At Aigner Chocolates in Forest Hills, it’s mid-March and I’m eating a chocolate-covered cherry and thinking about my father. When I was a kid in the 1950s, chocolate cherries were a staple of New York’s corner candy stores, and my father and I both loved them — the crisp shell, the fruit inside swimming in sugary liquid — though they were often a little stale, as if they’d sat on the shelf for a while. At this small store, with its ivy-covered awning on Metropolitan Avenue, the maraschino cherries are large and luscious, and the cherry juice is mixed with rum. Like all the other classic sweets displayed in one of the shop’s glass-fronted cases — among them salted caramels, mocha truffles, almond clusters and butter crunch — they are made on-site in the basement kitchen. In fact, all the chocolates are made in-house, just as they’ve been since the store, one of the oldest sweets shops in New York, first opened 93 years ago.
In other display cases you’ll find elegantly packaged peppermint patties, crunchier and more toothsome than any I’ve ever had; chocolate cordials filled with amaretto or Grand Marnier; and rainbow-colored fruit slices, more pâte de fruit than Chuckles. A small freezer at the back of the room holds pints of homemade ice cream. Light streams through the windows onto a marble ledge where you can sip an espresso drawn from the gleaming machine in a corner. A long glass-topped table runs down the middle of the room; on it are lollipops including ones resembling white rabbits with psychedelic pink ears.
Rachel Kellner, 37, who owns the store with her husband, Mark Libertini, 50, gives me a sample of the macaroons that they offer for Passover, the coconut mound covered in dark chocolate, big as a plum and very rich. Kellner, who is Jewish and grew up in New Jersey, tells me about their homemade dessert matzos too, dipped in toffee or coated in chocolate and dusted with crushed almonds. They’re sold alongside a nonsectarian array of other holiday sweets: Easter eggs, Star of David lollipops, chocolate Seder plates and plaques etched with drawings of the Last Supper.
A trained pastry chef, Libertini is of Italian descent and moved to New York from Massachusetts, where he’d worked in restaurants since he was a teen. He owned a cupcake shop in Brooklyn for several years, and then, later, a deli in Manhattan. In 2015, he saw a for-sale sign in the window of Aigner and thought, “This could be an incredible opportunity,” noting that he had always wanted to own a chocolate shop. At the time, Kellner, who was employed as a social worker specializing in addiction therapy, was intrigued but wary at the prospect of a new business venture. For the first year after the couple bought Aigner Chocolates, she continued her therapy work, but it soon became clear that running the store would need to be a team effort. “The more I fell in love with the tradition, the history, the sweetness, the more I wanted to do it full-time,” she says.
Alfred Krause, a chocolatier from Eastern Europe, was the first to open a chocolate shop in this location in 1930, naming it Krause’s Candy Kitchen. In 1960, Katherine and John Aigner, who had immigrated from rural Austria in the 1950s, bought the place. Over the next five-plus decades, two successive generations of Aigners owned or worked in the store before the family sold it to their chosen successors.
As part of the sale, the Aigners agreed to help Libertini and Kellner learn how to operate the kitchen’s vintage chocolate-making equipment — some of the machines are at least 50 years old — and to share recipes for a few favorite items, known as the store’s Heritage Specialties, including coconut butter truffles, nonpareils and cashew bark. The couple repainted the interior pistachio green to match the Aigners’ signature pistachio marzipan and installed art nouveau-style chandeliers to give the place the feel of a traditional European confectionery. “We love that the recipes are geared to the [old] equipment,” says Libertini as I follow him very cautiously down a flight of wooden stairs from the shop to the kitchen. “We thought, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”
Head chocolatier Amanda Andrade and other staff use up to 5,000 pounds of chocolate every month. The process seems simple but requires great care: The chocolate goes into a melter, where the temperature rises to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, then rests there for 24 to 48 hours before being put into a tempering machine. There, it’s stirred constantly until it comes down to 87 degrees for dark, 86 for milk or 83 for white, Libertini tells me. Afterward, the chocolate is poured into molds and decorated by hand.
Among those molds is one for a three-foot-tall rabbit, which the Aigner family named Harvey (for the rabbit in the 1950 film of the same name). Every year the store donates one of these chocolate rabbits to Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, carrying on a tradition that began during the pandemic. The others sell for $1,000 each and can be ordered with Harvey’s 25-inch-tall “side chick,” Esther. Luckily, my favorite sweets are more modestly priced, like the bar for $8.50 that’s an unusual blend of milk and dark chocolate. And then there are those cherry cordials, my Proustian cookie. How my father loved sitting in Washington Square Park with me, eating them. “Chocolate triggers your senses,” says Kellner, noting that for her, it produces feelings of joy, love and hope. “I’m grateful to continue offering healing — not in the traditional sense but with chocolate, which has a magical effect.”