A pastry from Campania, between lemons and sighs
The arrival of the summer provides the perfect occasion to talk about a dessert that, due to its origins and freshness, reminds you of the summer months. Although the delizia al limone – literally “lemon delight” – does not boast such an ancient and complex history as that of the Neapolitan babà and pastiera, it has quickly become one of the most typical and loved pastries of the Campania region cuisine. More precisely, the delizia al limone originates in the area of two famous Southern Italian coasts – the Amalfi and the Sorrento coasts. These are lands full of colours, smells and flavours that can be found in this small dome-shaped sponge cake.
The name of this dessert is very simple – although the same cannot be said of its laborious preparation – and evocative: the term delizia (delight) indicates a “feeling of very great pleasure” (Collins Dictionary) that can refer to all the senses – just think of the expression “a delight for the eyes and the palate”. The lemon, on the other hand, is the undisputed but delicate protagonist of the delizia al limone, “because it is the lemon aroma that is dominant without imposing itself”, as Machado and Prete point out. How could it be otherwise, given the fame of the juicy lemons from the Amalfi and Sorrento coasts?
The delizia al limone was invented in 1978 by the pastry chef Carmine Marzuillo who worked in the prestigious hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento (other sources, however, state that Marzuillo presented it for a culinary competition held in Formia) and, since then, his workshop in Viale Nizza has hosted important pastry chefs interested in discovering the secrets of the preparation of a pastry that has become the symbol of Sorrento all over the world. In addition, it seems that its success has greatly influenced the local economy, because lemons – being previously used only as a disinfectant or seasoning – began to be grown in Sorrento for the production of limoncello or precisely for the delizia al limone.
Regarded as one of the cakes par excellence for weddings, and in general for festive occasions, for its taste and shape the delizia al limone comes as a sponge cake – or a small dessert – topped with a white icing, soaked with a limoncello-based syrup, covered and filled with cream made of milk, flour, egg yolk, sugar, whipping cream and, obviously, lemon.
Furthermore, it is noticeable that the preparation of the delizia al limone crosses over with that of another Southern confectionery specialty, the sospiro (“sigh”), which is a soft and round sponge cake stuffed with cream. The sospiro is originally from the city of Bisceglie, in Apulia, but there are numerous variations even in Southern Italy. According to a legend, the recipe has been circulating since the fifteenth century, when the poor Clare nuns made the so-called sospiretti delle monache (“nuns’ little sighs”). They were also prepared for the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia, the much-discussed noblewoman of the Italian Renaissance, with a certain Count of Conversano. While they were waiting for the bride, who never arrived, the guests ate and sighed over these small cakes. Another legend says that a young lover invented the sospiri by reproducing the breasts of his beloved: in this case, the shape recalls the round female breast that caused the men’s sighs. The original recipe included the addition of a drop of rosolio, the rose liqueur, nowadays replaced with lemon to give freshness. This brings us back to our delizia al limone: a single portion of this pastry also has the shape of a breast, on which a caramelized lemon or a small strawberry is placed on top in addition to a tuft of whipped cream.
The delizia al limone, which can now be found in all the pastry shops in the Campania region in different sizes, has been personalised by great chefs. Among these, the famous Sal di Riso stands out: for his delizia al limone, he has chosen precisely the famous, sweet and aromatic lemons from Amalfi.
Amparo M., Prete C. (2015). 1001 specialità della cucina italiana da provare almeno una volta nella vita. Newton Compton Editori, Roma.
Costantino R. (2013). Southern Italian Desserts. Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily. Random, New York.
Collins Dictionary. Online edition, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/it/dizionario/inglese/delight.
Comune di Bisceglie. Il sospiro, https://www.comune.bisceglie.bt.it/pagine/il-sospiro.
Fontana T. (2011). Il sospiro, http://www.centrostudibiscegliese.it/foto.php?id=10284.
Gran Caffè Gambrinus, Lemon delight: refined sweetness, https://grancaffegambrinus.com/en/lemon-delight-refined-sweetness/.
Regione Campania, http://agricoltura.regione.campania.it/tipici/tradizionali/delizia-limone.htm
Treccani. Online edition, http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/delizia/.
Written by Nicla Mercurio, PhD student in “European Languages and Specialized Terminology” at the University of Naples “Parthenope” (Italy).