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These Long Island pastry chefs will make you want to save room for dessert

Baker Maria

Baker Maria "Mitzi" Gulija and executive chef and owner Doug Gulija at Plaza Cafe in Southampton. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

What can be done to save dessert? Over the last 30 years, Americans’ affection for a sweet finale to meals has apparently declined at such a steady and alarming clip, one research firm that tracks eating habits projects it may cease to exist within a few decades. “We are on target to serve the last dessert on February 27, 2054,” reads a 2015 report by the NDP Group, which is based in Port Washington.

This desertion of dessert has been particularly hard on pastry chefs, a normally intrepid breed. Accustomed to indifference and neglect by diners and restaurateurs alike, these latchkey kitchen workers’ creations are deemed unnecessary, superfluous, shame-inducing, ordered reluctantly and usually with four forks.

And yet, without desserts where would our birthdays be? Our weddings? Our dentists? How would we punish naughty children? Surprise our valentines? Binge after breakups? Dessert may be an imperfect solution to humanity’s problems, but sometimes it’s all we’ve got.

Some island restaurants have succeeded at restoring the last course to its place of honor. Their desserts are delicious, magical, worth seeking out and worth saving room for. They aren’t so much the end of a meal as its culmination — that, and timely reminders of all we stand to lose if dessert goes the way of the dodo.

PLAZA CAFE, SOUTHAMPTON

“What are you telling him now?” wonders executive chef Doug Gulija with a nervous laugh, approaching the table where his pastry chef is sitting for an interview. Among the things I’ve been told by the 82-year-old woman, his mother Maria: there’s never a day when she isn’t baking something for Plaza Cafe in Southampton, where everyone calls her grandma even though she’s no one’s grandma; she wanted Doug to study accounting and almost had a heart attack when he traded that for cooking school; now concedes “he’s an amazing chef,” in part because he had the good sense to hire her to do his desserts; says things like “I don’t think I could work with him,” even though she works with him every day.

“I hate to bake and she has a passion to do it,” offers Doug by way of explanation. “And I’m not a decorator,” adds Maria in a thick Croat accent. “I can do a little bit. I can’t do the rosebuds no matter how hard I try.”

“So she bakes the cake, and we make the ice cream and present it,” he says.

Feasting on the pair’s spectacular chocolate-chestnut torte before me, it’s hard to believe that something so beautiful and tasty could emerge from this marriage of inadequacies. It’s light as chocolate desserts go, balanced by subtly flavored Croatian chestnuts, and attractively plated with a scoop of housemade Armagnac ice cream and a squirt of cinnamon cream.

“She’s got two desserts on the menu right now” — the other is a tangy orange-vanilla torte served with a Creamsicle-style ice cream and a burnt orange coulis — “and people love them,” says Doug. “And when she’s not doing those, she’s baking the brioche for our foie gras dish and the cookies for our crème brûlée.”

Maria’s schedule, in her own words: “I come early in the morning. First I bake, second I clean the bathrooms” — she’s never satisfied with the restaurant's efforts, Doug reports — “and third I make a big lunch for the staff.

“And I don’t mean sandwiches.”

Plaza Cafe, 61 Hill St., Southampton, 631-283-9323, plazacaferestaurant.com

AUTENTICO, OYSTER BAY

Chef Francesco Pecoraro has an even closer relationship with his pastry chef, who as it happens is Francesco Pecoraro, his being the rare case of a head chef bridging the sweet-savory divide. The Sicilian is also zealously committed to freshness, which is to say that on each of the five days his Oyster Bay eatery is open, he starts from scratch, buying produce and provisions early, before heading to the restaurant around 9:30.

“I need four or five hours for the bread and desserts,” says Pecoraro, who must single-handedly produce — he has no sous chef — the seven or more distinct sweets he’ll serve that evening. That means getting an early start on his grandmother’s recipe for sfincia — a light Sicilian puff pastry, zeppole without the thud — so they’ll be ready to stuff later with a diner’s cream preference (your choices: pastry, ricotta, chantilly) and dress with pistachios and orange sections. Egg whites must be whipped for what’s become Autentico’s most popular dessert of late, a conic edifice of Italian meringue nestled on ricotta-flavored gelato cleverly plated with caramelized figs.

And then there’s Pecoraro’s delicate masterpiece, a stracchino cheese mousse molded into a rectangular bar and doused with honey produced at La Selva mansion in Upper Brookville, by Italian bees (of course) buzzing through thickets of wisteria and rhododendron. The cheese and honey, complexly flavored themselves, together make for a paragon of silkiness interrupted only by a few candied walnuts elsewhere on the plate.

At last the morning is over and Pecoraro is done. Now all he has to whip up is the rest of Autentico’s menu, including his signature Bolognese sauce, whose preparation takes no fewer than four hours.

Autentico, 124 South St., Oyster Bay, 516-922-2212, autenticooysterbay.com

THE GOURMET WHALER, COLD SPRING HARBOR

A good dessert transforms the restaurant experience, a great one transforms the restaurant itself. Witness the changes coming to The Gourmet Whaler. The Cold Spring Harbor eatery will close for renovations at the end of February, keeping its yo-ho-ho nautical theme but embarking on a renovation that will see almost half of the breakfast-lunch cafe’s floor space rededicated to desserts and other baked goods by Denise Chin. Since becoming a part-owner in 2015, Chin’s cakes and pies have become a sensation.

“I have a repertoire that’s very small, but each one is incredible,” she says of the desserts in the Whaler’s regular rotation, including a homemade pecan pie (“killer”), chocolate cream pie and carrot cake (“we’re known for those”), and a “smashing success that people go insane for” by the name of boipleberry pie. It’s a unique creation — blueberries, strawberries and bits of pineapple ladled into an all-butter crust — inspired by a unique source, a children’s book written by one of Chin’s friends, Crab Meadow resident J.B. Rafferty.

She understands diners’ reluctance to order desserts in restaurants. “I almost never order them either,” she says, as they rarely measure up to her standards. “I can’t be 100 percent sure what it is that most restaurants do, but my sense is that a lot of them get their ingredients from restaurant supply places, where they’re not as expensive, but also not as high-quality.” Chin never skimps on the Whaler’s desserts. “I run this place like a home.”

Coincidentally or not, it’s an approach that Chin shares with all the island’s great dessert restaurants. She bakes as if for her own family, Pecoraro’s sfincia is unthinkable without his grandmother’s recipe, and Gulija’s desserts wouldn’t even exist without his mother. In desserts, as elsewhere, there’s no place like home.

The Gourmet Whaler, 111 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor, 631-659-2977, gourmetwhalerny.com

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