The Italian-American bakery, with its cannoli and fruit-shaped marzipan, is a bonafide American tradition dating back to the late 1800s, when waves of Italian immigrants settled in cities from New York to Philadelphia to Boston and beyond. They came holding tight to family recipes, but the Italian bakery as we know it is a far cry from how they cooked at home.
"In Italy, there's not that much of a home baking tradition," said Maria Bruscino Sanchez, owner of Sweet Maria's Bakery in Waterbury, Connecticut and the author of Sweet Maria's Italian Cookie Tray: A Cookbook. "If you've ever tried to make cannoli at home, you understand why a piece of fruit is a more common way to end a meal than a pastry. But for most holidays, Italians will go to their local bakery and buy a special something to celebrate. So when immigrants arrived in these American cities, they wanted to continue that tradition by opening bakeries where they settled."
In cities across the East Coast they opened grocery stores—hand-crafting Italian products such as mozzarella where possible and otherwise making do selling American goods that appealed to an Italian palate. And they had bakeries to satisfy fellow immigrants' longing for the intricate pastries and cookies often purchased to celebrate a holiday or special occasion.
It's a story Bruscino Sanchez is familiar with: her paternal grandparents, who emigrated from Naples in the early 1900s, were barbers, not bakers, but nevertheless Bruscino Sanchez grew up hearing stories of life in the old country, and how it compared to the new. During frequent trips to Italy, she was exposed to the wealth of cookies she fell in love with and eventually decided to recreate at home, frequently marveling at the sheer variety of sweets offered abroad, when in the U.S. most Italian bakeries offered only a small handful of treats.
"A lot of bakeries dumb it down for people," she said. "As we've gotten further and further away from the generation of immigrants who strove to offer all of the cookies they loved back at home, bakeries have streamlined their offerings to reflect what sells. Why make 40 varieties when only 10 are selling?" To make matters worse, as ingredient and labor costs rise, more and more "bakeries" wind up buying their sweets from wholesale suppliers. Ever wonder why the butter cookies from two bakeries taste so similar? They might be the same cookie.
"As Italian bakeries lose their their "ethnic" connotation and become frequented by all types of city people, they've necessarily whittled down their offerings to focus their efforts on what's popular"
As Italian bakeries lose their their "ethnic" connotation and become frequented by all types of city people, they've necessarily whittled down their offerings to focus their efforts on what's popular. Even so, stepping into a well-stocked Italian-American bakery and surveying the glass cases full of tantalizing treats can still be an overwhelming experience. What are those cookies, anyway, and what are they going to taste like?
We've got you covered in our field guide to the classic Italian-American cookie case. Think you know all you need to about biscotti? Think again. Prefer a soft, pine nut-studded almond cookie? We have those, too. Wondering how the heck rainbow cookies made their way into Italian bakeries? We have the answers.
Take note that this guide is limited to the cookies you'll commonly find in Italian-American bakeries, which generally fall into one of six types. Read on to see them all.
What they are: These crunchy, coffee-friendly cookies are baked twice to draw out extra moisture: once in a thick dough log, then sliced into long, elegant, dip-able cookies and returned to the oven. There are endless variations on the basic flour, sugar and egg dough—which traditionally contains no oil or butter—but biscotti usually feature nuts, dried fruit, or both. Pictured here, from left to right, are four of the most common varieties: anisette toast, an extra-light biscotti flavored with licorice-y anisette liqueur; "Christmas," or fruitcake biscotti studded with red and green maraschino cherries; toasted almond biscotti, or biscotti di mandorle; and chocolate-hazelnut biscotti.
How they taste: Widely varying, but overall very crunchy and not too sweet, perfect for dipping in the Italian dessert wine vin santo. Store biscotti in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
How they're made: A heavy dough leavened with baking powder and a little egg is kneaded with any additions like dried fruit or nuts, then rolled into a thick log and baked for about 40 minutes before coming out of oven, getting sliced into individual cookies, and baking again until very crunchy, about 15 minutes more. There is some variation in method when it comes to whether or not to cool the cookies after their first baking and before slicing: here we'll defer to Cookie Monster Carrie who cools her logs for about 10 minutes after the first baking.
Background: The legend goes that biscotti date back to Roman times, when they were made as a durable, long-lasting snack included in the rations of the Roman Legions. More recently, the modern recipe for biscotti was supposedly created in 1858 by baker Antonio Mattei of the Tuscan city of Prato.
What they are: Three moist, almond paste-based cake layers dyed to Technicolor intensity, sandwiched with apricot or raspberry jam and coated with dark chocolate.
How they taste: Although they can be frustratingly hard to find, quality rainbow cookies are moist without being too dense, with a pronounced almond flavor that's nicely complemented by the fruity jam topping each layer. Once again, these cookies don't keep well, so the best move here is to buy and eat immediately.
How they're made: This is one cookie you definitely want to buy instead of make, because the preparation is particularly labor intensive. A rich butter, egg yolk, and almond paste cake batter is divided between three bowls: one portion of the batter stays neutral, while the others are dyed red and green. The batter is then spread onto rimmed sheet pans, baked, cooled and then stacked up, cemented with jam and coated with melted chocolate before being cut into individual cookies.
Background: Although many Italian cookies use almond paste as their base, rainbow cookies are firmly Italian American, and have no direct counterpart in the home country. According to Italian cooking doyenne Lidia Bastianich, the cookies were created by early Italian immigrants to pay homage to the colors of their native flag.
What they are: The favorite of kids everywhere, these light, crispy butter cookies are made in many variations, from jam-sandwiched and chocolate-dipped to piped and studded with candied fruit.
How they taste: Good butter cookies are light and not too sweet, with the majority of sugar being provided by the fruit, jam, chocolate or sprinkles. They're best eaten within a couple of days of purchase.
How they're made: Butter cookies are made from a dead-simple "spritz"-type dough of butter, sugar and flour. The dough is then loaded into a pastry bag, often outfitted with a star tip, and piped onto baking sheets in various shapes, from a plain circle to the common "cat's tongue" shape that, post-baking, is filled with jam and dipped into chocolate and sprinkles. Some recipes—likely the ones grounded in an actual Italian tradition—feature almond paste in addition to butter. Unfortunately, few butter cookies these days are housemade, even by well-established bakeries: most buy them in bulk from wholesale suppliers. When visiting your favorite Italian bakery, it's worth asking if they make their butter cookies in-house.
Background: Like rainbow cookies, "Italian" butter cookies bear little resemblance to cookies you'll find in Italy. They have more in common with Scandinavian-style holiday cookies, but they're also an essential feature of every Italian bakery. Johnny Virardi, head baker at the venerable Rocco's Pastry Shop in New York's West Village, told me that simple butter cookies made with almond paste are common in his family's home region of Calabria, in the south, where they might be accented with local fruit or jam, but that the cookies likely evolved into their chocolate- and sprinkle-bedazzled form only once they made their way to American shores.
What they are: A simple almond paste-based cookie baked just until chewy and topped with toasty pine nuts.
How they taste: Soft, sweet and almond-y, with pronounced crunch from the toasted pine nuts. The cookies will store in an airtight container for about three days.
How they're made: The dough could not be more basic, containing only almond paste, sugar and egg whites, often with a little orange zest added for flavor. The dough is rolled into tablespoon-sized balls, then rolled in a plate of pine nuts until coated. Traditionally, the cookies are baked until just chewy, but some people prefer a crisp texture and will bake a few minutes longer.
Background: Pignoli cookies originate in Sicily, which makes sense given that some of the highest-quality almonds and pine nuts are grown on the hilly, southern Italian island that forms the "triangle" that the Italian "boot" kicks. The recipe likely made its way across the Atlantic in the late 1800s, when as many as 100,000 Sicilian immigrants settled in the U.S.
What they are: Reginelle are light, crunchy semolina-flour biscuits coated in sesame seeds.
How they taste: Crisp, not too heavy and barely sweet, with tons of toasted sesame seed flavor. The cookies will store in an airtight container for up to a week.
How they're made: A thick, refrigerated semolina-flour dough flavored with vanilla and nutmeg is rolled into a rope, cut into short lengths and rolled in sesame seeds to coat. The rope is sometimes twisted into a slight S-shape before baking.
Background: Another Sicilian specialty, these cookies—with their prodigious use of sesame seeds—demonstrate the strong influence of Arab flavors on the area's cuisine.
What they are: These meringue-based, nut-loaded traditional cookies have the adorable Italian name Brutti ma Buoni, or Ugly But Good. The moniker makes sense: these lumpy, irregular drop cookies won't win any beauty contests, but their crackly exterior and chewy, nutty interior are irresistible.
How they taste: The cookies have that classic crisp-outside, chewy-inside texture that makes great meringues so good, with a ton of crunch and plenty of flavor from the toasted nuts. Brutti ma Buoni are particularly susceptible to humidity and are best eaten within a few hours of purchase.
How they're made: The base of these cookies is a thick, cooked meringue that's whisked over a double boiler (à la zabaglione) or stirred in a heavy pot (like French pâte à choux). Roughly chopped hazelnuts are the most common addition, but the cookies are sometimes made with almonds or a combination of the two nuts. The cookies are then dropped by rounded teaspoonfuls and baked. A chocolate version, made by adding cocoa powder to the simple egg white-sugar-nut batter, is common.
Background: Brutti ma Buoni come from Gavirate, a small northern Italian town just outside Milan. Supposedly they were created in 1878 by Constantino Veniani, the owner of the eponymous Pasticceria Veniani.