Borracchini's Bravado -- On One Day, ''13,780 People Were Eating Our Wedding Cakes''

DOZENS OF ETHNIC groceries grace this city. And there is surely no shortage of bakeries and cake decorators. But Remo Borracchini's Bakery & Mediterranean Market is different. It is a bakery that has about it an elusive - but definite - sense of celebration.

"Cakes decorated while you wait," the motto reads. That doesn't begin to explain the half of it.

From the lines of cakes awaiting dedication to the lines of children watching the colored arts of confection, you have the sense of being in on the origins of a party - maybe not your own, but somebody's.

One recent Saturday morning, I wandered back into Remo's venerable shop at 2307 Rainier Ave. S. (the Borracchini family originated it in 1922) and found Remo, his wife Betty and his brother Angelo seated at a small table sipping espresso.

"We do up to 150 birthday cakes a day," he smiled. "And around 110 wedding cakes every weekend. Last Saturday we did 125 wedding cakes and I figured it out that on that day 13,780 people were eating our wedding cakes in Seattle."

Remo is 63. He plans on retiring. But not soon. He wants to work his bakery until he is as old as his maternal grandfather, Archangelo Gasperetti, was when he hung up his white apron.

Archangelo, noted Remo, worked every day, "nine hours a day, until he was 97. Getting up at 4 a.m. and waiting for the bakers to arrive."

He reflected:

"I have 34 years to go."

He looked as if he'd make it.

Remo was born eight blocks away from where he labors. The bakery, first established at 1707 20th Ave. S., moved to its present site in 1939. It's gone through several remodels and upgrades - the most recent early this summer.

The original Italian-American neighborhood has diversified; so has the clientele; and so, too, the staff, many of whom are now Asian. Borracchini's employs 70 bakers and clerks, along with 20 decorators. They make the cakes - 500 pounds of batter at a time - from scratch.

Ditto the cake decorations. "We have hired ONLY inexperienced, untrained cake decorators," he said. "Why? So they can learn it my way."

They work hard. They also work fast. You can watch as many as 10 or 11 cakes at a time being created (there is an elevated observation platform for children.) Prices range from $9.25 to $35 for birthday and party cakes; wedding cakes sell for just under $1 a serving.

The process starts with fresh-baked rectangular, round or heart-shaped cakes made in nonstop rotary ovens and frosted upstairs. The cakes come in white, chocolate, banana or carrot batters - and a variety of Bavarian Cream toppings.

Images are projected onto them and a line artist begins tracing the outlines onto the cakes: graduation hats, Spider Man, dinosaurs.

Next, a spray painter working with a pen-sized gun flits colored sugar tones into the sketched outlines. Words, greetings, salutations are added as the cake is passed along. Finally, florettes of icing are swiftly created and attached. The finished product is slipped into a large, pink box and delivered or picked up by someone in the crowd that perpetually circles the checkout register.

Borracchini's didn't always specialize in cakes. That specialty trade began 20 years ago. It started out as a conventional Italian bakery and import shop. A wide range of imported oils, tomatoes and pastas still fill the shelves: spaghetti and macaroni in dozens of shapes and dimensions. Scalafani, Don Peppe, Barilla, La Florentine, Sobillo, DeCecco and Primo compete for attention alongside domestic Ronzoni.

You can even buy precooked polenta packed into cellophane rolls, "Ready to heat and eat," for $3 a kilo (2.2 pounds).

I tossed a tin of Scalafani "Concentrato di Pomidoro" into the grocery basket, alongside a gallon of the house-imported olive oil - on sale for just under $8 a gallon. "The olive-oil market fell," Borracchini explained. "We got a good deal on a shipment - we passed it on."

The whole family works the store, which closes only two days a year, Christmas and New Year's. Daughters Lisa Desimone, Nannette Heye and Mimi Norris are all involved. Son-in-law Jim Heye is the general manager.

Although the dense, crusty Italian country loaves that have become fashionable in recent years are not baked there, Borracchini's has a surprising range of other breads, breadsticks (excellent) and rolls. But lots of places bake bread. "All we really have to offer," he said, "is ourselves and our service."

He recalled the day a young woman came in with a partly ruined wedding cake she had bought from another bakery. The decoration had gotten smashed - and the competing decorators had gone home for the day.

"She asked me if I could fix it," he said. "I said sure. We took the cake apart, scraped off the icing, put it back together and it looked as good as new. The girl asked me how much it cost. I told her there was no charge; nobody should have sold her a damaged cake to begin with on her wedding day.

"She hugged me and gave me a kiss. She cried. This is what we have to sell. This is my life. It is where I spend my life."

Borracchini's is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. Saturday mornings are a good time to watch the decorators at work. Kids welcome; balloons available. 325-1550.

Copyright 1993, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.) John Hinterberger's food columns and restaurant reviews appear Sundays in Pacific and Fridays in Tempo. Betty Udesen is a Seattle Times photographer.

--------------------------------- MARIO BORRACCHINI'S ZUPPA INGLESE --------------------------------- 10 servings

2 tablespoons cornstarch. 2 cups milk. 2 eggs, lightly beaten. 2 tablespoons sugar. Grated peel of 1/2 lemon. Pinch nutmeg. 1 pound ripe strawberries. 16 ladyfingers. Amaretto liqueur. 3/4 cup whipping cream.

1. Mix the cornstarch with some of the milk. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, lemon peel and nutmeg together and whisk in the remaining milk. Mix in the cornstarch mixture and pour into a heavy saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Let boil 1 minute or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Stir constantly. Place a sheet of wax paper directly on top of the custard and let cool slightly. 2. Save 8 strawberries for garnish. Hull the remaining berries and cut in halves. Place half of the ladyfingers in the bottom of a glass bowl and sprinkle with Amaretto. 3. Place a layer of the berries on the ladyfingers and pour a layer of custard on top. Repeat with the remaining berries and ladyfingers; sprinkle with Amaretto. Top with the remaining custard and refrigerate until chilled. 4. Whip the cream and spread a thin layer over the custard. Pipe the remaining cream around the edge and decorate with the reserved berries. Serve chilled. Note: One 16-ounce package of vanilla instant pudding can replace the custard. Prepare according to package directions and add the lemon peel and nutmeg.