If you’ve been poking around at all on this site, you probably know how much I like stories – the stories behind Italian words, neighborhoods, foods, buildings. Stories can give modern everyday items their proper due, can fill in the historical blanks of traditions that locals don’t see any reason to question (since they already understand the significance). Stories can provide cultural context for travelers who lack it, and sometimes they make an otherwise nondescript object or place all the more interesting.
So when we decided that this month’s Italy Roundtable topic was SWEET, I knew I couldn’t just give you a list of Italian treats and be done with it. I wanted to give you more detail about two of them, and why they’re more than just dessert.
They’re edible pieces of Italian history.
The word “confetti” is one with which you’re no doubt familiar, since it’s been adopted into English to mean tiny pieces of paper thrown into the air during celebrations. Now that you see it on this site, however, you may notice that the word is quite obviously Italian.
There is an Italian verb, confettare, that means to sweeten. Used as a noun, confetti are traditionally almonds coated with a hard sugar shell. You may know them as Jordan almonds, though the name “Jordan” doesn’t mean the country or a person. A form of these festive sweets dates back to ancient Rome, where nuts and seeds covered in honey were traditionally eaten to celebrate momentous occasions such as weddings or births.
Fast-forward to the late 18th century in the town of Sulmona (in modern-day Abruzzo), when the Pelino family began their confetti-making business. And yes, they’re still at it to this day. They’re not the only ones who make confetti, nor is Sulmona the only place to find them, but this town has been the long-standing epicenter of Italian confetti-making for more than 200 years.
Confetti are given as gifts (and – yes – thrown) when Italians celebrate things like weddings, anniversaries, graduations, births and more. You’ll see them arranged into flowers, or simply bundled together to distribute as party favors. The color of the confetti has significance in Italy, too – white for weddings, pink or blue for baptisms, red for graduations.
Head to Sulmona to see an incredible array of confetti options, and to learn more about them at the Pelino Museum. And remember this the next time you toss little scraps of paper in the air.
Naples is famous as the birthplace of pizza, but to satisfy your sweet tooth in the Campania capital you’ll need to look in the pastry case – and twist your mouth around a somewhat-difficult Italian word.
The “sfogliatella” (pronounced roughly like zvol|yah|TELL|ah) is a traditional Neapolitan pastry with layer upon layer of flaky pastry on the outside and a filling of (typically) sweetened ricotta. There’s a smooth version as well (known as sfogliatella frolla), but the many-layered pastry (called sfogliatella riccia) is the original. (How the “frolla” version came about is a mystery.)
Sfogliatelle date back to the 17th century, when the nuns at the Santa Rosa Monastery in Conca dei Marini – who were accomplished bakers – formed a pastry shaped vaguely like the hats the sisters wore, filling it with a milk-and-flour mixture sweetened with sugar and candied fruit and topped it with pastry cream and berries. The nuns gave the new dessert the name Santa Rosa, after their saint, and managed to keep the recipe a secret for about 150 years.
By the early 19th century, however, a pastry chef in Naples named Pasquale Pintauro had obtained the recipe (it’s unclear how) and began selling slightly-modified sfogliatelle in his shop in 1818, removing the cream-and-berries topping and altering the shape slightly to its present shell-like form. There is still a Pintauro pastry shop in Naples (on Via Toledo), still renowned for some of the best sfogliatelle you’ll eat in the city.
Note that these pastries are much heavier than you’d expect, given their size, thanks to the dense filling. This isn’t a light snack we’re talking about here. Also note that the best sfogliatelle are served warm, not cold.
Do you have a favorite Italian sweet? If so, is there a story behind it?
What sweet things are my cohorts talking about? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
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Great pictures of the confetti flowers and arrangements from Sulmona! I haven’t ever seen such elaborate confetti. And good call on the heaviness of the sfogliatella! I love them, but they’re a meal in themselves. However, there’s nothing like crunching down and feeling those crispy layers break up between your teeth, and when the ricotta is good, well… there’s nothing like it.
Agreed, sfogliatella is wonderful. I just remember being shocked the first time I was handed one over the pastry counter. I thought I’d been given a small bowling ball. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Very nice articles about two classic Italian sweets, but if you are looking for Sulmona, you’ll find it in Abruzzo, not Tuscany
Oh my, thank you so much for catching that error, Luca! I knew Sulmona was in Abruzzo… I have no idea how that mistake got into the article. But it’s fixed now! 🙂 Grazie!