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Such sweet sorrow

Mourning the closing of Davis Square bakery

Joseph Magliaro, original owner of La Contessa bakery, embraced Annette Serrao, a current owner. The bakery, in Davis Square, is closing. (SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF)

Giving a free cookie to every child who ambled into the bakery wasn't the best way to make a profit.

This much Annette Serrao and her brother, Felix Sabatino, knew, even as low-carb diets and big-chain supermarket bakeries cut into their sales, and their landmark Davis Square Italian pastry shop struggled to stay afloat.

But free cookies were a La Contessa tradition, started by the bakery's patriarch, Joe Magliaro, who gave away so many buttery treats over the years he became known as "Joe Cookie." And at La Contessa, which is closing after nearly 50 years in business, tradition was everything.

A statue of St. Anthony stood watch over the counter, even as hip restaurants and Internet cafes opened around the corner. Magliaro, who retired in 2000, learned his trade in the North End during the Depression and never changed a recipe.

During holidays, window signs would advertise specials like zeppole or pizza chiena that only a true Italian would recognize.

The majority of customers were regulars. Sure, 30 years ago, everyone in the neighborhood went there for birthday cakes. But even last week, people -- parents toting small children, delivery truck drivers, a bank teller, the local barber -- stopped in to say hello, whether they needed food or not.

As customer Louis Favreau sips his Dunkin' Donuts coffee at a table, his 9-year-old granddaughter, Tori DeFarias, hops behind the counter to help Serrao bag doughy elephant ears.

"It's a community like a community used to be," says another patron, Donna Ciaramitaro, who remembers playing in the bakery when she was a child.

"Papa Joe made everybody feel like they belonged," explains Serrao, using Magliaro's other nickname. "Nobody ever walked in this place who ever felt they didn't belong."

During her 32 years at the bakery, Serrao emulated his effort. To her, everyone was a "honey" or a "sweetie," and if you knew her well, you rarely left without a hug.

Religious holidays were always big, such as Easter, when the bakery would be colorfully decorated from top to bottom, shelves would be stacked with sweet Italian breads baked in the shape of doves, and 500 or 600 ricotta pies would emerge from the oven. But, as Serrao admits, "You can't survive just on the holidays."

There was incentive to change, of course. As Davis Square customers became younger and more health-conscious, sinful bakery treats, such as Italian rum cakes, the house specialty, became outright sins.

Could La Contessa have used less sugar, cut back on the butter, and offered low-calorie alternatives?

"This place wasn't meant for that, to be honest with you," says Serrao, without regret. "Why would you want to taste sawdust, anyway?"

By Tuesday morning, they had baked their last cannoli. The goodies in the glass cases -- lime-green butter cookies, chocolate cupcakes, Neapolitans, cream puffs, and hard anise biscottis -- would be it.

Serrao works the counter as usual, mustering smiles to greet customers in between her tears. She came to work at the pastry shop when she was 16. Sabatino, her kid brother, started frosting cakes when he was 12.

With the support of their parents, Armando and Emmanuelle Sabatino, they eventually took over the business. It was nice symmetry: Magliaro and his sister, Celia, who also worked in the shop, were Serrao and Sabatino's mentors.

But during La Contessa's final days, Serrao was on her own. Her brother, the head baker, had already departed for a new job to support his family. Her nephew, Joey Febbo, 24, was all through baking as well. Mainstay servers Melissa and Toni Ann were long gone.

Serrao looks at the door, and her spirits soared.

"There's Joe! There's my Papa!" she exclaims, hugging Magliaro, 84, who has stopped in on his daily trip to Davis Square.

He offers his sympathies.

"The secret of my day was that families had five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 kids. When they came in and bought cupcakes, they bought two dozen," he says. "They're a victim of the times."

The shop's new occupant, a sushi bar, will move in as soon as this weekend. Serrao says she wishes the newcomers luck.

"But I'm going to miss it," she says, getting teary once more.

"I'm really going to miss the bakery and the customers, and most of all, I'm going to miss the holidays," she says. "You're tired and you're exhausted, but it was fun."

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