For Bruno Armando, there is no doubt that the best mangoes are grown in Sicily. “Our mango is less traveled and therefore naturally riper, juicier and more intense in flavor,” says the respected pasticciere from the town of Brolo in the northeast of the island in a typically understated Italian fashion. Of course, it has only been during the last few planet-warming years that Armando, who uses only local ingredients, has been able to make his sweets with such exotic fruits as mango. An alarming new development by any measure. Less new, however, is the fact that Sicilian pasticcieri and gelatieri are quite adept at adapting to new ingredients like they have for millenia.
After all, almost everything grown on the island today was imported at some point: the olives by the Phoenicians, the almonds by the Greeks, the pistachios and sugarcane by the Arabs. Oranges were brought by a monk from the Philippines and the prickly pear came with the Spanish, who conquered both Mexico and the largest island in the Mediterranean. For centuries, local confectioners have transformed all of these ingredients into the flamboyant desserts, into ice creams and the granites for which Sicily is so famous — along with the excellence of its fruits. Among the imposing abundance of desserts, one stands out as the most emblematic of them all: the magnificent cassata.
This exquisitely decorated cake consists of a round sponge cake moistened with liqueur or fruit juice, layered with sweetened ricotta (not unlike that found in a cannoli) and studded with candied fruit and chocolate. The cake is then enrobed in marzipan, brilliantly iced with green and pink and elaborately decorated.
The cassata originated in ancient times and was first mentioned in a text from the 14th century, explains Signore Armando as he pulls one of these lavish cakes from his refrigerator. (Some trace it back to the 10th century, when the Arabs first invaded the island.) “Subsequently, it changed constantly.” It is believed that ricotta sweetened with honey was eaten in Sicily as far back as ancient times, when the island was still a Greek colony. After that, the rulers changed almost incessantly. They all left their mark – in architecture and culture, in agriculture and cuisine. And in the preparation of the cassata.
“The cassata is made with candied fruit from the Orient, brought by the Arabs. And sometimes with chocolate, which the Spanish brought from the New World. And of the French Normans it is said that they introduced the technique of making marzipan from almonds and sugar. However, one thing never changed”, says Armando with a stern look: “The ricotta for the cream must exclusively be made from sheep’s milk.” At some point, someone came up with the idea of covering the ricotta cream with marzipan and icing it with sugar.
“Quite possibly the idea came from a nun,” Armando says, “simply because patisserie production took place in convents for centuries.” Which probably also explains why, to this day, there are no religious occasions in Sicily that are not celebrated with baroque quantities of desserts–including funerals. And it’s because of the religious symbolism of most of the Sicilian dolci, that the tradition of their making has been preserved for centuries, in spite of the extreme poverty of which most Sicilians had to suffer in the past.
From the 17th century onward, the cassata acquired its vibrant appearance by being garnished with various fruits, including oranges, pears, citrons, cherries and quince — and, more recently, mangoes, lychees or guavas. “One can also add pistachios or almonds, which is even common in some regions of the island,” says Armando. It goes without saying that in these cases “a true Sicilian artisan” only uses local ingredients. “You won’t find a better almond than the Avola, grown around the city of Siracusa in the southeast of the island,” assures the pasticciere. “And the same goes for the Bronte pistachio, which grows in the barren volcanic soil of Mount Etna and is harvested only every other year, to give it more time to develop its intense flavor.”
Like most of his Sicilian colleagues, Armando is not only a pasticciere but also a gelatiere and produces his ice creams and granite exclusively from Sicilian ingredients. While Armando explains that mulberry is perhaps the most popular fruit for granita, “lately, passion fruit is catching up strongly,” he says, scooping both varieties from his array of chilled metal buckets. Both taste stunning, of fresh fruit and only slightly sweet, the mulberry gliding down the throat with pleasant astringency, the passion fruit following with mild acidity.
In Sicily, granita is eaten primarily on hot summer days. However, a special feature of the island is the tradition of also eating the icy sweet for breakfast, served with whipped cream on a brioscia, a local variant of the French brioche. “Due to its freshness, the passion fruit granita is especially well suited for breakfast,” says Armando. Even though the once-exotic fruit wasn’t grown on the island until recently, it has been embraced. That’s because, in the course of its long history, Sicily has repeatedly had to adapt to drastic changes, each time with the same result, namely an enrichment of the country’s culture and cuisine. This has been the case under the various conquerors. One likes to think that it will be no different in the era of climate change.
Five Mythical Sicilian Pasticerrie
Carmelo Sciampagna, Palermo | Distinguished by the prestigious Gambero Rosso guide, also well-known throughout Sicily for his wonderful, elemental sheep’s milk-ricotta cannolo.
Pasticceria Santo Musumeci, Randazzo | This historic place has been passed down throughout generations. famous for its granite and classic pastries, as well as for innovative recipes by owner Giovanna, who likes to experiment with new flavors.
Caffè Sicilia, Noto | It may look like a traditional sweets shop, but fourth-generation owner Corrado Assenza is legendary for his incredible journeys in childhood-inspired flavors—and for his appearance in an episode of Chef’s Table. There are classics, like almond-milk granita, and flights of fancy, dictated by the season’s ingredients.
Pasticceria Cappello, Palermo | Famous for its cakes, torta pistachio, torta Savoia, and torta Volo.
Pasticceria Palazzolo, Cinisi | Glamorous cassata and famous buccelati (circular cakes with figs and nuts)
Born in Paris and raised in Vienna, Georges Desrues is a journalist and photo reporter living in Trieste.