Emiliano Graci stood inside the quaint Amici Gelato & Caffe in Asbury Park on Wednesday, creating strawberry shortcake gelato cake at a stainless steel kitchen table. In the quiet of the empty shop, the baker’s mind at times drifts to what is happening 4,000 miles away in his home town in Italy.
His parents have been quarantined in their suburban Milan house since Feb. 17 due to coronavirus lockdowns, alone and fearful. He worries for the health of his 69-year-old father, who has diabetes and is a lifelong smoker, and his 67-year-old mother.
From overseas, Graci FaceTimes his parents every day around 3 p.m., and hopes photos of his new dog and silly jokes lift their spirits.
“They worry more. We try to make them laugh. (But) it’s a frustrating situation to be in. I would like to be there to help them, but I can’t,” Graci, 37, said.
So the restaurant consultant and gelato master is doing what he can to bring joy to Asbury Park residents and relieve his own stress the best way he knows how: by baking intricately decorated cakes, pies and cookies. He and the owner of Amici Gelato & Caffe are still filling pick-up and no-contact delivery orders for locals who need deserts for small celebrations, or just a special treat.
Passerby can spot Graci through the storefront’s large, picturesque glass window, from morning to night, topping desserts with treats like chocolate ganache, cherries, pistachios or oreos.
The 10-hour shifts, seven days a week help Graci get his mind off worries about loved ones abroad, and in Monmouth County too. His wife’s grandfather is in a Wall Township rehabilitation center on a respirator and recovering from COVID-19 after being discharged from Jersey Shore University Medical Center on Sunday, he said.
In the silent cafe— one that’s normally filled with sounds of brewing coffee and regulars chatting— Graci focuses on combining ingredients correctly, whisking and mixing and perfecting the details on his creations. It’s an art form that takes his mind off other problems.
“When I’m baking, I’m fully immersed in what I’m doing. It takes your mind off every day worries (and) the surreal situation we’re in now,” Graci said. “It makes time move faster. It’s a stress relief.”
Graci, who moved to New Jersey in 2009, started working at the Mattison Avenue cafe as a consultant a year ago on a contract that was nearing its end when the coronavirus outbreak hit New Jersey.
The 1930′s-style Italian cafe, run by 15 employees before the virus hit, is now among the struggling eateries across the state forced to lay off workers as financial strain sets in for the food industry. But owner Joseph Castore said the shop is staying open to serve the community.
“We’re creating a sense of normalcy,” said Castore. He is working as a barista and fills boxed coffee orders while Graci bakes. “Not everybody is a chef or baker.”
And Graci enjoys bringing happiness to customers, who seem more grateful for his desserts than usual as they spend their days indoors, peeking into fridges only to find the same frozen foods and leftovers.
Last week, Graci said, a pregnant woman called the shop with a craving. She wanted a vanilla pie with pistachio ganache and maraschino cherries, a hint of desperation in her voice.
“She said ‘I know it doesn’t sound good, but that’s what I want.’ So I said ‘I’ll do it for you,’” Graci said with a laugh. “It’s really gratifying when you know you’ve created something that will bring happiness to a group of people.”
Still, the amount of people strolling through Asbury Park unmasked and mingling on warm days concerns Graci, who saw the virus’ impact early on in Italy. He fears not everyone is taking social distancing rules seriously in the U.S.
Last week, a person who accidentally visited Amici’s Gelato & Caffe instead of the store she ordered from online told Graci she wanted a cake for a child’s birthday party that would have 30 attendees, Graci said. Gov. Phil Murphy banned all gatherings of above 10 people last month.
“It shows how little people are believing this, still,” he said.
In Italy, social distancing rules are stricter, Graci said. National quarantines there began earlier, on Feb. 21 with the province of Lodi, and people can’t wander outside without government approval. When the coronavirus hit, Graci had to cancel his eight-week trip there in May, the month of his mom, dad and brother’s birthdays. He hasn’t seen his family since last September.
Graci’s older brother carries government paperwork to go grocery shopping for his parents, Graci said. He disinfects the groceries afterwards, and leaves the bags on his parents’ balcony without even saying hi to them, Graci said.
The pace at which the virus spreads, and the indiscriminate nature of it, are what worry Graci. Early on, Graci said he was warning his co-workers about COVID-19, seeing from afar the death toll in his home country.
He thinks about his young and healthy best friend from childhood, who was placed on a ventilator last week and is in critical condition at a local hospital. When the two last spoke, “he was fine,” Graci said, but the 37-year-old’s condition deteriorated in a matter of days.
“Even if a lot of people don’t believe about the social distancing,” he said, “we’re all in this together.”
“I’m happy to be in a small way be part of people’s celebrations.”
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