I·ATE Food Term of the Week: Sfogliatella

Sfogliatella feature

The sfogliatella is perhaps the most representative dessert of Neapolitan confectionery and comes in two main variations: the riccia, “curly”, shell-shaped, based on puff pastry, and the frolla, dome-shaped, based on shortcrust pastry. The filling, with its characteristic scent of vanilla and cinnamon, consists of semolina, sweetened ricotta, sugar and candied citrus.

Like many other delicacies, the origins of the sfogliatella are lost in a distant past, when history often intertwines with legend, and are to be found in the kitchen of a convent where the nuns used to make tempting delicacies, especially during the visits of special guests. Legend has it that in 1600, in an ancient village on the Amalfi Coast, there was a monastery of Benedictine nuns. One day, a nun named Clotilde mixed some leftover semolina with ricotta cheese, dried fruit and lemon liqueur, then covering the dough with two sheets of pastry closed in a cone shape, to remind the Monk’s hood. With great surprise, this sweet, which was called Santarosa, after the name of the monastery, turned out to be a real delight.

Sfogliatella on tableBut for the sfogliatella to land in Naples, you have to wait two centuries, that is, the early 1800s, when Pasquale Pintauro, an innkeeper working in Toledo Street, having had the opportunity to taste the Amalfi specialty, decided to turn his business into a confectionery workshop and to reinterpret the recipe, eliminating cream and black cherry, and thinning the puff pastry: the sfogliatella was born. According to a different version of the story, the mentioned artisan was from Sorrento and the novice was his daughter, a “Mata Hari” ante litteram, who infiltrated the religious order to steal the coveted recipe.

However, other accredited sources provide quite different information: no longer in the 17th century but in the Renaissance, not in Naples but in the capital, not an innkeeper or pastry chef, but a renowned cook, at the service of Popes and cardinals, Bartolomeo Scappi. Indeed, his cookbook Opera dell’arte del cucinare mentions sfogliatelle and both the ingredients and the process described in detail leave no doubt as to the identity of the dessert. But it doesn’t end there because, according to some scholars, the origins of the ‘curly cake’ date back to the second millennium BC and would be due to some votive practices in honour of Cybele, with the aim of aiding fertility. During the rites, which took place in the crypt of Piedigrotta, in Naples, young Vestals would offer to the goddess triangular-shaped breads which were reminiscent of the female reproductive organ.

Ultimately, whether it came from sacred or pagan hands, the sfogliatella has conquered the palate of all Neapolitans and not only, also as a result of its unmistakable scent of vanilla, cinnamon and orange blossom that, from the cafes and bakeries, spreads through the streets and alleys of the city. No wonder, then, that these places are always crammed with people, nor that the same long queues are found in front of similar shops in New York, Chicago or Buenos Aires.

Enjoyed at breakfast, together with a coffee or cappuccino, or at the end of a lunch, the sfogliatella is a real “ritual”, a moment of undisputed pleasure and perhaps it is precisely because of its “side effects” on good humour that it is often mentioned, in familiar language, metaphorically: the service of a judicial act, an unexpected fine, a fee, is compared to a “sfogliatella”. If there is no apparent connection between the nuisance and the sweet, it is also true that, by oxymoronically associating the image of a delicacy with that of a bother, the person’s annoyance is somehow unconsciously “sweetened”. After all, the great Neapolitan playwright and actor Edoardo De Filippo used to say that “sfogliatella lifts you up when your heart is down”.

In conclusion, the sfogliatella, which currently enjoys the P.A.T. (Traditional Agrifood Product) label, is one of the symbols of Neapolitan gastronomy and never ceases to inspire chefs and confectioners: in addition to the coda di aragosta (the “lobster tail”, an elongated sfogliatella filled with chocolate or chantilly cream)Sfogliatella Riccia and Frolla and the santarosa (with black cherry), lately the sfogliacampanella  is dominating the shop windows, a bell-shaped sfogliatella, also called Vesuvius, containing a half baba inside, while some artisan bakery also try to offer alternative ingredients, such as pistachio or berries.

Because of its main ingredients – puff pastry and filling – the sfogliatella vaguely resembles some desserts typical of other countries, like the Turkish baklava and the French millefeuille, but its taste and aromas make it unique and special, to such an extent that a popular saying celebrates it like this: “Napule tre cose tene e belle: ‘o mare, ‘o Vesuvio e ‘e sfugliatelle”, namely, “Naples has three beautiful things: the sea, the Vesuvius and the sfogliatella”!


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Written by Lucia Golino

Lucia is a PhD student in “Euro(pean) Languages and Specialized Terminologies” at “Parthenope” University of Naples (Italy).