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A sweet history is uncorked

NORTH TONAWANDA – In the 1960s Michael Annunziato operated Michael’s Sweet Shoppe on Broad Street in the City of Tonawanda. He died suddenly, but his sweet recipes didn’t die with him. Annunziato’s family continued the tradition, making chocolates in their basement for a loyal audience of friends, family and fans.

Now the secret is out of the basement and will be open to all in the soon-to-be-opened Uncorked Cafe at 72A Webster St., which will offer a variety of baked goods, crepes, sandwiches, salads and appetizers, as well as locally made wines and craft beers. Chocolates will be available in the shop and by order for special occasions.

Michael’s granddaughter, Michelle Annunziato Szynkowski, 43, of North Tonawanda, said she has been making chocolate with her family in their specially designed basement kitchen in Tonawanda and then North Tonawanda since she was 5 years old.

“No matter where we lived my dad always made sponge candy,” said Szynkowski of the local favorite. “It is more of a winter thing, a dry winter. You need cool and dry. The humidity can ruin it.”

Szynkowski said her business had been getting big and she was “shipping a ton” of her chocolates as well as specialty pies and cakes, but admitted it was a seasonal thing and she needed to come up with an idea of a business that could be open year-round.

Enter her friend of over 30 years, Andrea Dymek Williams, 45, of North Tonawanda, also a legacy, who will be the co-owner of Uncorked Cafe. Her grandmother Helen Setlik Palka owned the Mirror Room, a nightclub on Oliver Street, and her parents owned the former White House Restaurant, currently under different ownership as the Hideaway Grill.

Together the women came up with the novel idea to appeal to both markets, offering those with a sweet tooth a dessert menu and those looking for a nightcap and a snack a place to go. There are ideally situated for the after-theater crowd, right across the street from the Riviera Theatre.

Chef Kathi Szmuda Fuller will be helping to set up their menu and all agreed this will not be typical diner fare, but something more upscale and unique.

Michelle, how were you and your family able to make chocolates after your grandfather died?

Szynkowski: No matter where we lived, my grandmother, Margaret Annunziato, had a kitchen in the basement and made chocolate for the family. She always made it for everybody and when she stopped doing it my mom and dad, Peggy and Charles Annunziato, took it over in the late 1980s. I have been doing it since I was 5 years old. I remember my grandma sitting me on the counter and showing me how to make chocolate. My dad made the sponge candy, which was my grandfather’s recipe. Wherever we went we had to have the sponge stove set up and the gas line put in just for this.

Sponge candy is very popular in this area, isn’t it?

Szynkowski: It’s very hard to make.

Was there a demand for your candy?

Szynkowski: My family down in Texas, Chicago, all over, started ordering it for Christmas gifts. We were shipping to all my cousins, from all over who were originally from Tonawanda. Pretty soon people who were getting it for Christmas gifts wanted to order it. Two years ago I said: No more in the house. I need this for living space.

Looks like you almost had a little chocolate factory .

Szynkowski: We are making pure milk chocolate. There’s no wax fillers. The sponge is made from scratch at home. We don’t go to Tops and buy those wafers you can throw in the microwave. This is all tempered. When I stopped two years ago, everyone said, “Why don’t you get into a business?” My grandmother, who showed me how to do this, just passed (in March at the age of 91) and even at her funeral I couldn’t get by without people who asked, “Are we ever going to taste it again?” And I said, “Never say never.”

How did this idea for Uncorked come about?

Szynkowski: It’s something I have been working on for awhile. For years I’ve wanted to do this. My cousin Jeanne in Houston gave me advice (on how to set up a business) – but it’s something I’ve done my whole life. My mother has been my partner for 25 years.

Did you plan to open a cafe and wine bar?

Szynkowski: No. I was thinking about just a bakery. (Andrea) was looking for a restaurant/wine bar. We just decided to do it together.

Isn’t this sort of a strange combination?

Szynkowski: We were going to open it side by side [in another property] that had a removable wall, but the deal just fell through so we decided to do it here. There’s a real demand for coffee and desserts and we are trying to do something different. It isn’t just a wine bar. There are taverns and pubs here and we are trying to appeal to a different crowd – the crowds coming from the Riviera Theatre, the Ghostlight Theatre, the free concerts.

Do you think people want this type of a business?

Szynkowski: So far we have been getting a great response, from the other merchants, from the Riviera who came over to welcome us.

What can people expect?

Szynkowski: We will have full lunches and we will stay open late with dinner and a late-night menu. Rather than a full bakery display case, I’m going to do a lot by order including chocolates … but we will feature the chocolates on our desserts, too, and with wine pairings.

Will you feature local wines?

Williams: We really want to try to get as much of the local vendors, local growers, wineries and breweries.

Szynkowski: Wine and chocolates are very big together. We are also going to feature cheese boards and have coffee. We are also looking at wine and paint nights and book signings. The chocolate will be more by order, but we are going to feature it, whether it is free samples on the bar or a piece of sponge candy on a plate on the table - just to get it out there.

What can we expect on the menu, besides chocolate and desserts?

Szynkowski: Our menu will be gourmet salads, homemade soups, the cheese and meat board, paninis, deli sandwiches, wraps, flat bread pizza, appetizers for a late-night menu. We may have crab dips, a spinach artichoke dip. Our flat bread pizzas will all be gourmet. We will roast our own roast beef and slice our own meats here. It won’t be lunch meat. We are going to try and use local produce.

Williams: ... and crepes. It will all be made to order. We won’t pull it out of the freezer and pop it in.

You really seem to be in an ideal location, so close to the Riviera.

Szynkowski: A few other locations fell through and we said: There’s a reason for it. It’s very hard to get a location on this street and when this became available – it needs some work, but just being here at night last week a Tom Hanks movie was playing over there and hundreds of people poured out of that theater and walked right to our door … It’s exciting to see the Riviera lit up.

Has North Tonawanda ever seen anything like this before?

Szynkowski: I don’t think so and I’ve been here, in North Tonawanda, since 1983 and before that just over the bridge.

Williams: I never wanted to compete with Dwyer’s and Crazy Jakes. Those are your pubs, with chicken wings and hamburgers, or the Remington with fine dining. You needed something in the middle.

Szynkowski: People coming out of the theater in their late 40s, 50s and 60s, there’s really nowhere for them to go. The fine dining restaurants are closing and the bars have turned into the club scene. You see so many people leave the area. We are trying to give them somewhere to come.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com. email: nfischer@buffnews.com