The greatest cake in the world might be cassata. Shelled in marzipan, decked with candied fruit, and filled with cannoli cream, cassata is the old, festival spirit of the Italian South in pastry form. Candied fruit is the best part. With sweetened ricotta and marzipan's nuttiness, the potent candied fruit drops you into a world of spice routes and summer harvests and sixth-generation bakers quietly working down crooked alleys.
Andrea Tuck, owner of A Bakeshop in Phoenix, bakes cassata. Hers is one of the few bakeries in town that does, which is not surprising. But she skips the marzipan and fruit, which is.
Tuck’s bakeshop specializes in Sicilian pastries. She does much more than Sicilian pastries, including custom cakes and macarons, but has a strong bond to the island south of mainland Italy. A Bakeshop's Sicilian sweets are ricotta cookies, cheesecake, cannoli, and cassata.
Ricotta is in each. Tuck says ricotta with a hard “g,” as if inserting the word “go”: “riGOtta.”
This is the way many Italian-Americans pronounce the word. Tuck’s great grandmother is Sicilian. Tuck herself is from Buffalo, New York. For the last 13 years, her parents have run an Italian-American restaurant in Sun City, Dominic’s Bistro Italiano, where her mom makes the red sauce and pizza dough. After she left her day job, Tuck started to help with desserts. This snowballed into A Bakeshop, opened four years ago.
Tuck bakes from the recipes of her great grandmother, Lilian Marchese. Marchese was from Palermo, capital of Sicily.
And yes, Marchese used candied fruit in her cassata.
“The original recipe from my great grandmother included fruit in the cannoli and the cassata cake, but I just eliminated that to kind of make it mine,” Tuck says.
A Bakeshop hovers in a zone between Sicilian, American, and, most of all, new age. A plush, pink-cushioned couch stands beyond ornate tabletops that recall the marble of high-end Italian pastry shops. The colors are minimalist white, broken on one wall by a trail of outsize painted flowers. The vibe reflects the pastries; the pastries reflect Tuck’s style: simple, light, low sweetness, Old World meets New.
“What I was trying to do was target a larger demographic and not the Italian demographic, to introduce our Italian pastries to a larger group of people,” she says.
Cannoli shells rest empty in the display case. This is because they are filled with cream to order. That cream is sweetened ricotta on the compact side, shot through with tiny chocolate chips, and perfumed with a cool hint of cinnamon. It’s a solid cannoli. When you eat a Sicilian cannoli, the gem of candied fruit studded on each end makes for the two best bites. But when it comes to cannoli, Tuck, as with cassata, prefers to skip her great-grandmother’s candied apricot and cherry.
Tuck’s two-bite ricotta cookies, smeared with vanilla icing and sprinkled, are puffy and light from use of the cheese. The cookie is barely sweet. She typically shoots for pastries “not too sweet, so people can actually finish the whole dessert.”
Ricotta creates lightness, too, in her cheesecake. “Texture-wise, it’s not as dense,” she says. “You know how sometimes you eat a New York one and you’re good after two bites? This one you can finish. There’s three kinds of cheese. It lightens it up a bit.”
The three cheeses are cream cheese, ricotta, and mascarpone. The modern angle, the one that lifts the cake from the Mediterranean to a light-filled, on-trend room in Phoenix, is the option to add sauces like caramel, chocolate, strawberry, and raspberry.
Cassata is the Sicilian sweet that steps most boldly from tradition at A Bakeshop. All cassatas look different based on what fruit is used, and the colors, placing, and design elements of the marzipan. But generally, they are squat and flat, often coning in from the bottom to a flat, round top.
Tuck’s cassata is tall, white, and coated with thin chocolate shavings. There are five layers separated by chip-flecked cannoli cream. The cake is sponge. It is very light, as light as the cannoli cream with its cinnamon kiss, as light as the whipped cream spread on the outside of the cake. If you eat and love cassata, you feel that with this one you are eating more of a wedding cake with faint cassata echoes.
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“I do get a lot of Italian customers because they search Italian pasties and we come up,” Tuck says. “If you’ve ever searched Italian bakeries in Phoenix, they’re very East Coast. Our place is a little bit more modernized."
Her cassata is nice. The cannoli cream may tease the old spirit of the Italian South through your mind. But you wish she would full-on drown you in that spirit, that she would follow the best Thai and Chinese restaurants and go pedal down with ancestral flavor, that she would, for at least a few cakes, candy the fruit.
A Bakeshop. 6007 North 16th Street; 602-274-2253.
Tuesday to Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.