Instead of launching The Cookie Chronicles with the letter ‘A’, I’ve decided to start with ‘I’ to honor Italy, a country from which I’m currently seeking dual Italian American citizenship.
Italian food is simple as its history is deep. The country’s cuisine is highly regionalized and deeply influenced by its climate and geography–both physically and politically. It is terrestrial-you can taste and almost see the Earth from which your food came.
My experience of Italian food is almost entirely derived from eating.
My father’s family is Italian on both sides. My grandmother maintained many Italian traditions including going to mass every day, a general attitude that no woman was good enough for her sons, and an eye for good clothes. We ate, every Sunday at my grandmother’s house, a hybrid of American-Italian cuisine. I don’t think much of what my grandmother cooked, despite her efficiency and agility as a cook, was something her mother would have made.
Outside of the Italian-American home, southern Connecticut, where I grew up, is packed with people of Italian descent pumping out good food. Wooster Street; New Haven’s Little Italy, is small but mighty. New Haven pizza is legendary. There is Frank Pepe’s, Modern Apizza and Sally’s; just to name a few. Each place is different and holds a distinct fan base of die-hards that line up dutifully. But the principle is the same. The sauce which locks together with the mozzarella to hold toppings into place is never sweet, just slightly spicy and fresh. Crust is thin, chewy and crisp with a layer of flour and charred cornmeal that gets the tiniest bit oily from the pepperoni or sausage. It can be eaten hot, cold or room temperature with vigor.
These are places without frills. Pepe’s is one large room with booths around the perimeter and one open kitchen containing a huge brick oven and counter girls running around so fast to get orders they leave trails of semolina flour in their wake. And then there is Sally’s where your pizza is served unsliced, mishapenedly delicious on a sheet pan in an outdated restaurant that embraces you with a warm, garlicky hug upon entrance.
The Italian bakeries–Cheri’s, Lucabella’s and Libby’s, in southern Connecticut are excellent despite the oftentimes accurate reputation that Italian desserts are mediocre. At Libby’s canolis are filled on demand. The sfogliatelle at Cheri’s have untold layers of crackly pastry dough around an orangey ricotta filling.
I live in Astoria, Queens now and there are several Italian bakeries to choose from. So far, I have two favorites. I judge Italian bakeries by how the place
smells when you walk in. If I don’t smell aniseed and risen bread–I’m out of the door. Astoria Bakery is a fifties era place, located around the bend into the sleepy section of Ditmars Boulevard. The Napoleons (more French than Italian), which the girl at the counter recommended to me because “they just came out” are crunchy and creamy. Gian Piero has outdoor seating which is usually dominated by older Italian men who, despite being full of gesticulation and inappropriately eyeballing every woman that walks by, are nostalgically charming. I pushed my way through their espresso singed advances to purchase a wonderfully crusty house bread.
The cookie collection at most Italian bakeries includes biscotti, pignoli, amaretti, frosted lemon cookies, Italian Flag cookies, Florentines, sesame seed cookies and assorted molded cookies. Italian cookies are often characterized as hard, dry and one note. That is fair criticism; particularly when contrasted with the nation’s savory cuisine which has left a colossal culinary indent in American’s idea of good food.
The Cookie Chronicles, inspired by classic cookies and Italian flavors, will reinvent and refresh the Italian cookie. The Italian cookies at the Cookie Chronicles include Lemon Fig Ravioli, Connie’s Polenta Sage Cookies with Browned Butter Icing, Espresso-Hazelnut-Orange-Chocolate Biscotti, Pignoli Amaretto Snowballs, and Marsala Bocca di Nonna with Ganache.