dark chocolate French truffles.
"She does everything so well; it makes it easy for me," Dorman said of Ms. Cohn. "I really love what I do."
"He taught me everything I know," added Ms. Cohn, who was spinning threads of pink cotton candy around a paper cone while a customer waited.
"I like my work," she continued. "You don't do the same thing every day."
"Every day is something different," Dorman agreed.
Although the Port Richmond shop is enough for now, Dorman said he'd like to see some family-style amusement rides and small shops added to the South Beach boardwalk so that Island families with children would have some place local to go for seaside entertainment. Staten Islanders now must travel to Coney Island or the Jersey Shore for such attractions, and they spend their money there, he noted.
Dorman's wife, Audrey, who passed away 14 years ago, used to help him in the Coney Island shop. These days, on occasion, his children -- daughter, Maria, and son, John, who is general manager of the University Club in Manhattan -- will give him a hand in the shop. And sometimes, his grandchildren will come for a visit. But mostly, it's just Dorman and Ms. Cohn.
The shop is open seven days a week. Dorman takes the Saturday shift and Ms. Cohn works Sundays. Although the store hours are officially 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., both arrive an hour or two early to begin preparations for the day's batch of goodies.
"We work like dogs," Dorman admitted. "I don't mind, though, because it keeps me busy and it keeps me feeling young. "And when I see a customer, especially a child, bite into something we made and smile, well that's all I need to keep me going."
Diane Lore is a feature writer and columnist with the Lifestyle section of the Advance. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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