La Dolce Vita

If you tend to skip wine during the dessert course, you might want to reconsider when Italian sweets and wines are on the table.


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If you tend to skip wine during the dessert course, you might want to reconsider when Italian sweets and wines are on the table.

It's the week before Easter in Palermo, Sicily, and 16-year-old Salvatore is pushing a cart stacked tall with dried goods to his family's grocery store behind the Teatro Massimo opera house. The neighborhood's shops are decorated with pastel Buone Feste ("happy holidays") banners, giant chocolate eggs wrapped in shiny paper and the traditional agnello pasquale, or little lambs shaped from marzipan with painted eyelashes and red smiles. Before reaching his destination, Salvatore's cart hits a bump and one-kilo paper sacks of sugar crash onto the ground, splashing white crystal grains over the polished stone pavement.

This is no small accident. "Of the many gifts left to us by the Arabs, none is better that sugar," he says as he hurriedly recovers the unbroken sacks.

Sicilians can blame their collective sweet tooth on the Saracens, who conquered their beautiful Mediterranean island in the early part of the ninth century and ruled for several hundred years. The Greeks and Romans who had prevailed prior to that time may have excelled in engineering, law and the arts, but they were lacking in the dessert arena; their main sweetening agents were honey and grape juice, which were less shapeable and durable. When sugar ascended the Italian peninsula in the 15th century, traveling from Sicily to Piedmont, it encountered a population of compulsively creative hedonists who would later give the world the Renaissance and countless other expressions of pleasure. That, in a nutshell, is the birth of Italian desserts.

A contemporary roster of Italian desserts could fill an entire encyclopedia, and sometimes does. With a few awkward exceptions (like risotto with strawberries), Italy never developed a sweet and sour culinary tradition for its main courses. Sugar comes at the end of a meal to ensure that the dinner table conversation stays lively even after the dishes are washed. And because the collective memory still makes a loose association of sugar as a luxury product, the most lavish desserts are presented on the most festive occasions.

In fact, many Italian desserts are expressions of religious holidays, patron saints' days, birthdays or other community events. Born from a peasant tradition in which sugar's extra calories were precious, some desserts started off as a holiday version of an everyday food. For example, legend says that panettone, the spongy domed-shaped cake with candied fruit speckled inside, was invented on Christmas Eve when a local boy from Milan fell in love with the baker's daughter. In order to win her hand, the boy became employed as the baker's assistant and secretly added raisins and sugar to his master's breads. Customers loved the new bread recipe and flocked to the bakery to buy his bei panett. Today, panettone is to an Italian Christmas what chocolate eggs are to Easter.

Other desserts tell the story of the territory in which they were born. For example, the skins of Piedmont's tonda gentile delle Langhe hazelnuts rub off more easily than other varieties. This is crucial to confectioners, because hazelnut skin is highly astringent in tannins and can ruin the taste of sweets. The nuts quickly made their way into a large assortment of pastries, cakes and nougat, or torrone. But it wasn't until sanctions imposed by the British at the end of the 19th century that Italy's supply of New World cacao had almost diminished. Piedmont's chocolatiers used roasted hazelnuts to extend chocolate supplies, giving birth to gianduja, which is most commonly known by Americans in the form of Nutella spread.

And unlike many Italian recipes that were altered or "Americanized" when they traveled overseas with the waves of emigrants, Italian desserts have stayed true to their origins.

"Meat and other expensive foods that were eaten only on special occasions in Italy suddenly became part of the daily meal in America. But not desserts," says food historian Mary Taylor Simeti, author of Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food. "They continue to symbolize a celebration of abundance and continue to be eaten on special occasions."

Italian dessert wines have also stayed true to their ancient roots. Italy is home to a long range of vini passiti, or dessert wines pressed from grapes that have either been dried on the vine (late-harvest) or dried externally on straw mats. The results are usually a highly concentrated sweet wine with aromas of apricot, roasted almonds, raisins and honey. The volume of the fruit has been so drastically reduced before actual winemaking because of the drying process. This means the wines are bigger in every other way: in terms of sugars, alcohol, glycerin (giving a fuller feeling in the mouth) and in their seductive impact on the nose.

Examples are Greco di Bianco from Calabria, Moscato di Pantelleria from the island south of Sicily, Recioto from the Veneto and vin santo from Tuscany. Recioto, for example, was adored by farmers because of the sugar buzz it offered. But winemakers who mistakenly made a dry Recioto ended up with a wine they called "Amarone" (or "sour wine") instead. In Friuli, the Picolit grape has a natural flaw that only allows it to produce very few berries per cluster. All the substances and aromatics get packed into those few berries, resulting in a rare but cherished dessert wine that is only found in this northern Italian region. Many other dessert wines, like Moscato d'Asti from Piedmont, are made with naturally aromatic varieties. Moscato has musky, forest-floor tones that beautifully balance the effervescence of the lower- alcohol wine.

Many of these wines were made by accident by farmers that, for whatever reason, ended up with raisins instead of grapes. But the mistake soon became an artform, and had an influence on Italian desserts as well. Dried cookies (with almonds or almond paste) or tarts (made with chestnut flour, pine nuts or fruit preserves) enhance those same flavors found in the wine. Their dryness also balances the sweetness of the wine as in cantucci with Vin Santo, a classic pair. Other desserts with creamy fillings or chocolate mousses are matched with wines that have a slightly higher acidity, which neutralizes the "fattiness" of the dessert and refreshes the palate.

Following are three Italian desserts—one each from the south, center and north of Italy. Each is paired with a specialty dessert wine from the same region. There's no better way of bringing Italian festivity into your home.

SICILY'S CANNOLI
From Chef Peppe Giuffrè, one of Italy's premier caterers; www.officinagastronomica.com

Sicily's celebrated tubular confection is traditionally made with sheep's milk ricotta, although this can be substituted with a cow's milk version of the soft cheese.

Sicilians believe that cannoli are a seasonal food. They are only to be eaten in the spring, when the sheep have green grass to munch on and their milk is more pungent. Pre-made cannoli shells (and the aluminum tubes used to make them) can be purchased at Italian specialty stores.

For the shells:
10 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour
1 ounce butter
1/2 ounce unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon coffee, ground
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup white wine
Pinch of salt
1 egg white
4 1/4 cups vegetable oil


For the filling:
16 ounces ricotta cheese
10 1/2 ounces powdered sugar
1-1/2 ounces Marsala wine
17-1/2 ounces finely chopped candied oranges (can be replaced with or added to tiny chocolate chips)
1-3/4 ounces candied cherries for decoration (or 1/4 cup chopped pistachio nuts)


To make the shells: Mix flour, butter, cocoa powder, coffee, sugar, wine and salt and knead until smooth. Shape into a ball and let rest for one hour wrapped in a cloth napkin. Roll the dough flat and cut out oval forms (about 4 inches long). Wrap oval forms around aluminum tubes that have been brushed with oil, making sure the edges overlap. Brush with egg white to seal. In a large frying pan, fry a few shells at a time in vegetable oil and drain on paper towels. When cool, remove aluminum tubes.

To make the filling: Mix ricotta, powdered sugar and Marsala and pass through a sieve. Add the chopped candied oranges (and/or chocolate chips) and set aside in a cool place.

To serve: Fill the shells with the ricotta mixture from both ends and decorate with candied fruit or chopped pistachios. Dust with confectioners sugar. Always fill shells immediately before serving to avoid soggy cannoli. Wine recommendations: Donnafugata's Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria enjoys a particularly dedicated following of admirers thanks to its sumptuously generous aromas of honey and apricots. The sweet nectar is made with sun-dried Zibibbo grapes. "Ben Ryé and cannoli make a happy marriage because the wine's acidity neutralizes the ricotta's creaminess and leaves freshness in the mouth," says Donnafugata's Giacomo Rallo.

TUSCANY'S CANTUCCI
From the Biscottificio Antonio Mattei; www.antoniomattei.it

The Antonio Mattei cookie factory in Prato, Tuscany has been making one product since its founding in 1858: dried biscuits called cantucci, or "biscotti di Prato." (In America, we refer to them as "biscotti.") Come in the morning when the ovens are hot, and see a good portion of Prato's residents in line to buy their daily cantucci supply.

4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup unpeeled almonds
1/3 cup pine nuts
pinch of salt


Preheat oven to 360°F. Mix flour and sugar in a bowl. Add the eggs, then remaining ingredients. Roll into a ball. On a clean surface, shape dough into 1-inch ribbons as long as your baking sheet (covered with parchment paper) will allow. Lightly flatten the tops of the rolls and bake for 30 minutes. When still warm, but firm, cut rolls into 1/2-inch-wide slices. Make sure the slices don't touch and bake on their sides for 10 minutes at a lower heat (250°F). Turn the cantucci over, and bake the other side 10 minutes. Remove and let cool.
Wine recommendations: Cantucci and Vin Santo is such a classic pairing that some Vin Santo producers hope to move away from cantucci out of fear of being typecast. But why fight tradition? A genuine Tuscan meal always ends with a glass of Vin Santo, such as Castello di Brolio's Vin Santo del Chianti Classico, and a plate of cantucci. The cookies are dipped into the wine quickly so that they absorb its sweet aromas and a superficial coating of moisture but maintain crunchiness in the mouth.

PIEDMONT'S BUNET
From Chef Silvio Gai of Asti's L'Angolo del Beato restaurant.

Located at the foot of the Italian Alps, Piedmont is among Italy's most gastronomically inspired regions. Home to hazelnuts and chocolate (which, when married, create sublime gianduja), the Piedmontese borrowed ingredients and cooking techniques from their French neighbors. One of the region's, most genuine desserts is chocolate bûnet, which gets its name from budino ("pudding") and buono ("yummy").

7 eggs
7 tablespoons sugar
9 ounces unsweeetened cocoa powder
7 ounces (or 1 package) amaretti cookies, crushed 1 lemon rind, grated
4 1/4 cups milk


Beat the eggs and sugar until thick. Add cocoa powder, crushed amaretti, lemon rind and cookies. Pour in the milk and let rest for 15 minutes. Bûnet is cooked in bagnomaria, or over hot water: Place the chocolate pudding into single-serving aluminum shapes partially submerged in a water bath on medium heat for 25 minutes. The water must not boil, otherwise air bubbles get trapped inside the bûnet. Let cool and remove from metal forms. Bûnet can be served over a bed of zabaglione and dusted with confectioners sugar and amaretti crumbs.

Wine recommendations:
Sweet and low in alcohol, sparking Moscato d'Asti is a perfect companion to bûnet. Volo di Farfalle ("flight of the butterfly"), a Moscato d'Asti made by brothers Mario and Maggiorino Scagliola, is a fine example.

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