Friday, March 16, 2012

Five Cupcake Sweet Spots: Billy’s, Donna Bell’s Among NYC’s Best

Everyone loves cupcakes. Thanks to Sex in the City and its four glamorous stars love affair with Magnolia Bakery’s cupcakes, this delectable treat’s popularity has soared since its 2000 debut on the hit television show.  

Since then the cupcake craze has exploded. Lately cupcake shops have sprouted up, not just in Manhattan and Brooklyn but all over the country in Boston, upstate New York, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Oregon, Kansas and elsewhere fueled by the success of The Food Network’s Cupcake Wars and an onslaught of books like Martha Stewart's Cupcakes; the Cupcake CafĂ© Book, The Cupcake Diaries. 

Scores of blogs - Cupcakes Take the Cake, 52 CupcakesAll Things Cupcake have flooded the internet.

My coworker, Katy Saunders, stirred my interest. Katy, who grew up in Virginia and went to the University of Kansas, makes a good cupcake. She has shared her taste for cupcakes with her office mates.
Often she arrives to work with her “cupcake” carry case filled with her homemade savories. Twice in 2010 she won Baked by Melissa’s scavenger hunt and spoiled us with her winnings - 200 mini cupcakes. She also made Magnolia Bakery's 15 New York City Moments list.

I decided to take advantage of Katy’s expertise and check out what New York City has to offer. We tasted cupcakes from 19 different shops. Here is a review of five.

Little Cupcake Bakeshop is a Brooklyn treasure. It built a devoted following quickly at its charming Bay Ridge shop, after its 2005 opening. 

The LoBuglio brothers, Massimo and Luigi, followed with a second shop in Nolita, at the corner of Mott and Prince, across from old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 2010. Nestled among Nolita’s nineteen-century tenements and fashionable boutiques, galleries and cafes, LCB, with its checkered floors and chandeliers sparkles as if ready for a movie shoot but still exudes charm and a neighborhood atmosphere.

Its colorful cupcakes, puddings, pies and cakes fill its long display counter. With seating for 30 plus and large windows it is an ideal place to watch NoLita’s interesting characters zip by while sipping fresh lemonade or an Nutella cappuccino with a scrumptious peanut butter butter cream or German velvet cupcake.

Katy calls it “The Best” with “perfect flavor and proportion.” And she loves the pink carry boxes.
LCB: 30 Prince Street; 212-941-9100;

Two Little Red Hens…Once upon a time Brooklyn was all about pizza, hot dogs, knishes and stoops. But times have changed. Today you can add hipsters, dot.coms and cupcakes. 

Founded by two aspiring bakers, Mary Louise Clemens and Christina Winkler, Two Little Red Hens began in Brooklyn at a Farmer’s Market in 1992 before moving to Park Slope. They gained a loyal following and a high New York Times rating. 

In 2001 they opened a second shop in Yorkville. Five years later they split with Clemens staying in Brooklyn and renaming that shop Ladybird Bakery.
With Winkler at the helm TLRH is one of the city's best cupcake emporiums (and pies and cakes as well). It is a mouth-watering oasis amidst the choas resulting from the building of the second avenue subway. While many avenue stores have closed due to the upheaval the bakeshop thrives. It is homey with soothing colors and farmhouse curtains and seats about eight people. The L-shaped glass counter is filled with an assortment incredible looking cupcakes.

Brittany Omon, the super friendly manager, said “On weekends the line stretches way out into the street.”  When asked what is their secret she said, “Everything is good. We sell 40 different items including cookies, tarts, coffee and specialty cakes and cupcakes. We bake everything on the premises and we use best ingredients.”

Katy’s critique: “Moist, creamy fillings, sweet icing and good variety of fillings.”   Try the raspberry, coconut, and almond cupcakes.
Two Little Red Hens: 1652 Second Avenue between 85 & 86th St. 212-452-0476;;

Donna Bell’s Bake Shop opened in April 2011 in Hell’s Kitchen’s steps away from the theater district. It’s four person staff bakes, cooks, cleans and sells amazing cupcakes, muffins, Mississippi mud pies, brownies, cookies, breakfast biscuits, corn bread squares, casseroles and cold and warm sandwiches in a 500 square foot space.      

Their delicious cupcakes are filled with butter cream icing.  Other options include vanilla, blueberry, champagne, peanut butter and others.

Started by three best friends, actress Pauley Perrette, who stars on NCIS, Darren Greenblatt, and Mathew Sandusky, and inspired by Perrette’s mother, Donna Bell, a native of Alabama, the shop, thanks to its homey touches and Greenblatt’s outgoing persona and willingness to please and do things the best way possible makes you feel as if you crossed the Mason-Dixon line.

“We are based on a real person, Donna Bell, and her wonderful family recipes and gracious southern hospitality. That's makes us unique,” Greenblatt said. “We are humble, rustic, not fancy. Our baked goods are made daily on the premises. We use natural and fresh ingredients.”
The small shop is nicely designed. It is bright cheery airy and immaculate. There are no tables or chairs but you can sip coffeee at one of the two small padded window alcoves. 

Katy gives it a thumbs up and likes their cute protective packaging.
Donna Bell’s, at World Wide Plaza, 301 West 49th Street; 212-582-8463 www.donnabellsbakeshop.comFor catering;

Buttercup Bake Shop’s pedigree would place it at the top of any list automatically. Owned by Jennifer Appel, a clinical psychologist, who with a high-school friend, Allysa Torey, opened Magnolia Bakery on Blecker Street in 1996. When their partnership dissolved Appel, an author of Buttercup Bakes at Home and The Buttercup Bake Shop Cookbook, opened Buttercup in 1999. 

Appel transferred her Magnolia success to Buttercup's east midtown location. With its gentle colors, long counter and friendly staff it is reminiscent of a French or Belgium patisserie.  Cupcakes – German chocolate or Buttercup Golden with Vanilla icing - are among the best and their cakes, pies – strawberry rhubarb crumb, lemon meringue - puddings, and cookies are just as good. Katy likes their icing which is super sweet like Magnolia’s.
Buttercup: 973 2nd Ave bet. 51st & 52nd Streets. Call 212-350-4144.

Billy’s Bakery has three Manhattan locations in Chelsea, NoLita and Tribecca. The one I know is in Chelsea, which is cute, and inviting decorated with “I Love Billy’s tee-shirts and bags." 

It has a vibrant yet gentle buzz as an ideal neighborhood meet-up spot sitting inside our outside on its benches. Owners Marc and Wayne opened Billy’s in 2003. One avenue west of the Chelsea boy strip, Billy’s, lures all, including the stroller crowd with its scrumptious cupcakes – try the yellow daisy and classic chocolate or maple pecan – cakes, cookies, scones, muffins and pies. 
Katy like its great color scheme and cute go-to bag.
Billy’s: Chelsea 184 9th Ave; 212-647-9956 For other locations see:; facebook: BillysBakeryNYC
Photos by Rudi Papiri