Dec. 17, 2007 -- About a year ago, St. Thomas suddenly got sweeter.
Wandering down the hilly road to Compass Point amidst nondescript buildings, you sense an intoxicating smell, a compelling whiff of -- what? Heaven? Here on St. Thomas?
Well, it's about as close as your tummy will come, anyhow.
We follow our nose to the bottom level of a warehouse perched on the hillside. Stacy Nicastro opens the door to her minuscule workplace where every square inch of space is put to use. Minuscule herself, the diminutive 30-year-old entrepreneur is happy to do a bit of show and tell about VI Desserts, which she started last year.
"My folks, Betty and Craig Nicastro, had lived on St. Thomas on and off, now they live on St. Croix, so I was familiar with the islands. I moved here in 1996. I already knew I loved it," she said.
As Nicastro talks, she is keeping an eye on the oven where a spicy aroma spells banana breads to come. She is covered in a chef's apron which almost dwarfs her, her head wrapped in a blue bandana.
She is perfectly at home in her immaculate little kitchen. She started at her mother's knee in Sheboygan, Wis. "I'd always loved helping my mom cook at home. I've loved to cook and bake since I was small, as far back as I can remember," she said, wiping her brow, and peeking at the oven. "I always made the dessert at home."
Nicastro, as is the way with many island entrepreneurs, took a somewhat circuitous route to her present enterprise. "I worked for eight years tending bar at Romano's," she said. "Then, I worked at Marina Market for about four years. First, I was a buyer, and then I managed the deli." The deli is where she sold her famous tropical macadamia nut bars, among other goodies.
But she had another idea in mind -- working for herself. "I knew I was ready to do this," she said.
She left Marina Market with determination, some backing, the services of Jessica Brock, a best friend from Sheboygan, and the encouragement of her boyfriend, Jon Foster, to make the leap to her wholesale bakery.
"I knew the food business on the island," she said. "I was prepared. I asked Jon about it, and he said, 'Sure, give it a whirl.'"
With wisdom gained from her relatively brief working career, Nicastro said, "Jessica and I do everything. No employees -- I didn't want that headache."
The kitchen is a picture of efficiency in action. A work table with two six-quart KitchenAid mixers sits in the middle. In the back is a roomy walk-in refrigerator next to a walk-in freezer.
To the side are the ovens, and an imposing metal object that looks like it could mix cement.
"That's Hercules," Stacy said with affection. We couldn't work without it." Hercules is a 30-quart Hobart stand up mixer. "It can make eight cakes at once," she said.
That's providing they are all the same cake. "We make everything from scratch," she said. "There's never a basic batter."
Nicastro prides herself on this policy. "We use the best ingredients we can find. It's always butter, never shortening. And we get the best chocolate."
Though she stops short of revealing any recipes, she pulls out a thick, loose leaf binder, one that's seen a lot of use, from the looks of its cover. "These are recipes we use. Some of them are from cookbooks, but most of them we have devised ourselves," Nicastro said.
What the two girls in the tiny enclave can put out is remarkable. Pies, cakes, cupcakes, designer breads, muffins, cheesecakes, tarts, scones, cinnamon buns -- and that's just the icing on the cake, so to speak.
Right now they are up to their ears in seasonal goodies. "We're making a lot of gift items -- banana breads, nut breads, gingerbread cakes, a chocolate pumpkin tart," she said, "but no fruitcakes."
She wonders, as does most of America, how fruitcakes came into being. "I simply don't know how," she laughed.
The bakery now has regular customers. "We have standing orders from downtown, Beans, Bytes and Websites, Badass Coffee Havensight and lots of others," including Marina Market where her famous tropical macadamia nut honey bars are well known.
"We deliver," Nicastro said, "but if people want, they can pick up orders here." They also sell individual items, most anything you'd get a hankering for.
Their imaginations run wild, as can be witnessed on the VI Desserts website. There are the ultra-sophisticated chocolate-covered strawberries, little fellows in chocolate and white tuxes, complete with bow-ties. Then the cakes. A three-tiered lopsided critter, fit for a child's party, cakes with football jerseys, a Spiderman production in red and black, banana cakes, a peanut butter cake with a pink teddy bear, one with a bright bottle of Corona beer for the older folk.
And this doesn't even count the wedding cakes. Three and four tiers, covered with color, with ribbons, flowers, fruits; cakes to make you rush out to renew your vows, get that over with, and dive in to something creamy white with orchids spilling down the side.
Reflecting on her background, Nicastro has warm words for Tony Romano, whose restaurant and art gallery has been in Smith Bay for almost 20 years. "Tony taught me so much about now to run a business successfully," she said. "We are still good friends. He taught me not to be stubborn, to accommodate new ideas. He is a fabulous person -- he's respected in his neighborhood, he loves it there."
It appears Nicastro has taken Romano's advice to heart. The two girls work a six-day week, and often can finish early in the afternoon. Not bad, for a new privately-owned endeavor. But that's not to say it can't get overwhelming.
"Last year we turned out 50 cakes and 90 pies over one two-day period," she said. And they got a night's sleep in between.
How about a little chink in the armor? Nicastro confesses she simply loves sweets, a not surprising admission. "I'd love to eat cake every day, but I can't. I have to exercise."
The bakery can be reached at 643-3763. If you get the answering machine, you'll hear, "Have a warm, sweet day."
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