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Grana Padano

Tales of a dolce born by mistake in a corner of Paradise

Caprese

Let’s tell the truth! This cake could have been born anywhere, even outside Italy. None of its ingredients, to begin with, link it to the terroir of the famous island of Campania, except its name. Since long ago, but increasingly from the ‘50s of the last century on, Capri has been a winning brand name (if in doubt, ask the Ford Motor Company). If what we call today “Torta Caprese,” certainly one of the greatest icons of pasticceria italiana in the world, had been born in Tora e Piccilli, or Roccacannuccia (with due respect to both communities), for sure, it wouldn’t have been so famous and consequently so counterfeited around the world.

To a certain extent, Torta Caprese shares the destiny of another famous “caprese” dish, the ubiquitous salad with tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and olive oil. But there’s a difference; eating a caprese salad with ingredients produced in Capri (with the exception of the mozzarella, which is not produced on the island) may well be a unique gastronomic experience. Tomatoes, olive oil, vegetables, grown in the gardens of the blessed Mediterranean island are among the most tasteful gifts of this part of the world.

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Caprese Salad

The reason for the fame of Torta Caprese is, firstly, to be found in its sublime flavour and then in the relative easiness of its preparation. But its success has also been prompted by other factors; the tom tom made by returning-home international tourists who tried Torta Caprese while visiting Capri, the attention of the media to whatever is done on the island and, last but not least, the number of restaurants opened around the world by Capri’s people who migrated during the past century. Establishments with the name Capri, Bella Capri, Luna caprese are part of the landscape of every cosmopolitan city.
The origins of Torta caprese, although recent, are not clear. There are different versions; none of them can be confirmed beyond reasonable doubts. However, they all have at least two points in common; firstly: it wasn’t born in any island home, so it has to be an invention of the local hospitality industry; secondly: regardless the fact that good cuisine is intrinsic to the life of any Caprese, this dessert was created for the island’s tourist market. “Rather than in restaurants, at the beginning, it was served in many of the island’s various Tea Rooms, since the beginning of the last century,” says GVCI associate Lello Sorrentino, owner and chef of Anacapri’s Brace & Padella Restaurant and former owner of the Luna Caprese in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Lello Sorrentino

“Some people say that Torta Caprese is no more than a version of the Austrian Sachertorte,” adds Lello. Sachertorte, though, looks rather different; it contains flour and doesn’t have almonds in it. There is an Austrian connection, however, in the history of Torta Caprese. According to an unconfirmed tradition, it was in fact invented by two Austrian ladies who inherited the Strandpension in Marina Piccola from the eccentric German poet, August Weber, who had owned it at beginning of the 20th century. The birth date according to this version could be set between 1930 and 1950.
As in many other popular tales about the origin of dishes, this one has Torta Caprese born by mistake. The person who invented it was planning to do another recipe and added uncalled for ingredients or forgot to add called for ones; in this case flour was left out. Which recipe she or he intended to follow remains unknown. Invention by mistake – “uno dei pasticci più fortunati della storia (one of the luckiest mess-ups in history) – is also the leitmotiv of another version on the origin of Caprese. Once again, it is Lello Sorrentino who mentions the source; “It’s in a book written by Claudio Novelli on the lost documents of Capri’s Cuisine,” says the chef. The rather poetic title of the publication, in Italian, Giallaranci Mitili impazziti di Luce, is quite difficult to translate. Its author writes that the inventor of Torta Caprese was a man called Capocchiella (Little Head), in whose veins apparently pumped the blood of the Spanish painter Esteban Blasco. Capocchiella was a kitchen hand at the Fontelina, the Restaurant that still today overlooks the famous Faraglioni (one of the most unique views of the island) and when the sous pastry chef suddenly up and left, he was summoned as the replacement. Then, on “one day of an undetermined month in 1950”, while at dawn, he was making a “prosaic almond cake” he added cocoa to the almonds, mistaking it for flour.

The tale is rather picturesque but it’s quite improbable that a person, who worked in a kitchen, could confuse cocoa with flour, regardless of sleep deficit, unless he was almost blind and lacked his sense of smell. In any case, according to Novelli, Capocchiella baked the cake, fell asleep and was awoken by the smell of chocolate. The cake was served to the guests and it was a success. When asked what the name of the dessert was, with some embarrassment, Capocchiella answered “Torta Caprese.”
Finally there is another version of the origin of this dessert, according to which a certain Carmine Di Fiore, cooking in an unknown Capri’s restaurant, received an order for an almond and chocolate cake from three American gangsters. Apparently, he forgot to put flour in it, but the gangsters liked it and asked him for the recipe. That was the beginning of the success. “No one in Capri knows about this version,” says Lello Sorrentino. Bur what is certain is that at Capri’s restaurants today you rarely see Torta Caprese served without a ball of vanilla ice cream.

 

A paradise, but not for gourmet

No one goes to Capri to have the most memorable gourmet experience of his or her life. No, perhaps no one ever has. Norman Douglas, Thomas Mann, Pablo Neruda, Graham Greene, Grace Fields and all the other renowned visitors, including Armani and all the other famous fashion designers, went to and continue going to this small paradise for other reasons (sun, views, weather, lifestyle, etc.). This is not to say that they or anyone who visits Capri cannot enjoy some glorious meals on the island. The fact is that, despite the huge number of restaurants, pizzeria and trattoria, Capri’s gastronomic offer is quite ordinary, if not poor – particularly in the establishments that serve the hordes of touch and go – day tourists, many from cruise ships. You will hardly find the island’s restaurants mentioned, let alone rated in guides and/ or magazines. Of course, there are some exceptions, a few good places interested not only in tourism, and, certainly, in the five-star hotels you are guaranteed a decent meal (decency however doesn’t always inspire bills in Capri). Not to mention the fact that fresh fish, once one of the assets of the local cuisine, in most cases doesn’t come from the island or Campania and, sometimes, not even from the country. So, lucky is he or she who has friends on the island. It’s in the island homes where the genuine cuisine still survives, perhaps with ravioli alla caprese, totani e patate, delizia al limone, or an unforgettable home made torta caprese.