Food writer Claudia Lombardo has sampled exquisite dishes by the world’s greatest chefs. But when she hears about the remarkable desserts that are created in a pastry shop operated out of a convent in the sleepy Italian hillside town of Santa Lucia del Mela, she wants to write a book featuring the sweets and the story behind their creator—Sorella Agata. But the convent’s most famous dessert—a cassata cake—is what really intrigues Claudia.
Everyone who samples the cake agrees it is like none other they’ve tasted. Yet no one can figure out what makes the cassata so incredibly delicious. Though Sorella Agata insists there is no secret ingredient, Claudia is determined to learn the truth behind the mysterious cake. As she samples each delectable treat—marzipan fruit, rich cream puffs, and decadent cakes—Sorella Agata relates the pastry shop’s history and tells of the young woman, Rosalia, who inspired her.
Kidnapped and separated from her family, Rosalia is subjected to a terrible ordeal—until the nuns find her. As she heals, she learns the art of pastry making, and soon she even finds love with Antonio—an apprentice in the pastry shop. But her heart still aches for the family she lost. And Rosalia knows she will not be whole again until she is reunited with them.
As Claudia unravels the secret of the cassata cake, she discovers a deeper, fascinating story—one that affirms food can do more than nourish the body…it can stir memories, heal the deepest heartaches, and even act as a bridge to those we love, no matter how far apart.
Praise For The Novels Of Rosanna Chiofalo
"The mountains and islands of Sicily, the fabulous clothes of the late sixties, and the emotional power Sarina feels when singing stand out." --Booklist
"What a glorious novel this is. It's a celebration of life, love and unlikely friendship through the eyes of two very different women. Yet their similarities bind them together and will endear them to readers long after the last page is turned. Bravissima for Carissima!" --Susan Wiggs, # 1 New York Times bestselling author
"Fantastico! I couldn't put it down!" --Lisa Jackson, # 1 New York Times bestselling author
"Chiofalo brings the Italian immigrant community and neighborhoods richly to life." --Publishers Weekly
"Well-drawn characters…A charmer." --BookPage
"Sometimes tough, sometimes tender, always heartfelt and honest, Bella Fortuna is a lively, finely-stitched tale of life and love, family and friendship, and a zest for cose Italiane!" --Peter Pezzelli, author of Home to Italy
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Rosalia's Bittersweet Pastry Shop
By ROSANNA CHIOFALO
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Rosanna Chiofalo
All rights reserved.
Minni della Vergine
September 25, 2004 Santa Lucia del Mela, Messina, Sicily
The winding roads of the hills were making Claudia Lombardo feel nauseous. She tried closing her eyes as Felice, her driver, chatted with her in his heavily accented English, but that only made the feeling worse. And though it was the last week in September, it was still rather warm. Then again, they were on the Mediterranean island of Sicily, where one could technically still swim at the beach as late as November, though the locals never did according to the travel guidebook Claudia had read before she left New York.
Claudia could feel her pulse racing in anticipation. Though she had spent the last fifteen years interviewing famous chefs and writing cookbooks featuring their world-renowned dishes, she felt that this next project was more special somehow. She had never traveled outside of the U.S. to interview a chef from another country. And this chef was much different from those she had previously met with, many of whom had achieved celebrity status and were often quite narcissistic.
As Felice cleared a bend in the road, Claudia caught her breath at the view in the valley below. Sprawling acres of green beckoned to her, and specks of white dotted the landscape — goats. A goat herder followed his flock, reining them in. So far the little she'd seen in the drive from the airport was what she had always envisioned Sicily to look like — verdant mountains, deep azure coastline, palm trees, and cactus pear plants. She couldn't believe she was here.
Though Claudia was half Sicilian on her father's side of the family, she never really thought about her Italian roots since she was third-generation Italian American. Her mother had Irish in her, but again Claudia's ancestors who had emigrated from Ireland had done so in the early part of the twentieth century. She just always thought of herself as American, even though her father liked to uphold a few culinary customs that had been passed down in his family through the generations like the Feast of the Seven Fish, or Fishes, which was how most people referred to the Italian Christmas Eve celebration, but she refused to call it that.
Her father's love of cooking had been instilled in Claudia from the time she was seven years old. And from the moment he'd taught her how to cook, she instantly fell in love. She watched everything her father did and in no time was taking turns with him in preparing the most mouthwatering meals for the family. As she grew older, Claudia discovered she also enjoyed writing. So she decided to combine her passions of cooking and writing to become a food writer. In addition to having Chow Girl — her own blog for food epicureans — she had now published eight books, several of which had become New York Times bestsellers.
Though the primary reason for this trip was to learn and write about the fascinating pastries Sicily was renowned for, it would also be a chance for Claudia to see the island from which her ancestors had originated. Unfortunately, any relatives her father still had in Sicily lived on the western side of the island, near Agrigento. So this wouldn't be one of those trips where Claudia would find long-lost relatives to introduce herself to, since the town she was traveling to was located in the northeast. But that was all right. She was just happy to be here and get a sense of her roots.
"Almost there, signorina!" Felice shouted to Claudia above the din of his car radio, which was blasting one Italian ballad after another. She had found herself tapping her foot in time to the enchanting music. She could get used to listening to Italian music. For a moment, she had to pinch herself to believe it was all real. From the perfect panorama to the bucolic valleys between the hills and mountains they were driving along to the emotion-laden pop songs playing on the radio, Claudia felt as if she were watching an Italian tourism TV commercial.
Soon, as the driver had promised, Claudia saw the road signs pointing to her destination: Convento di Santa Lucia del Mela — Santa Lucia del Mela Convent. The incline became steeper, and the roadway narrowed even more. Claudia's heart dropped when she noticed the Fiat hugging the side of the mountain. Immediately, she turned her head so she wouldn't see the dramatic drop over the mountain's edge.
Her pulse calmed down once she noticed the road widening again in front of her. They were entering a village that was perched along the mountains. Bicyclists and people on Vespas vied with the motorists. Right as she was thinking she would be able to get out of the stuffy car, Felice began ascending a twisty path up another hill.
"I thought you said we were almost there." Claudia tried to hide the irritation in her voice, reminding herself she was no longer in New York City, where constantly showing your annoyance to everyone who tested your patience was expected.
"We are. At the top of the hill. We have to go through the village first," Felice said before glancing over his shoulder at Claudia. "You have heard about i dolci, the pastries, of the Sorelle Carmelitane? Si? You cannot wait to try them, no? Ha-ha!" Felice laughed.
"Si. I am here to try the convent's famous pastries, but I am also a writer. I am going to write a book featuring their famous pastries and tell about the history of the convent as well as interview the head pastry chef — Sorella Agata."
"Ah! Bravissima! You are a writer, and you come here from New York! So far away! Make sure you write nothing but the best about our little mountain town and about the sisters. They are good women, but most of all women of God." Felice nodded his head knowingly at Claudia.
"So, Felice, you are from Santa Lucia del Mela?"
"Si. Born here, and I will die here."
"May I ask why you think the convent's pastries are famous? What makes their desserts more special than, let's say, the desserts in the finest bakeries in the cities of Messina and Palermo?"
Felice shrugged his shoulders and for a split second removed his hands from the steering wheel, gesturing toward the air. "Naturally, the pastries are very good. But it is more than their taste. Ahhh ... how do you say?" Felice stammered for a moment as he tried to think of the correct phrase. "The sisters' pastries are special because of how you feel after you eat them. All the senses are engaged. How do you Americans say? Experience?" He glanced at Claudia in the rearview mirror, meeting her eyes.
"Yes, experience." Claudia nodded her head, imploring Felice to continue.
"You have a beautiful experience when you eat one of their pastries. You will see what I mean after you try them. Believe me!"
While Claudia could relate to what Felice was saying about the convent's pastries imparting an experience in addition to taste since she had trained her palate and her five senses to take in every nuance of food, she couldn't help feeling that the driver was biased and wanted to portray the pastries as being far superior to those found in the pasticcerie of Messina, the nearest large city. After all, he was proud of his hometown. But she was still curious as to the convent's secret to the success of their pastries.
From Claudia's research, she had learned about Sicily's longstanding history of creating the finest pastries and how wealthy monasteries and convents, especially in Sicily's capital of Palermo and in the city of Catania, had preserved the island's rich heritage of pastry making. But the convents took it a step further in the late 1800s and began selling their pastries, mainly as a way to keep their doors from being closed. For after Italian unification in 1860, much of the convents' land had been seized by the government, and many of the convents were shut down. The Convent of Santa Lucia del Mela was one of these convents that had been selling their sweets from as far back as the late nineteenth century. While their business had always done well, it wasn't until the late 1950s that word of the shop's exceptional pastries began to spread to neighboring towns outside of Santa Lucia del Mela, and even to the city of Messina. In the 1980s, the shop had managed to get the attention of several famous chefs from around the world, who had heard about the Carmelite nuns' remarkable sweets and had traveled to the sleepy hillside town of Santa Lucia del Mela to discover what all the excitement was about. And in the past decade, tourists had even begun descending upon the village just to visit the convent's pastry shop.
Claudia had first learned about Sorella Agata and her famous pastry shop, which operated from the convent where she was also the mother superior, from her friend Gianni, who was the chef at Il Grotto, one of Manhattan's esteemed five-star Italian restaurants. While Gianni had not been to the convent's pastry shop and sampled the nuns' sweets, he knew a few chefs who had and who could not stop talking about the amazing creations being whipped up there. But what really intrigued Gianni was the one dessert that all of his friends had been baffled by — thecassata — a Sicilian cake, originating from Palermo and Messina, that consisted of sponge cake dipped in liqueur, layered with ricotta cheese and candied peel, and covered with a marzipan shell and icing; candied fruit in the shape of cherries and slices of citrus fruit topped the cake. Not only was the cake unlike any other version of cassata the chefs had ever tasted, but they were convinced Sorella Agata had a secret ingredient that was responsible for its becoming the most popular of the sweets sold at her pastry shop. The chefs had looked at different cassata recipes, but they could not nail the unique flavor that was present in Sorella Agata's. And the ingredients listed in the recipes could not have given the cake this unique flavor.
"Felice, I take it you have tried the cassata?"
"Of course! That is the cake that made Sorella Agata famous. For only she has the gift to make it so delicious. My grandmother told me she's been eating cassata from the convent's pastry shop ever since she was a little girl — long before Sorella Agata was baking there. She said it tasted nothing like Sorella Agata's cake."
"Well, perhaps then what Sorella Agata is baking isn't really a cassata since your grandmother says it tasted different from the one she had years ago? Has anyone thought of that? Perhaps she is fooling you all!" Claudia laughed.
"She is a woman of God. She is incapable of deceit." Felice's voice possessed a touch of irritation.
Claudia couldn't help mentally rolling her eyes at his claim that Sorella Agata was not capable of deceit. But Claudia held her tongue, knowing how religious Italians were and how they held nuns and priests in high reverence along with the Pope.
"Maybe I have not communicated well in English what I wanted to say. It is the cassata. Anyone who has had that cake knows what it should taste like, and Sorella Agata's tastes the way the cassata should, but then there is another layer of flavor. You will see for yourself. You must sample the cassata at one of the other pasticcerie in the village, and then try la sorella's version."
"I intend to do exactly that, Felice."
Claudia was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. She was good at what she did, especially when it came to breaking down tough chefs who were often reluctant to share secrets of what made their cuisines a success. She just needed to build a sense of trust between the chef and herself, and she had no doubt she would be able to do that even with a nun. Secretly, Claudia prayed that Sorella Agata wouldn't be one of those stern nuns her father had always told her about. He had gone to parochial elementary school, where several nuns taught, and he claimed he still had nightmares about a few of the meaner ones.
"We are here, signorina." Felice came to an abrupt stop in front of a sprawling building.
Claudia quickly paid him and stepped out of the taxi. Felice took Claudia's suitcase out of the trunk.
"Arrivederci, signorina. Do not forget to try la cassata." He chuckled as he said good-bye and got back into his taxi. He'd turned off the car stereo — no doubt out of respect for the convent. But as the car began making its downhill descent, Claudia could hear once again the notes of the Italian pop music.
She turned around and entered the tall wrought-iron gates of the convent's property. No one was outside. A mosaic-tiled walkway led to a courtyard, where Claudia could now see the magnificent structure that housed the convent. It looked even more charming than in the photographs she'd seen on the website. Porticoes lined a two-story building. The second story featured a large balcony. The off-white stone walls contrasted nicely with the shingled roof. The gardens in the courtyard were immaculately landscaped. Boxes of red bougainvillea, one of Sicily's most popular flowers, sat in each of the arched porticoes. Cactus pear plants, jade, aloe vera, and other succulents that were well-suited to the island's arid climate adorned the courtyard. There were various other plants, flowers, and trees, including lemon and orange trees. A statue of a female saint with a small bubbling fountain was situated at the back of the yard, and a makeshift shrine of vases holding flowers circled the base of the statue.
Claudia closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath. The air smelled exceptionally clean, and there was a subtle sweet fragrance of jasmine and citrus in the air. But what she enjoyed most of all was the silence. Claudia couldn't remember the last time she'd been somewhere that was this quiet — the Grand Canyon when she visited as a child perhaps? Yes, that was it. She opened her eyes and let her gaze survey the gorgeous grounds once more. A strange feeling passed over her. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but there was something about this place — a serenity and an almost otherworldly spirituality that put her instantly at ease.
She then smelled a familiar scent — bread baking. Or perhaps cookies? Letting her nose lead the way, Claudia followed the aroma, which seemed to be coming from the side of the convent. Soon, rows of arched windows lining the side of the convent's building came into view. Long lines of people waited at two of the open windows. She then saw the head of a nun, complete in habit and wimple, peering out one of the windows as she smiled and laughed with an elderly male customer while she handed him a plump brioche wrapped in tissue paper. The man paid her and left. Claudia waited to see what the next patron would purchase, but the nun brought out a large cake box and, although she showed the customer the cake inside, Claudia was too far away to see it.
"Mi scusi, Signorina Lombardo?"
Claudia almost jumped out of her skin. A short nun stood before her, smiling shyly, almost like a young schoolgirl. But Claudia could tell by the few fine lines and wrinkles that were etched on her face that she was probably in her sixties. The dark circles beneath a set of large, intense black eyes also attested to the nun's age. Her smile and her eyes were kind. The nun was dressed in a chocolate-brown habit. A white coif covered her hair completely, and a white wimple covered the sides of her cheeks and neck. A black veil draped her head.
"Si, io sono Signorina Lombardo. Buongiorno, Sorella."
Claudia sent out a silent thanks to her father for making her take Italian lessons on the weekends while she was in elementary school. Then when she was in high school and was required to take a foreign language, she had figured she'd be one step ahead if she took Italian. Her high school Italian teacher, whom she managed to keep for all four years, had instilled in Claudia a deep admiration for the language, so she had decided to continue studying it in college. Just to be sure she could still easily understand the language and speak it, she had decided to take an immersion course in Italian in Manhattan. The class had been for students who already had a solid mastery of the language and wanted to refresh their skills.
"It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Sorella Agata."
So this was the famous pastry chef and mother superior of the Santa Lucia del Mela convent and pasticceria. The pastry shop simply went by the convent's name. Claudia didn't know why she was surprised this was Sorella Agata. She had pictured Sorella Agata to look different. Taller perhaps, and though she was a little plump, Claudia had expected her to be more portly because she was a pastry chef. Silently, Claudia scolded herself for her ridiculous assumption. Claudia was a food writer and as such was forced to taste countless dishes, and she wasn't overweight. If anything, her parents were always telling her she was too thin and needed to put on a few extra pounds. But she exercised daily, knowing how easy it would be to lose her size 4 figure with all the incredibly delicious food she was tempted with in her line of work. And she only allowed herself a bite or two, at most, when she sampled the extraordinary creations of the chefs she interviewed.
Excerpted from Rosalia's Bittersweet Pastry Shop by ROSANNA CHIOFALO. Copyright © 2016 Rosanna Chiofalo. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsBooks by Rosanna Chiofalo,
PROLOGUE - Frutta di Martorana,
1 - Minni della Vergine,
2 - Biscotti all'Anice,
3 - Lulus,
4 - Ossa dei Morti,
5 - Nacatuli,
6 - Gelo di Cioccolato,
7 - Marmellata di Tarocchi di Nonna,
8 - Cannoli,
9 - Biancomangiare,
10 - Buccellati,
11 - Gli Occhi di Santa Lucia,
12 - Pan di Spagna con Crema Pasticciera,
13 - Fior di Mandorla,
14 - Cuscinetti,
15 - Chiacchiere,
16 - Piparelli,
17 - Zeppole,
18 - Pane di Pasqua,
19 - Trionfo di Gola,
20 - Biscotti Regina,
21 - Gelo di Melone,
22 - Torta al Mandarino,
23 - Olivette di Sant' Agata,
24 - Biscottini da Tè,
25 - Krapfen,
26 - Croccantini,
27 - Latte di Mandorla,
28 - Pignolata,
29 - Torta al Limone di Mamma,
30 - Taralli all'Uovo,
31 - Torta Savoia,
32 - Fior di Pistacchio,
EPILOGUE - Cassata,
RECIPES FROM ROSALIA'S BITTERSWEET PASTRY SHOP,
A READING GROUP GUIDE,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rosalia’s Bittersweet Pastry Shop by Rosanna Chiofalo tells the story of Rosalia Di Santa and the pastry shop at Santa Lucia del Mela Convent in Sicily. Claudia Lombardo is a writer and she wishes to do a book (a cookbook with stories) on the convent and its marvelous pastries (she also has a blog titled Chow Girl). Claudia gets to stay at the convent, watch the delicious delicacies being made, and interview the Mother Superior of the convent. The Mother Superior tells Claudia the story of the bakery and Rosalia. It takes us back to 1955 and how the sisters found Rosalia. The Mother Superior then slowly reveals Rosalia’s story. Read Rosalia’s Bittersweet Pastry Shop to find out the secrets behind their delectable desserts. The book is well-written (easy to read) and the writer does a very good job at describing the desserts (if I liked pastries I would want to devour them). The novel seemed to go on forever. It started out interesting, but then the pace slowed down considerably (though it does pick up again near the end). What the Mother Superior ultimately reveals is easy to figure out during the course of the novel. Rosanna Chiofalo is a descriptive writer which makes it easy to visualize what she is describing (a wonderful quality for a writer). If the pace had been a little faster, it would have made the novel much more enjoyable (and the book shortened just a bit). I give Rosalia’s Bittersweet Pastry Shop 3 out of 5 stars. The book hints at a magical element. I think the book would have been much better (enhanced) if the author had included a bit of magic. There are dessert recipes at the end of the book. I received a complimentary copy of the book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest evaluation of the novel.