ADVERTISEMENT

Judging by the line outside Carlo's City Hall Bake Shop in northern New Jersey -- from the front door to the corner, then east toward the Hudson River -- you'd think the Boss was inside. And you'd be right.

But don't be mistaken: This is the Boss of Hoboken, a.k.a. Bartolo "Buddy" Valastro, the Italian-American baker, cake decorator and cable TV star who plays with fondant and modeling chocolate.

"We feel very lucky to have Buddy and Carlo's bakery," said Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. "Hoboken was known before, but now it's even more known."

To be sure, the Jersey city a river over from Manhattan maintains an impressive list of famous folks and firsts. Frank Sinatra and photographer Alfred Stieglitz were born here; the first electric train departed from here (driven by Thomas Edison, no less); and the zipper and ice cream are local inventions. Now add to that roster Valastro and his family's 100-year-old Italian bakery, which last year went from hometown pastry shop to national sensation with the debut of the TLC reality show "Cake Boss."

"Frank Sinatra was their biggie," said Cecelia Hyrsl, a culinary school student who was trying out for a job at the bakery. "Now they have Carlo's."

The show, in its third season, shadows the pop-eyed dynamo as he constructs sculptural confections amid the antics of his extended Italian family. And while Buddy and company are the main stars, they share the stage with Hoboken. More than just a backdrop, the city is integral to Valastro's narrative.

"I am really, really proud to say that I am from Hoboken," said the 33-year-old, who logged countless hours at the bakery growing up. "I feel like this is my town. Me and Frank."

An unofficial ambassador of Hoboken, Valastro agreed to show me around his town and introduce me to its characters. The hook: We'd do it Buddy's way.

The "Cake Boss" tour started, of course, at the bakery, which sits on the main commercial strip of Washington Street between a grocer and a Verizon Wireless store. The storefront is simple, with a reddish sign carved in gold script that reads "Carlo's City Hall Bake Shop." A striped awning forms an unbroken eyebrow over two large windows. A display of frosted cakes hints at calories to come.

(Quick history lesson: Settled by the Dutch, Hoboken later drew Germans and Italians to its shores. More recently, the demographic has leaned toward post-college arrivistes outpriced by Manhattan rents and young professional families seeking a small town with metropolitan benefits.)

We piled into our sightseeing bus, Valastro's white Lincoln Navigator. We drive down to the river and Sinatra Park, a calming recreational space with a waterfront walkway, a gazebo and the best panorama of the Manhattan skyline. "We have awesome views of New York," he said as we peered out the car windows.

In Valastro's younger days, the shoreline was tumbledown and not worthy of its vantage point. "It used to be old piers and a back road," he said.

Still paralleling the Hudson on Frank Sinatra Drive, we drove by a sheer rock wall that created a cocoon of nature. Before heading inland, he showed me the former site of the Maxwell House plant, which, until it closed in 1992, had scented the air with its good-to-the-last-drop aroma.

On Adams Street, we stop at Fiore's. Valastro entered the deli to a chorus of Jersey-Italian greetings.

"Hey, Vinnie," hollered Valastro as he walked into the back kitchen without asking for permission, "how you doin'?"

Vinnie Amato, who runs Fiore's with his family, shares a history with the Valastros. The deli, which opened in 1913, abutted the original Carlo's bakery. "The thing that bound our families was that they did everything the old-fashioned way and so did we," said Amato, 68, who took over the business from his father. "And we both still do."

At Piccolo's, it was the same: an exuberant entrance, followed by a "How ya doin'?," this time directed at owner Patty Spaccavento, who also received a bearhug and a cheek kiss. The one-room restaurant is known for its cheesesteak sandwiches and Ol' Blue Eyes playlist. Spaccavento "ain't going to make you Buffalo wings," said Valastro. "You come in and it's always the same. And Frank is always playing."

Back at the bakery, Valastro parked in the alley and entered through the kitchen door, away from the crowds. The store attracts about 3,000 to 4,000 people a week. Many visit the shop with two missions: to glimpse Valastro, and to take away a bag of baked goods. Valastro entered the store stage left; waving and smiling, he walked the length of the counter before joining the scrum.