It's a sad fact acknowledged by professional bakers: good cakes and bad cakes look exactly alike.

You wouldn't know from looking at Malverne Pastry Shop's cream-filled napoleon that the puff pastry is made in-house, using all butter -- and not just regular butter, but European-style Plugrá, which has a slightly higher fat content. Or that the pastry cream is made the old-fashioned way, from egg yolks, sugar, milk and flour.

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But you probably would know as soon as you took a bite.

Malverne Pastry Shop is one of Long Island's most respected bakeries; its proprietor, Michelangelo La Mendola, roundly lauded by his peers. La Mendola was born in Sicily and moved to Queens when he was 11. Soon he was working at Seviroli's pastry shop in Ozone Park, where he learned the art of Italian pastry. He went on to work at Seviroli's in Massapequa (now closed) before buying Malverne Pastry Shop 18 years ago.

Over the years, he broadened his repertoire by taking classes in Paris and at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate Hyde Park. By now he is a master of confections in three traditions: Italian (rainbow cookies, sfogliatelle), French (those napoleons, "fruit rings" made with cream-puff dough and crème légère) and American (opulent seven-layer cake, black-and-white cookies made with fudge icing) - as well as the odd Austrian Linzer torte made with house-roasted and ground hazelnuts.

La Mendola credited his success to "consistency and the quality of ingredients." Then he smiled, recalling what his boss at Seviroli's used to say: "It's always the same ingredients - flour, sugar, butter, eggs - just different percentages." -- Erica Marcus

Michelangelo La Mendola is the owner-baker of Malverne Pastry Shop in Malverne. (May 20, 2010)