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Behind the Scenes at an Italian Patisserie

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of an Italian pasticceria? Of course, I sort of knew, but I thought it might be fun if I were to take some photos and show you. During my last trip to Italy to visit my family, I asked my friend Elvio if I could spend some time in his pastry lab taking pics of whatever he was prepping. I was there from nine am till about noon: waaaay longer than I had planned, and I snapped waaay more pics than I had thought. Weekends are the busiest days for patisseries, so there was a lot to prepare. We all got our dose of exhausting work – the fun kind!




All the images that follow show the Saturday morning prepping workflow in a classic Italian pasticceria, La Casa del Dolce, in my home town of Varese, Northern Italy. In the meantime, in the front of the pasticceria, espressos and cappuccinos are enjoyed by regulars (including my dad) with a side of brioche, croissant or vanilla custard filled bombolone (one of the Italian names for doughnut).

The working day in a pasticceria starts early, especially when you are also planning something extra: freshly baked bread loaves. So when I walked in at nine am, these little Babá al Rum (Rom soaked mini sponge cakes) were already dripping on a rack.




Nearby, Elvio is kneading once-risen dough into loaves ready for the second rise. La Casa del Dolce is not a bread bakery, but Elvio is the fourth generation of a family of bread bakers, and though he chose to get more creative with the art by opening a patisserie, bread baking is in his blood, and once in a while he will whip up a batch.




At the other end of the kitchen, his assistant Luca brushes apricot glaze onto apple puff pastry tarts.




While the bread loaves rise, Elvio gets on with blending ricotta, cinnamon and powder sugar to make the filling for cannoli, which then get decorated with candied orange peel.




Next it is time to fill the Cannoncini with vanilla custard. Cannoncini, literally little cannons, are hollow puff pastry cones that get filled (usually) with vanilla custard. Definitely a favorite with my family and just about everyone I know. When a tray of assorted pasticcini (the generic term for small pastries) shows up for dessert, everyone goes for cannoncini and bigné (eclairs).


Prepping-CannonciniCannonciniPrepping Cannoncini


Italian pasticcerie used to feature only larger pastries, but in the last thirty-some years, they have started making mignons (from the French: small ones), which are the bite size versions of said pastries. These mignons are now the most popular size: why eat just one or two larger pastries when you can pop little ones in you mouth and get to try several?

Here is Luca applying chocolate ganache to Belle Hélène mini tarts: poached pear slices sit on a bed of vanilla custard in a chocolate-dipped pasta frolla (pâte sucrée) shell, and are then topped with chocolate ganache.




At the other end of the kitchen, Elvio fills vanilla eclairs and cream puffs. In Italy, these are called Bigné alls Crema (vanilla eclairs) and Bigné alla Panna (cream puffs). Bigné alls Panna (panna is cream) are filled with vanilla custard before slicing the top off to make room for a nice swirl of fresh whipped cream. These are my absolute favorites!

When I think of Cream Puffs I always see that scene in the Victor Victoria movie when a starving Julie Andrews faints in the snow at the sight of a rotund client on the other side of the restaurant window gorging on an extra-large and over-filled cream puff.




Not it is time for the chocolate eclairs, or Bigné al Cioccolato. Are you drooling yet?




Another version of eclairs are Funghetti (little mushrooms), where an elongated vanilla eclair is fitted into a round chocolate one making the final result resemble a little mushroom. Best of both worlds!




And now the final touches to the Semifreddi alla Mandorla. Semifreddo (singular) literally means semi-cold; mandorla is almond.  An Italian semifreddo is a mousse of some kind usually layered on top of a cake base and then frozen. Undergoing a different procedure, they are immediately creamier than ice cream and with a softer texture, even if frozen. There are many different kinds of semifreddi (plural), and you can be very versatile and creative in making them. Click here for a drool-worthy Sabayon and Amaretti Semifreddo recipe.


In the United States, semifreddi have often been called parfaits, though in more recent years I have noticed that the name semifreddo has become a standard part of the culinary lingo just like gelato, panini, farro and others.




After the second rising, the bread dough is ready for the next process: working the round loaves into elongated ones called bastoni.




Elvio’s father, Gianni, stops by for a visit. A baker himself, Gianni used to work alongside Elvio until a few years ago. Now he contents himself with sitting on the side overlooking the process, or hanging at one of the store-front tables reading the newspaper and chatting with the regulars.




While the bread rises one last time, Elvio moves on to decorating a special-order cake for a birthday. This is what he calls a Zuppa Inglese cake, which is the Italian name for the classic English Trifle. In this case, the dessert flavors and textures of sponge cake layered with vanilla and chocolate custards are worked into a cake shape instead of being arranged in a bowl.




You probably know it, but Buon Compleanno means Happy Birthday.

Next on the list are mini versions of Millefoglie alla Crema (Custard Millefeuilles) and Tortine alla Pasta di Mandorle (mini Almond Marzipan Cakes). All that is left to do today is slice them: easy peasy.




There is a little more time before the bread is ready for the oven, so Elvio moves onto the fresh fruit tarts, which are usually topped with assorted fresh berries and grapes. These are called Pasticcini alla Frutta. Pasta frolla (pâte sucrée) tart shells are first topped with vanilla custard, then dusted with powder sugar before receiving the fruits and glazing.




Finally the loaves are ready for the oven! A quick dusting of flour and off they go.




In the meantime, might as well whip up a couple of Sacher Tortes, or Elvio’s version of this classic Viennese cake. The cake pods have been made fresh the day before, so all that is left to do is fill them and cover them with chocolate ganache.




Can you smell it yet? The bread is ready and the aroma is wafting through the kitchen. Working quickly with hands that must be coated in stainless steel, Elvio moves the hot loaves to a basket ready to entice clients with their comforting fragrance. Nothing quite like freshly baked bread, is there?




Here is Elvio Longoni, the pastry chef and owner of La Casa del Dolce (The Home of Dessert) with his wife Paola and their current shop assistant Sonia. He asked me to make sure I took a good picture, which is code for: make me look good! I think he will be happy with this one.




Elvio and his wife Paola are a local reference point. We no longer say: “I am going to the pasticceria.” We say: “I’m going to Paola’s (or Elvio’s).”

Paola handles the front part of the pasticceria, selling pastries and cakes and chatting with the habitual clients who stop by for a shot of espresso or an aperitif. My dad is one of those, especially now that he is retired. Paola’s is one of his daily morning, and sometimes afternoon, pit stops. My sweet-toothed mom would not dream of complaining as he usually brings home a fresh brioche or a small tray of pastries. She stops by herself occasionally on her way to, or home from, her errands, and does not come home empty-handed either. Neither do I, for that matter, as this is a frequent stop for me as well when I am visiting.


To round off the pastry and cake selection, Elvio also makes fresh ice cream almost every day, which he offers in a limited but excellent selection of flavors, as well as a series of larger sized semifreddi, and several types of tea cookies. And let us not forget the local specialty called Dolce di Varese, offered by every patisserie in town. During the Christmas season, he bakes some of the best Panettone (traditional Italian Christmad sweet bread/cake) I have ever tasted, and at Easter time he does just as excellent a job with the Colomba. Colomba – which literally translates to dove (as in the bird) – is the Easter version of Panettone, and is another traditional classic. Its shape is reminiscent of a dove in flight. You will find both panettone and colomba in every Italian pasticceria and grocery store in many versions, from the classic to the super fancy. Of course, the ones you buy in a pasticceria are so much fresher and better quality than the industrially produced ones sold in grocery stores.


All this Colomba talk actually reminds me that I have not had any for several years. Hopefully next spring I will remember to order one from one of my on-line specialty food suppliers: Market Hall Foods. I have been buying specialty food items from them for several years, and their selection is excellent.


La Casa del Dolce is a classic Italian pasticceria. A pasticceria is a bakery where pastries, cakes and other desserts are made and sold, but that also, always, has a bar (often a full bar) and a small or large sitting area. Some of the larger pasticcerie in city centers have started offering lunch menus, and many also offer full-on catering services.

The style of pastries Elvio makes can be found in just about every pasticceria in Italy, with variations and additions depending on the region and the clientele. Some pasticcerie have a richer and more varied assortment than others, with a larger one in a busy location catering to a wider range of tastes than a small one in the outskirts of town like Elvio’s.

Quality level also varies from one pasticceria to another, just like in any other type of business. Elvio is a passionate baker and chooses only the best and freshest ingredients. Quality ingredients + passion = fabulous pastries!


Here is another pic of Paola and Sonia by the espresso machine.




There are no Italian pasticcerie in Hawai’i at this time. I am sure there are in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, though. The one I know of personally is in Larkspur, Marin County, California. It is called Emporio Rulli, and I have found it to be truly authentic and of excellent quality.


If you happen to be in Varese, Italy, you can stop by La Casa del Dolce and enjoy some fresh pastries with a cappuccino. If you see my dad, tell him to not forget the brioche for my mom.



Via Aurelio Saffi, 138 – 21100 Varese (VA) – Italy  (map)   l   +39-0332-228267   l   closed on Mondays





If you enjoyed this post, here are a few more about Italy you might enjoy:




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  • Shari10/16/2018 - 2:28 am

    Hello – thank you so much for your posts on Varese. I’m in Varese just now and am always looking for exceptional places to eat and enjoy ‘real’ food so it’s been great to read about pasticceria casa del dolce and Grotto Valtellina and even though the cake store isn’t near where I’m staying it sounds like I need to visit!!ReplyCancel

    • Monica Schwartz10/19/2018 - 12:28 pm

      Hi Shari: you are very welcome! There are other places I can recommend in the area, both as restaurants and patisseries, too. A really good pizzeria is Premiata Pizzeria della Motta, in Piazza Motta downtown. Really good restaurant is Il Gestore, in Viale Aguggiari, almost at the junction with Viale Ippodromo. And another really good patisserie is Dolce Mente, in Piazza Biroldi, right across from Ospedale del Ponte. Enjoy!ReplyCancel

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