Vincenzo Vaccaro grew up with a passion for cake. After creating the donnoli, a mix of a scone and a cannoli, the ensuing internet stardom made its way to making a mark on Food Network and other acting shows.
He also loves pizza. Seeking shelter during the dog days of COVID, her family moved from Queens to Marlboro. Vaccaro had always planned to open a bakery in these areas, but when he and his partner Beatriz Martinez searched the valley for New York City-style pizza, they were disappointed and the business idea was turned upside down.
Last July, the couple opened Big Vinny’s Pizza & Donnolis in a narrow storefront on Beacon’s main street, and they’re already considering moving to a larger space. “We love it here,” Martinez said. “It has the feel of a small city like Williamsburg.”
As a child, Vinny worked at his family’s bakery and fell into acting sickness after taking an unnamed part in “A Bronx Tale,” filmed in and around his father’s estate in the Astoria neighborhood. He decided to drop out of school at the age of 14.
“My dad said, ‘Congratulations, I’m happy for you. I slept happily that night and at 3:30 in the morning he kicked my ass so hard that I still feel it. I jump to my feet: ‘what’s going on!?’ He said, “You’re not going to school in the morning, are you?” I said yes. And he said ‘great’. Now go down and get to work. Welcome to the real world.'”After Vinny perfected his cake-making skills, his father sold the bakery. Then he got his “pizza fever” by wandering a few pizzerias in the city and developed a unique approach to dough.
“I used my experience with bread to make a softer dough, like ciabatta, that rises more easily in the oven because air pockets form more quickly,” he said. “Have you ever seen pizzerias that spin the dough in the air? Because they have to open it is very difficult. Mine is soft and spongy; i just touch [into the prep surface]”
It also uses a fermented starter like Slime or Play-Doh with a sticky consistency, similar to sourdough. “It’s a lot of work, but people want a fancy, crunchy pizza, not a chewy, soggy pizza,” he said.
Another key to fluffy crust is the use of plenty of water. Most pizzerias mix four gallons of water with every 50-pound bag of flour. Vaccaro adds five gallons, “so it sticks all over my hands.”
The sauce consists of fresh basil, Alta Cucina brand San Marzano tomatoes and Lakonia extra virgin olive oil (some pizzerias say they use soy or vegetable oil). A pinch of ground cayenne pepper adds a subtle kick and a dollop of Parmesan cheese is sprinkled over most slices ($3 to $4 indoors). Pies range from $20 to $26 in-house.
Big Vin’s may not be the only slice shop in town (Pizza & Stuff II, Sal’s Pizza & Pasta, Enoteca Ama, Brother’s Trattoria), but it’s the only place you can get a donnolis ($6). Based on cartocci, a Sicilian dessert, Vaccaro’s version resembles five mini frosted donuts lined up side by side and filled with cannoli cream.
He realized that coating one side with a sweet sauce and rolling it with crushed sugar, cereal, cookies, and even bacon made a colorful treat (and added countless calories to the original mix). Further experimentation led to a flavor of campfire s’mores coated with melted chocolate and topped with graham crackers and marshmallow. Welder adds the finishing touch.
Donnolis’ Internet stardom came almost overnight in 2018 after Martinez uploaded a video to her Instagram. The day after Thrillist.com took over, its views hit one million, followed by more media exposure. “We fell so in love with people on the first day that it was total chaos,” Martinez said. “We had to close the doors because we couldn’t stand the crowd,” he said.
Before the Donnoli craze exploded, Vaccaro got serious about acting and posted it on his IMDB page. The internet spotlight led to new opportunities that she continued to pursue, even though it took a lot of time to operate her new store in Beacon.
“Cooking has taken me to places I never imagined,” she said. “But I’m always trying to come up with something new, so who knows what’s next.”