Foodies: Italian cookie challenge
Popular culture seemingly lacks room—any room—for the consideration of Italian Christmas cookies. No Super Bowl ads, no Groupon offers. Maybe the category is just too quaint to consider, yet, at least within the general area of the two congressional districts covering most of Western New York, such cookies are ubiquitous holiday fixtures. From Thanksgiving to the first few weeks of January (and often beyond), platters and plates of cookies—cuccidati (fig-filled), giguliena (sesame seed), ricotta cheese, Italian wedding, and chocolate dipped—abound. They are ever present at office holiday parties and formal holiday receptions, and in kitchens and family rooms.
So we set out to conduct a tasting of local, bakery-made Italian Christmas cookies. Our prior efforts in ranking Italian bread, hot dogs, and various other local specialties provided a framework for panel composition, tasting rules, and site preparation. Arrangements were made to set up at the art-filled Ashland Avenue home of Margot Glick. A tasting panel was assembled, Nicholas P. Amigone, III, attorney; David Folmar, caterer; hostess Margot Glick; Rocco Termini, Buffalo developer; Keenan Toohey, special projects assistant; Sarah Izzo, office manager; and Linda Nenni, business owner.
A dozen or so specialty cookies were acquired from Gino’s Italian Bakery, Romano’s Italian Bakery, Romeo & Juliet’s Bakery Café, Muscoreil’s Fine Desserts, and Carriage Trade Pastries. Score sheets with numbered entries and specific categories—taste, appearance, overall impression—were handed out. Red wine, sparkling, and tap water were provided as the panelists began to methodically taste each offering.
As the evening went on, a lively discussion revealed two relevant themes. The first was that the homemade variety of any Italian cookie is preferred to a comparable bakery version. This nearly universal sense was shared without criticism of bakery-made products, but rather with an emphasis on personal experience. There were also many nostalgic references to long-closed bakeries like the Virginia Pastry Shop, which was known for its classic Italian cookies, lemon ice, cannoli, and pupa con l’ uova (braided Easter bread with hard boiled eggs).
While the tasting continued and the score sheets tallied, talk turned to the question of whether large supermarkets will eventually squeeze out most of the specialty bakeries. The consensus was that it may be only a matter of time before this occurs, and that it would be a shame. Hope does remain that the continuum of regional revitalization and emphasis on locally grown or produced goods will include bakeries that make small batches on-site.
When the judging concluded, votes revealed Gino’s Italian Bakery as the best for cuccidati and giguliena style Italian cookies. The Sicilian-derived family recipes used by Pamela Di Palma, owner of Gino’s, deliver cookies with a chewy texture that unmasks just the right amount of flavor of both the figs and the sesame seeds. These are uniformly small, single bite cookies, so the richness and sweet taste are immediately satisfying. Both cookies are light but maintain enough moisture to not be dry or sticky.
Romano’s Italian Bakery led the way for the chocolate, ricotta, and wedding cookies. The chocolate balls are different from the standard in that they are not spicy, but instead rely on better quality chocolate and consistent baking techniques. The ricotta cookies are light, with just a hint of actual cheese, which according to Romano’s co-owner Linda Battaglia, is the intended result since, despite the name, the dominant taste is vanilla. In fact, Battaglia says the cookie could be called a vanilla cookie. The Italian wedding cookies—sometimes referred to as Mexican wedding cakes—are a Romano’s year-round staple. Linda and her sister, Daniella Battaglia, have been operating Romano’s together since 2006. Their roots in the business are far deeper, as they acquired it from their mother who had previously purchased the going concern from “Uncle” Romano Leonardi, who founded the bakery over forty years ago.
Gino’s Italian Bakery
1104 Kenmore Avenue, kenmore
Romano’s Italian Bakery
725 Kenmore Avenue, Kenmore
Margaret Toohey owns an insurance company in Lewiston.