Nikki To

The world of Italian pastries is ricotta-filled, soft, crispy, pistachio-laden and everything in between. From cannoli and sfogliatelle to maritozzi, there’s a lot to cover. Local chefs have dedicated themselves to making classic Italian pastries that offer a taste of home.

Hospitality talks to Marta’s Flavio Carnevale and Mezzapica Cakes’ Frank Portelli about the most popular pastry-ways, pressure points and the sweet treats they’d like to see make their debut out of Italy.

Sfogliatelle is a pastry that deserves some more attention — especially when compared to something as ubiquitous as cannoli. It shouldn’t be slept on, and Marta’s Owner–Operator Flavio Carnevale has done the exact opposite at his Rushcutters Bay restaurant in Sydney.

Carnevale launched a Roman bakery in response to the 2020 lockdown, offering up a rotating menu of baked goods. The layered puff pastry that is sfogliatelle has been one of the most popular items, with Carnevale and his team creating sweet options spanning the traditional ricotta to Nutella and custard and sour cherry along with something a little more savoury (prosciutto with herby ricotta).

Carnevale says making sfogliatelle is not a simple task; in fact, creating the dough (typically flour, sugar, salt, water and lard is the easiest part. The following lamination process can be likened to pasta-making; specifically, thin pappardelle. “The [setting] on your machine is 1.5; you have to work the pastry to the point where it’s very thin,” says Carnevale.

“Out of a kilogram of dough, you can make quite a lot because you want thin layers with a lot of space. Once that’s done, you need to roll it.”

The next step sees the dough rolled out and topped with lard. “It makes the pastry not stick and creates space between each layer,” says the chef. “Then you start rolling the opposite way, turning and putting more lard on. Once it’s attached to the stick, you roll it back without it and it looks like a CD with layers wrapped around each other.”

Shaping the pastry is essential to a quality end product and necessitates plenty of practice. Carnevale cuts the dough and places it in his left hand (he’s right-handed) where he pushes it from the centre using his thumb and index finger. “It’s easy to push because of all the lard,” he says. “You want to start moving it around and form a short cone.”

With the hardest part out of the way, the filling is the final task before baking. Ricotta is the most traditional interior. “You add the ricotta, close it and it becomes sfogliatelle,” says Carnevale.

Another option sees choux pastry used in place of ricotta. “You pipe the base with choux, close it and bake it; the pastry tries to expand and it becomes longer like a lobster tail,” says Carnevale. “The choux creates a cavity inside you can fill with Nutella or something else [after baking].”

Nikki To

Sfogliatelle is one of Marta’s best sellers, but it’s an in-the-know pastry over at Leichardt’s Mezzapica Cakes. The Sydney store has been around since 1952 when it was started by Angelo Mezzapica, who came to Australia from Italy after learning the art of pastry making in Milan.

Over a decade later, Frank Portelli, Mezzapica’s nephew, made the move to Sydney. “I came to Australia in 1963 as a 14-year-old boy,” says Portelli. “When I turned 15, I started working in this cake shop and have been here ever since.”

Mezzapica takes the classic route with their sfogliatelle. “We only make them with ricotta, candied peels and semolina,” says Portelli. “Sfogliatelle is from the Neapolitan region where they are a huge success, but not many people actually know what it is here. It’s not our biggest seller, let’s put it that way. But if I had a cent for every cannoli I’ve made since I started here, I’d be a multi-millionaire … ”

Mezzapica’s cannoli has been around for almost 70 years and are made according to a traditional Sicilian recipe. “It’s not difficult to get right, but it’s a matter of patience in the rolling and the frying,” says Portelli. “You can’t hurry the process up because they won’t come out as good.”

Pastry chefs use 25kg of flour at a time to make the dough which typically encompasses sugar, salt, eggs, butter/lard and wine. “You mix the dough first and
then you roll it to a certain thickness and cut the shape of the cannoli,” says Portelli. “Then you roll them around a steel tube and we fry them in cottonseed oil.”

The entire process takes around five hours. Portelli says ricotta is the ultimate cannoli filling, but chefs should pay special attention to the consistency of the cheese. “We go through about 150kg of ricotta a week, but not all ricotta is suitable to add sugar to,” he says. “When the sugar melts, sometimes you get a soft, liquid ricotta, so it’s important it’s well-drained.”

Mezzapica’s cannoli range also includes chocolate, hazelnut and vanilla, but “ricotta is always number one”, says Portelli.

Frank Portelli

Maritozzi is arguably the ‘it’ pastry of 2021. The brioche cream bun is a Roman specialty that dates back to the Middle Ages. It’s a case study of simplicity: a soft brioche bun filled with cream — that’s it. “They go like hot cakes,” says Carnevale. “We can’t sell enough of them, they disappear every day.”

So why are customers fanning out over maritozzi so much? “People want food with soul that relates to their childhood,” says Carnevale. “In Italy, there’s been a massive comeback of things like carbonara and old Roman food in a modern way. People see a brioche bun with whipped cream and even if they’ve never tried it, they know what it is. Everyone is looking for some comfort right now.”

One of Carnevale’s early experiences with maritozzi came by way of a trade. The chef worked at a bakery in Rome and would swap rosette and mortadella for maritozzi with a neighbouring business. The chef’s tenure in Rome gave him plenty of time to gain an understanding of what would go on to become one of Marta’s most-coveted offerings.

“When I opened Marta, I knew exactly what I was looking for in terms of texture and flavour,” says Carnevale. “I spoke to my friends in Rome and came up with my own interpretation of the traditional recipe. The small details make a difference such as the type of flour, but maritozzi is an interesting, fun bun to make.”

The dough doesn’t include any water, just milk, resulting in a dough akin to rubber. “The milk needs to be the right temperature when it’s added to the dry ingredients; it can’t be too hot otherwise the yeast will die,” says Carnevale.

“If it’s too cold, it won’t start the yeast. It’s a very stretchy pastry to work; you can shape it one way, but if you haven’t shaped it hard enough, it will try to retain. It also cooks quickly. It’s a simple dessert, but the most difficult thing is achieving perfection.”

Besides the bun, there’s just one other component to maritozzi — the cream. Carnevale adds icing sugar to ensure a smooth mouthfeel, but in Italy, the sugar comes pre-infused with vanilla. “You don’t want any grains,” he says. “Sometimes you can add vanilla beans, but in Italy, you use vanilla sugar.”

There’s much to discover when it comes to Italian pastries, and both Portelli and Carnevale speak fondly of the offerings in their home countries that are mostly absent or hard to find here. Carnevale puts it down to translation. “Some things we do in Italy are hard to sell here because people don’t understand the flavour or it’s not what they think it will be,” he says.

“We tried a dessert [pesche dolci] a few times; the dough is a cross between shortcrust pastry and maritozzi and it looks like a peach. It has two disks, and once it’s baked, it’s soaked in Alkermes [Italian spiced liqueur]. The middle is stuffed with custard and then it’s dipped in sugar.”

Pesche dolci is no doubt eye-catching, but local palates are sometimes wary of alcohol in desserts, despite how low its percentage is. “It’s hard to sell things like that; some people are scared of it,” says Carnevale. “Maybe they got burned by some kind of liqueur; Australians aren’t used to it. I’d like to see more pastries using liqueur.”

Portelli references stores in the south of Sicily that are dedicated to crafting marzipan into lifelike produce. “You see windows full of marzipan fruits from apricot to peach and they look real; it’s a pleasure to watch those windows,” he says. “It makes you think, ‘Why can’t we have them in Australia?’”