Gina DePalma's Guide To Rome Sweets
Editor's note: Over on Serious Eats: NY, we've heard from chefs and food personalities about their favorite neighborhood eats. Now it's time to answer that age-old question: What's for dessert? Having started with Paris pastry extraordinaire, David Lebovitz, we're zipping down to the land of dolce: Rome.
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The first time I ate at Babbo, I was so full after my main course that I briefly considered skipping dessert. Thank God I didn't, because the confection that arrived was so delicious that I not only ate every morsel on my plate, but tried to steal my dining companion's, too. Of course this was many years ago, and since then pastry chef Gina DePalma has picked up top honors from everyone from Bon Appetit to the James Beard Foundation.
Whether finding inspiration her first book, Dolce Italiano, or her ever-changing dessert menu, Gina has logged quite a few hours on the Roman sweets scene.
"The Roman sweet tooth may seem more nuanced in comparison to other European cities, and even other Italian cities such as Torino, Naples and Palermo," Gina explains. "But trust me, this is a town humming with sugary activity. The traditions run deep, and opinions are staunch." Here are some of her favorite places to indulge in dolci tipici alla Romana.
Biscotti: Keep in mind biscotti means cookies in Italian—all cookies, not just the oblong, twice-baked slices we've assigned to the word. The absolute best biscotti in all of Rome are found at Biscottificio Innocenti (Via della Luce, 21), a humble family-run shop in Trastevere. Classic Roman torte and crostate are offered too, but the impressive array of cookies will suck you in and make you a believer. Step beyond the plastic, 50's era beaded curtain and you'll spot the classic, crunchy Roman tozzetti, rich baci di dama, soft, pine nut-studded pignolati, thin, crisp lingue di gatto, chunky brutti ma buoni, and dozens of other varieties piled on trays atop the store's retired, charmingly retro baking equipment. Whether jam-filled, nut-laden, chocolate-swirled or sugar-dusted, they're all absolutely scrumptious.
Torta di Mele: Antico Forno Roscioli has been baking bread and sweets at Via dei Chiavari, 34, since 1824. I'll never forget a significant encounter that I had in 2004, when I stopped to gaze into the windowed kitchen and saw a tray of piping hot apple cakes being removed from the oven and arranged on the ledge to cool. I've been buying and devouring Roscioli's moist, tender Torta di Mele ever since. They also make a soft apple crostata, with a cake-like double crust, that is simply divine. The bakery has been remodeled since my first visit and the window from the bakery kitchen onto the street is gone, but I have a snapshot from that first moment hanging above my desk to remind me of one of my favorite Roman treats.
Crostata di Visciole: There's plenty to love at Forno Campo de' Fiori, in the northwest corner of the Piazza Campo de' Fiori, 22, but I'm partial to their crostata di visciole. It's unquestionably one of the iconic sweets of Rome and the entire region of Lazio. Visciole are native wild cherries with a deep red color and intense, almost musky flavor. The classic crostata is simple enough—a tender crust with a jam-like filling and a lattice top—but it is the details that make the Forno's version superlative. The buttery flavor of the pasta frolla rises above all others, the cherry marmellata is the correct balance of sour and sweet, and, most importantly, the filling-to-crust ratio is perfectly achieved. Go for the famous pizza bianca, but stay for the crostata di visciole.
Pasticcini: Pasticcini means little or individual pastries, and the pasticceria that makes the best is yet another huge point of contention among Roman residents and visitors alike. Dolce Maniera in Prati, at Via Barletta, 27 offers some of the best in the city. This bustling spot is open 24/7, so everything is impeccably fresh. Follow the crowd milling on foot and the logjam of idling cars to descend a spiral staircase from the sidewalk. The subterranean space overflows with every imaginable cream or ricotta-filled treat: chocolate glazed bigne (puffs), tiny sweet brioches spread with Nutella, rum soaked babas, mini glazed cornetti, and rows of maritozzi (little oval buns stuffed with a rainbow of cream fillings that are a unique Roman specialty.) My other favorite spot is Pasticceria Regoli, Via dello Statuto, 60, on the Esquilline Hill. Also famed for their maritozzi, they are the place to be during the season for crostatine alle fragoline—little custard tarts studded with tiny wild strawberries that are foraged from the Roman countryside. They also make tender, flaky pasta sfoglia filled with sweet ricotta.
Gelato: Gelato is one of those Italian treats that non-Italians tend to self-consciously over-think and argue about on blogs and message boards—which takes all the fun out of a leisurely evening stroll with a cone. I'm a peace-loving gelato pacifist; I honestly love it all, and I've indulged at numerous, fine gelaterie throughout Rome, but these are the spots that I return to again and again. Let the arguments begin!
Gelateria dei Gracchi, at Via dei Gracchi, 272, in Prati is phenomenal. The shop is simple, functional, and almost sparse, but the flavors are explosive—especially the pistachio and fragoline (wild strawberry). In Trastevere, I adore Fior di Luna, Via della Lungaretta, 96. A tiny spot, but dedicated to only using fair trade and organic ingredients. The chocolate flavors are to die for. And finally, at multiple locations around town, I love to pop into CiuriCiuri, which specializes in Sicilian pastry and gelato. The flavors are bright and refreshing and the service is very friendly.
Chocolates and Candies: Confetteria Moriondo e Gariglio, Via Pie' di Marmo, 22, can trace its roots back to Torino, where the first shop was opened in 1850. When the Italian monarchy moved to Rome—the new capital of the unified Italian state—in 1886, the shop moved with them. The current location is tucked between the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, in the heart of the Centro Storico. Today, every confection turned out at this elegant yet friendly shop is handmade—from fine chocolates and pralines to glistening fruit jellies, from incredibly detailed marzipan sweets to the truly sublime marrone canditi (candied chestnuts). Each purchase is exquisitely packaged, a luxurious reminder of life's past pleasures in the face of modern economic austerity.
Granita al Caffè: On a sweltering summer day in Rome, nothing refreshes like a Granita al Caffè from Tazza D'Oro, Via degli Orfani, 84 near the Pantheon. It should be noted that it isn't really complete unless ordered "con panna", or with a huge dollop of loosely whipped cream. The cream sits under and on top of sweetened Tazza D'Oro espresso that has been frozen into slushy crystals. The iciness refreshes you and the small jolt of caffeine is what will get you through to the other side of whatever bad decision brought you out into the inferno that is Rome when it sizzles.
Torrone "Tipo Romano": Pasticceria Valzani, Via del Moro 37, in Trastevere takes particular pride in their authentic, classic Roman offerings, including mostaccioli, pangiallo, panpepato, as well as the best Torta Sacher in town. I visit for their entirely unique, Roman version of torrone. The soft, fluffy, nut-studded nougat candy is shaped into slender logs, then coated with a variety of embellishments such as pistachios, pignoli, sugar pearls, or my favorite: a layer of dark chocolate that plays
perfectly against the honeyed sweetness of the nougat. The result is a torrone that melts in your mouth instead of breaking your jaw. Don't leave the vintage shop without a few of Valzani's special diavoletti for the road: chocolates laced with hot red pepper.
Confetti: The sugared almonds known as confetti are a staple at Italian weddings and celebrations, but there is no need to limit your consumption to nuptials, baptisms, or graduations. A visit to I Confetti di Rosemarie, Largo Arenula, 20, is like stepping into an haute couture salon, complete with glimpses of pave gems and
glittering gold leaf. Choose your packaging, from a simple silk pouch to a hand painted porcelain box, then select from the breathtakingly beautiful offerings: traditional candy-coated almonds, bon bons filled chocolate, nougatine, and fruit with flavors like sambuca, wild cherry, and bergamot. The staff is warm and genuinely helpful at this gorgeous shop in the heart of the Ghetto.
Ciambelline al Vino: Ciambella in Italian means "ring," and in dolci terms, it can refer to anything from a cake to a doughnut. In this case, ciambelline al vino is a very particular Roman biscuit made with either red or white wine, (usually the local Frascati), and flavored with anise seed. The yeast dough is shaped into a rustic ring shape; traditionally the ends are joined but not pressed together, with one end
overlapping the other. The rings are coated with a glistening sheen of granulated sugar and baked until golden. These are natural dunkers for a cup of coffee or tea, or, even better, into a glass of sweet wine. I think the city's best are found at Antico Forno Roscioli, (see above) and Panificio Beti, Via del Vascello 46, in Monteverde Vecchio. Beti makes variations of ciambelline beyond the traditional red or white wine, flavoring them with limoncello, orange or walnut.
Millefoglie: The classic dessert of pastry cream layered with crisp sheets of puff pastry goes by a multitude of names around the world, but I am convinced that nobody does it better than the Italians (sorry, France). And in Rome, there is only one place to find the ultimate millefoglie, and that is at Pasticceria Cavaletti, Via Nemorense 179/181. This small, family pastry shop turns out hundreds of their feather-light millefoglie cakes every week, and they don't mess with individual portions. From a 7-inch round to a square to serve fifty, the cakes keep their mile-high shape until they meet your knife, which should be serrated and wielded with great care. Inside the cake is impossible lightness, contained in both the cloud-like cream and crispy pastry that really does look like a thousand leaves. Quite simply, it will ruin you for all others.