When you think of great pastries, what comes to mind? Maybe you envision some laborious, beloved union of flour and sugar, something like a cannoli or almond-filled croissant. When you think of great Italian desserts, I bet your mind zips to sweet staples like gelato or tiramisu, or maybe something more obscure like semifreddo or zabaglione. Today, we’re going to talk about an outlier: the sfogliatelle.
Sfogliatelle (singular: sfogliatella) are humble clamshell-shaped pastries. They are about the size of a baseball, vaguely triangle-shaped, and piped full of lightly sweetened ricotta. The golden-brown crust is madly, intricately fluted. Dozens of razor-thin dough layers lace the baked clamshell, almost like the pages of a book seen from the side.
Those layers are what make sfogliatelle so hard to make. If Italian baking had a final exam, sfogliatelle would be the last problem. The accordioned dough layers might be why sfogliatelle never reached the iconic status of the cannoli. They might be why sfogliatelle doesn’t appear in popular culture outside passing references on The Sopranos or in the bakery featured on Cake Boss.
Like pizza and buffalo mozzarella, sfogliatelle come from Naples.
The origin is believed to be church kitchens. (Who else but clergy would have the patience to layer all those folds?) From Naples, sfogliatelle spread deeper and deeper into southern Italy, right on down to the peninsula’s toe, to the sunbaked region Calabria.
Calabria is the birthplace of Giovanni Scorzo, proprietor of Andreoli Italian Grocer in north Scottsdale.
In the display case of Scorzo's Via Linda shop, you will find sfogiatelle. The clamshells are baked to a sandy light brown in some places, a toastier hazelnut color in others. They are puffy, vaguely triangular, and encased in dozens of thin encircling layers.
Scorzo's sfogliatelle are stuffed with ricotta and candied citron. Some sfogliatelle in America are filled with a more éclair-style cream. Not here. It’s soft-but-dense ricotta all the way under the shell. The candied citron are the same as the colorful flecks you see (and taste) buried in Sicilian-style cannoli. They add this wildly fragrant and elusive flavor that I can only describe as one of my favorite tastes in the world.
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A sfogliatella isn't sexy. It’s a cumbersome and bland-looking pastry lightly snowed with powdered sugar. Try to fork in, and the layers will shatter and burst. You just need to take a bite. When you do, the fine architecture of the numerous crisp-baked layers will explode under your teeth. The volume of the crunch is staggering. It sounds like something is tearing inside your head.
Sfogliatelle are mild pasties. At Andreoli, they are especially mild. The sugar is almost mute; the ricotta is thick; and the flecks of candied peel spread beautiful fragrance through the elegant pastry. It isn’t hard to see how a well-made cannoli can steal this impressive but modest sweet’s crunchy thunder. But sometimes you’re in the mood for something cool, delicate, and a little more offbeat.
And when you are, you should consider the sfogliatelle.
Andreoli Italian Grocer. 8880 East Via Linda, Scottsdale; 480-614-1980
Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday.