As a crazy-obsessed home baker, I have a very specific idea of how New York Cheesecake should taste — fluffy, tangy, flavorful, never gooey, dry or cakey. I envision that scene in “Friends” when Chandler and Rachel devour a cheesecake that looks beyond perfect: not jiggly like jello nor overtly dense, but so light and almost velvety in texture. A thin crust, creeping about three-quarters up the sides, appears to unite with the creaminess of the cake, rather than looking like a disc-shaped entity of its own. The best part? They could just keep eating the whole thing, not a bloated belly in sight.
When I got to New York in 2019 I canvassed the city in search of this exact cheesecake, convinced that if there was one place to find it, it would be in Manhattan. My quest culminated at a shop called Eileen’s Special Cheesecake: at one glance I zoomed in on the lightly crumbed crust, and with one bite of the light yet supremely rich filling, my taste buds went ding, ding, ding!
In a cosmic coincidence, Eileen’s is akin to a real-life version of the fictional bakery that made the cheesecake in “Friends,” Mama’s Little Bakery. Founder and owner Eileen Avezzano helmed the bakery until her passing in 2018; her daughters, Holly Maloney and Bonnie Ponte, who started working full-time at the bakery twelve years ago, have now taken the reins.
“Our mom started baking by accident,” Maloney recalls. ”It was our grandmother’s recipe, and the owner of a deli in our neighborhood asked our mom to bake a cheesecake for dinner one night.” And the rest is history — her cheesecake knocked the deli owner’s socks off, and Eileen ended up churning out cheesecakes to be sold at the deli, which were a “huge hit,” according to Maloney. After years of baking out of her neighbor’s apartment and stocking cheesecakes in giant refrigerators on their terrace, in 1974 Eileen and her husband decided to kick things into high gear and rented a pizza restaurant that had gone out of business in Soho.
“They did it just for wholesale at the time, they weren’t open as a storefront,” Maloney adds. “But people quickly caught on that delicious cheesecake was being made in this little corner in Manhattan, knocking on the door and [asking], can we buy one? That was how Eileen’s started out at 17 Cleveland Place, where we still reside today.”
Despite the legions of loyal customers and lots of favorable publicity — Eileen being featured on shows like Bobby Flay’s “Throwdown”, and critical acclaim from food magazines and international food critics — the bakery’s homey quintessence has never wavered. Everything about Eileen’s, from the simple storefront to the unassuming little street corner it sits on, is wonderfully un-hip.
“We are different from every other cheesecake because we’re not made commercially,” reflects Ponte. “We bake our cheesecakes fresh by hand daily. The reason we haven’t grown to be commercial is because that is where you sacrifice quality.” Nixing machines and using the hands of staff, some of whom have stayed with the bakery for more than 30 years, Ponte says they manually crack every egg and hand-line every pan with the buttery crust.
Ponte thinks this is what sets their crust apart from others: graham crackers coarsely crushed by hand, mixed with melted butter and roughly pressed into the pan. “There are people in our bakery [whose] sole job is making the crust,” she says.
As for the light-yet-creamy filling, Maloney revealed that they whip their egg whites for that fluffy texture. She says that a good cheesecake should never make you feel sick after just two or three bites. “We call that a cheesecake hangover,” she says. “New York cheesecake can be very thick; when you eat it, it sticks to the roof of your mouth. Our cheesecake goes in and down very easily, you can just keep eating it all day long.”
In the everlasting debate over traditional New York-style, cream cheese-based versus Italian-style, light ricotta-based cheesecakes, Eileen’s strikes a perfect balance between the two. Plus extra points for branching out from the usual strawberry option with an array of flavors, from cherry to salted caramel and pumpkin.
Both sisters agree this balance of texture and the simplicity of the way they run their business are all owing to Eileen’s spirit. “They truly broke the mold when they made my mom,” Maloney reminisces. “She was so passionate about everything she did, not just cheesecake.”
She states that her mother’s rule to be successful at business is the three P’s: product, passion and perseverance. “She said the road to success is always under construction, you just have to keep going, and if you have the passion you can get through everything,” says Maloney, who recalls a time when the bakery was destroyed in a fire — Eileen found a temporary kitchen in the Bronx and just kept on baking the next day.
Their mother’s resilience gave Maloney and Ponte the guts to make it through closure over the COVID lockdown last year and a slump in business from the tourism industry shutting down. “We were hit really badly as far as tourists go,” says Maloney. “We used to have tour buses pull up ten times a day, and only two weeks ago did we get our first tour bus back!”
Eileen’s is bouncing back, having grown in volumes of wholesale orders and country-wide shipping, and with more expansion plans in the works. When asked if they are thinking of upgrading the façade of the store, Ponte smiles and replies: “We like that homemade mom and pop feel. For now, we are staying as it is.”