On an uncharacteristically warm Saturday in February, the Autry Farmers Market sees a wide range of visitors; sweat-dotted cyclists, Wayfarer-sporting college students, doting mothers and small children all stop to check out the market’s offerings.
As the shoppers peruse the vendors it seems like every one of them becomes tempted, at least for a moment, by a small pie shop tucked in between the shops called I Heart Pies.
I Heart Pies began as the brainchild of husband-and-wife duo Nick and Emily Cofrancesco. Both of them worked in the entertainment industry; Emily as a reality TV editor and Nick as a script coordinator and animator at Nickelodeon, who worked on popular children’s shows such as Danny Phantom and The Mighty B!. Come holiday time, the Cofrancesco’s homemade pies made the rounds in studio circles and eventually spread to employees at other big-name companies such as Warner Brothers and Disney before the Cofrancescos felt that they might be onto something.
The Cofrancescos saw a chance to translate their love for pie into a business opportunity. Nick still works full time as an animator, but Emily eventually backed out from Hollywood and enrolled in culinary school to focus on concocting pies full-time.
For the Cofrancescos, the choice of starting a pie business was obvious.
“Well, we love pie, and we noticed there [weren’t] too many pie places in Los Angeles. It was House of Pies and Marie Callender’s, and that’s about it,” Nick said. “So we wanted to do something different, less mass-produced, smaller-scale and to make everything by hand and from scratch using locally sourced ingredients.”
Some recent offerings are tempting: The cellophane-sheathed single serve “mini pies” shine invitingly in the sun, and the sweet pies include a blood-orange cream pie, an apple crumb pie and a chocolate-pecan pie with bourbon (the Cofrancescos’ take on a derby pie).
“We try to use farmers [who] are in the Greater L.A. area,” Confrancesco said. “Our apples during the fall and winter time are from an orchard up in Oak Glen. When peaches and berries are in season, we scout the local farmers’ markets. We have a sweet potato farmer up in the Nipomo area [who] comes down.”
When asked where he found the blood oranges for the blood orange cream pie, Cofrancesco smiled and pointed across the walkway to a stand selling a variety of citrus fruit neatly arranged in rows: “Over there.”
A taste of the mousse-like blood orange cream shows an absolute mastery of balancing citrus and sweetness. Whereas one would normally expect the intense citrus of a fresh blood orange to scream over any other flavors, the pleasant creamy sweetness of the mousse tempers the citrus notes to a whisper. The overall impression is a tastefully restrained and silky blood orange cream that could become dangerously easy to eat by the spoonful.
In contrast, the apple crumb pie vibrantly flings its arms in the air with the flavors of fall. Despite the individual-sized pie being roughly the size of a medium apple, the cinnamon crumb aptly accentuates chunks of crisp apples that seem to burst forth with flavor.
For all the effort and attention to fillings, Cofrancesco said the crust is an equally, if not more, important player in all of I Heart Pie’s productions.
“It took [Emily] a while to get it where she wanted to be. It took about a year of experimenting with everything,” Confrancesco said. “Our gluten-free took two years to get to where we are today, ‘cause that’s a tricky thing [to get right].”
Cofrancesco’s experiment proves to be a success: This golden brown bastion of flavor is deeply nutty, flaky and stands up reassuringly to sweet fillings. It is curious and unfortunate, then, that the crust does not have the same ingredient-augmenting properties on I Heart Pies’ savory offerings.
I Heart Pies’ savory chicken and mushroom pie employs the same philosophy of subtleties as its sweeter pies, but the result is not as pleasing as the gravy, chicken and mushroom flavors are totally lost amid the robustness of the aforementioned crust. Here, the crust’s larger presence makes the overall product a little saltier and more buttery, but it is still nowhere near recompense for the absence of heartier gravy and more chicken and mushrooms. Fans of the comforting winter favorite might come away more than a little disappointed with I Heart Pies’ rendition, despite the still-phenomenal crust.
For the time being, I Heart Pies remains a delivery-only establishment when not at the Autry Farmer’s Market. In fact, only a handful of the full-size pies make it out to market, while most of them are delivered around the Los Angeles area by online order at www.IHeartPies.com or via subscription to the company’s Pie of the Month Club.
Still, one taste of the elusive pies is all the reason one needs to fall in love. Here’s to hoping that Los Angeles’ love affair with pie is a long and fruitful one.