They are unquestionably the sweet symbol of one of the most representative cities of Italy, Naples, the capital of the Region of Campania and, for a while, of the Kingdom of two Sicily. Outside Italy, though, they are seen as a quintessential part of the whole pasticceria italiana: the sfogliatelle.
The queen is undoubtedly the sfogliatella riccia (curly), made with a soft, flaky dough, similar to puff pastry or phyllo and filled with a mixture of ricotta, semolina, sugar, cinnamon, eggs and some candied citrus and/or other fruit.
Its sister, on the other hand, is known as “frolla” (smooth), and no one to date has established for sure where this name comes from.”Perhaps for the same mysterious and recurrent reason for which some food takes a name without any rational explanation,” says Luciano Pignataro, a prominent Italian food and wine writer, author of The sweet of Naples (I dolci Napoletani), interviewed by itchefs-gvci.com. Riccia and frolla have two cousins as well. One is the “Santa Rosa”, a riccia to which some confectionary custard cream and wild cherries in syrup are added.The other is the “Coda d’aragosta”, because of its shape similar to a lobster tail, which has a beignet inside, filled with custard.
Outside Italy, sfogliatelle, riccia and frolla in particular, are more famous in the countries where Italian immigrants arrived: Germany and other parts of Europe, South America, Australia and the United States. In the last-mentioned, they have even “appeared” in popular shows, such as in The Sopranos, which has swollen their fame even more. By the way, the word sfogliatella in Italian means a composition of leaves or layers stacked one on top of the other.
As for many other Italian sweets, and particularly those that are part of La Vita è Dolce, the origins of sfogliatelle are not documented, therefore, are often controversial. “Sfogliatella was born in a convent in Campania and grew up in a pastry shop in Via Toledo, in Naples,” adds Pignataro.
Yes, a convent, but which one? “The recipe was elaborated on the Amalfi Coast, in the splendid Santa Rosa convent, in Conca dei Marini, in the Province of Salerno,” states Luciano without hesitating. From there, apparently they arrived in Naples.
This, however, is only one version. Indeed, there is an opposing one, according to which sfogliatelle were born in Naples and eventually travelled to the Province of Salerno. More specifically they were born in the Carmelite convent of Santa Croce di Lucca, in the heart of the City of Naples, at beginning of the 17th century.
Born out of leftovers
In both cases, Naples and Conca dei Marini, the legend of what happened is roughly the same: “A nun in the kitchen had some leftovers of semolina cooked in milk,” says Pignataro, who, among other things, is one of the best connoisseurs of Southern Italian wines. He adds: “The nun added some candied dried fruit, sugar and ricotta, wrapped the filling between two puff pastries softened with lard and baked it.” The shape of this new sweet was that of a monk’s hood.
This, quite possibly, was the scenario of what happened in Naples, where each convent, at that time, was famous for one or more sweets made by its nuns; the Santa Chiara one for sour cherries in syrup (marasche) and preserved pears, Santa Maria di Costantinopoli for Genoese sponge and San Marcellino for “casatielli,” a local sweet. According to the same tradition, the Santa Croce di Lucca convent was famous for the recipe of sfogliatelle.
The majority of these recipes, however, were secret; the nuns were forbidden to have contact with the external world. Rare exceptions were granted to nuns belonging to praiseworthy families. In Santa Croce di Lucca, the only nuns allowed to receive family visits, were the daughters of the powerful Prince Cellamare, who had made a huge donation to the convent. The recipe of sfogliatella, it’s said, left the walls of the convent after one these visits and travelled up to the then remote Conca de Marini, which at that time was very distant from the Capital. There, according to tradition, the nuns of Santa Rosa adapted the recipe of sfogliatella, adding custard cream and wild cherries in syrup to the riccia, and naming it after their Saint.
The boom of riccia in Naples and in the world
Apparently, for long time, the respective versions of the sfogliatella remained closed in both convents. In Naples, the riccia became famous when, at the end of the second decade of the 19th century, a former innkeeper, Pasquale Pintauro, converted his establishment in via Toledo, a very elegant area of Naples, into a pastry shop.
“Pintauro changed the shape, the hood-shaped protuberance was eliminated, and sfogliatella riccia turned into a rococo shell,” adds Pignataro.
For decades, Pintauro and his heirs were the makers of the best sfogliatelle in Naples, which by the way, must be eaten very hot. The house, no longer in the hands of the Pintauro family, still exists and makes excellent sfogliatelle.
It’s very hard to find authentic sfogliatelle outside Italy, although, many restaurants have included them on their menu, on the dessert list. Discerning diners will find that they have been reduced in size and are presented with attractive decorations. “The fact is that sfogliatella is still a sweet to be eaten in the morning, alone,” says Luciano who doesn’t think that – in Italy at least – this traditional regional Italian sweet has lost appeal. “They’ve never lost their popularity, otherwise it would be very hard to find them, and industry would have stopped the large-scale production of the frozen ones.”
What’s the secret of the perfect “riccia?” “Listen, firstly the harmony of textures; the crunchiness of the pastry, the smoothness of the filling, the heat, the perfumes of the candied fruits and the cinnamon,” answers Luciano. What would you drink with it? “Definitely a Marsala Superiore Riserva (my favourite is Donna Franca).” The worse riccia you have ever seen? “One with a very sweet cream. Authentic sfogliatelle are good because are not so sweet.”
Sfogliatelle has become a technique also used in Italian contemporary cuisine with savoury fillings.