An Easter tradition at Isgro's: Arguing about Grandma Crucificia's table

Gus Isgro stands with a fresh batch of raspberry-filled butter cookies near his grandmother's table. He can't bear to part with the table despite the pleas of his bakery staff during the holiday rushes of Easter and Christmas.

In the beginning, before the chocolate-coated Easter egg cakes and the specialty cannoli, before the lines stretched around the block, before Isgro Pastries became an Italian Market institution, there was Grandma Crucificia’s table.

And 113 years later, Gus Isgro cannot bear to part with it. No matter how much his employees yell at him about it this time of year, amid the Easter rush.

It’s too short and bulky, they say. There’s no shelves for the powdered sugar. How about a nice stainless steel one, huh?

The table – and the arguing about it – is a holiday tradition.

The 19th-century claw-foot table made of heavy walnut occupies a small back room in Isgro’s, once the family dining room in the shop opened in 1904 by Mario and Crucificia Isgro.

Everything at Isgro’s passes over Crucificia’s table.  

It’s where the butter cookies are chocolate-dipped. The cannoli boxed. The marzipan Easter lambs set in their baskets, each affixed with a candy crucifix, a long-ago touch by, who else, Crucificia.

Every year, Denise Lauer, 62, who manages the shop, tells Gus, who took over from his grandparents, it’s finally time. Every Christmas, amid the holiday cheer, Gus will promise this is the year – the year he’ll replace Crucificia’s table.

Every Easter, there it sits.  

“I would have to get rid of what I hold dear,” Gus says.

The Isgros arrived in Philadelphia from Italy at the turn of the last century. Mario, a pastry chef trained in Vienna, came first to open the shop. Crucificia followed a year later to make a home.

The solemnity of her name fit, even if she preferred to be called Fifi in America. She was formal. She didn’t smile much. In her wedding photo, she glowered.  

No one can say where Mario and Crucificia got the table. But it has been the focal point of the family for more than a century.

At the table, some 100 Easters ago, Crucificia prepared boxes of paper-wrapped cookies for the doughboys parading down Christian Street in lines of four, marching to ships that would take them to the Great War. In each string-tied box, Crucificia placed small crucifixes from St. Paul’s.

Twenty-five years later, she would send her sons Vito and Sam to war with care packages and crucifixes of their own.  

And there was that terrible day in the 1920s when Crucificia and Mario pushed the table aside in their grief for the wake of their youngest, Mario Jr. He was only 5. The child had been playing on a wagon at a family farm in Washington Crossing, while Mario Sr. pasteurized milk. When his father turned away for a moment, the boy fell in and was scalded to death.

Until Crucificia's death, poor little Mario was the one subject everyone knew never to raise at her table.

She was protective of her children. If her grandchildren came home from St. Paul’s telling of whippings from the nuns, she rushed off to give the nuns an earful.

When the boys returned from war, Crucificia would stare down the table at Vito’s dinner dates, telling her oldest, her favorite, a lifelong bachelor, “She’s no good for you.”

Crucificia was nothing, if not exacting.

There was the time in the 1940s when, like a scene from a film, a man believed to be a member of a certain criminal society stumbled into the shop, stabbed. Mario tended to the wound with store aprons. Crucificia scowled. They were the good aprons, and it would be she who had to wash them.

When her son-in-law, Gus’ father, Elmo, eschewed the pastry life for the police force, he would host card games for his fellow cops, including the rising-through-the-ranks Frank Rizzo. The men played their games in an upstairs apartment, knowing enough not to sully Crucificia’s table.

“That would be sacrilege,” Gus said. 

And there were all those Easters in between, when the whole family crammed into the dining room, and somehow all seemed to find a place at the table. 

Finally, there was that December day in 1970, when Crucificia stood at her table, boxing an order and felt sharp pain in her chest. She allowed herself to sit. She died at the hospital.

Now, there have been all the Easters since, all those cookies and cannoli prepared on Crucificia’s table, under a crucifix she had hung long ago. All those promises Gus has made to replace the table. Ones he’ll probably never keep.