I'm trying not to gush. Sitting across from me is a Superstar: Sicily's Wizard of Sweets, Corrado Assenza. He's been praised all over the world for everything from his gelato to his pastries. Yet I know if I leapt up and shouted, "Wow, you're amazing!" the whole conversation would careen off course.
The Wizard sets the humble tone here, at his headquarters, the Caffe Sicilia, in the southeastern hill town of Noto. We're at an outside table in the hazy afternoon light, as Noto natives pass by with respectful "Buon Giorno, Corrado." He nods back, a la a Godfather Don.
I know it's best to blend in with this old world, cordial Sicilian behavior. But...agh...shouldn't there be arms waving and a joyful shout or three, since we're discussing the happy topic of dolce? For centuries Sicily has been famous for its sweets: gelato, cannoli, biscotti flavored with almonds and pistachios, granite (those fab fruit flavored ices), torrone—a brick shaped nut and honey treat.
And then there is my favorite, what Corrado Assenza calls "the most elegant expression of Sicilian culture": Cassata Siciliana. The classic cassata is a heavenly cake that's filled with a mix of ricotta, sugar, nuts, cinnamon, and candied fruit, encased in a liqueur-soaked sponge cake, covered with marzipan, sweet white glaze, and a swirly candied fruit decoration. Finishing it off is that universal symbol of perfection: a cherry on top. It's a cake straight out of a fairy tale.
I've been indulging my cassata obsession all over Sicily, running around like Goldilocks, testing these scrumptious cakes everywhere. Unlike Goldilocks, I found every one so very satisfying in its own unique way.
In Palermo, they were styled like round jewelry cases. In chic Taormina, cassata dazzled me in a pasticceria display case, gleaming with candied pastel fruits. On the folksy Aeolian island of Lipari, hidden in an alley past the port, I found an almond less version, soaked with the local malvasia wine, and sprinkled with chopped pistachios. In Catania they were boob-shaped, to honor Saint Agata, the city's patron, whose breasts are revered in sculptures, paintings, and pastries all over town.
Clearly, no Foodie-Protectors-Of-Valued-Traditions-Police have marched in and laid down cassata rules, as they did to standardize Pizza Napoletana. When it comes to cassata, in Sicily the attitude is: Scoddeti! - Fuggedaboudit! Everybody goes their own sweet way.
My way has led to this hill town of Noto. I was lured here by Renee Restivo, a Sicilian-American friend who runs Noto's Soul of Sicily cooking school. Renee is a woman of many exclamation points, and as I read her e-mail, I pictured her curly dark hair bobbing and big blue eyes flashing as she typed: "Bedda!!!," (Sicilian dialect for bella), "You must come to Noto—to the Caffe Sicilia to taste the best cassata!!! You must meet Corrado Assenza!!!"
Back in Los Angeles, I read raves about Assenza's Caffe Sicilia, which was founded by his family in 1892. I studied Corrado Assenza's Facebook photos—arty black and white headshots of a middle-aged man who looked more like a philosopher than a baker. Dramatic lighting accentuated his dark, intense eyes framed by caterpillar eyebrows. His beard was meticulously trimmed, tidy salt and pepper hair circled his bald pate. In full body shots he looked thin. None of this matched my notions of a Sicilian baker—pudgy and a tad goofy looking. I was intrigued.
I set off to meet this Wizard, entering Noto through its fancy arch. While other places in Italy may take a while to impress, Noto inspires immediate wows. It's one of Sicily's most elegant spots, nicknamed "The Garden of Stone," adorned with the purest of Sicilian Baroque architecture—a mix of smiling putti, curlicued archways, and ornate balconies—the perfect backdrop to frou-frou cassatas.
Where did all this beauty come from? A devastating tragedy. A massive earthquake in 1693 leveled this whole area. For the next 50 years, an amazing recovery took place. Architects who had been to Rome and seen such glories as Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona rushed to the rescue, inspired to rebuild. They designed churches and palazzos that out-Baroqued-any Baroque in Europe. It was a flamboyant ha-ha-ha to the earthquake.
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