The conversation went something like this:
Friends: "We're going to Naples tomorrow."
Friends: "Yes. Business. Do you want us to bring you back a sfogliatella?"
Me: "Of course. It is my favorite pastry, ever."
Friends: "Frolla or sfoglia?"
Friends: "We knew you would say that."
When it comes to sfogliatella, this is an enduring and significant question among Neapolitans. Sfoglia, also known as riccia, refers to the shell-shaped version that most of us are familiar with, made with tissue-thin dough that is stretched and then rolled to create overlapping, irresistibly crisp layers. The frolla variation features soft, tender, flaky dough that literally melts in your mouth. Both pastries contain the same delicious filling, made from semolina, ricotta, sugar, cinnamon, eggs, and bits of candied citrus.
The history of the sfogliatella is also varied. Most accounts position its appearance around the early part of the 18th century; some credit the pastry's creation to nuns living in the convent of Santa Rosa, not far from the town of Amalfi. The inspiration has been debated, but my favorite passage says: "Only the patience and free time of women locked in convents could allow for such work, stretching strips of dough several meters long and only a millimeter thick...." Eventually, sfogliatella made its way from the virtuous, hardworking sisters to the royal court and city of Naples.
Sfoglia and frolla each have their own legion of fans, although it seems that the crisp sfoglia has an edge in the competition, myself included. I'm a sucker for those shattering, delicate layers with just the right amount of chewiness. I don't know why the frolla version never really made it over to the States, but it is growing on me, the softness of the dough complements the texture of the filling nicely. Two of the most historic and best places to hold your own frolla vs. sfoglia taste test are at Pasticceria Fratelli Attanasio and Pasticceria Carraturo; both are located around Naples' central train station, an area that Neapolitans believe has the perfect atmospheric conditions to make the best sfogliatelle. Mine had to travel by a Eurostar train this time, but I recommend you try them warm and fresh from the oven.
Naples is facing some serious problems right now. A protracted garbage crisis; feckless, ineffective politicians; and the evils of organized crime are presenting significant challenges to this fascinating and culturally rich Italian city. But Naples perseveres as it always has, and the sfogliatelle are still pulled from the ovens every 15 minutes.
Pasticceria Fratelli Attanasio
Vico Ferrovia 1/2/3/4, Naples
via Garibaldi 59, Naples
About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. She is currently in Rome doing research for her next book and further exploring her passions for Italian food.