La Dolce Vita

“A person eating must make crumbs,” goes an old Sicilian proverb. Local Italians make their crumbs in all sorts of shapes and sizes — including (thankfully) dessert.

Our local love for Italian desserts dates back to the turn of the 20th century when thousands of Sicilian immigrants arrived in Louisiana to escape the deteriorating economic conditions in their homeland.

Among the newcomers was Angelo Brocato, a pastry apprentice who first found work in the sugar cane fields of Donaldsonville. He eventually moved his wife and son to the bustling Little Palermo neighborhood in the Esplanade Avenue end of the French Quarter and opened an ice cream parlor, offering Italian sweet treats in the Sicilian tradition, such as Cassata cake filled with ricotta cheese and iced with marzipan and torta della nonna, lemon-filled “grandmother” cake.

Brocato’s grandson, Arthur, still owns and operates Angelo Brocato’s Ice Cream and Confectionery, today located in Mid-City. The 64-year-old Brocato says if he had to pick one Italian dessert that’s central to his grandfather’s legacy — it’s the cannoli.

“When you think about cannoli, it’s kind of a catch-all that’s centered around family celebrations — Christmas, New Year’s, St. Joseph’s Day, weddings, baptisms — even Mardi Gras,” he said. “It’s what you take home for Sunday dinner.”

Cannoli is made up of two parts — the shell and the filling. Making the shell involves mixing the dough, rolling out round or oval pieces and molding it around an aluminum cylinder, the modern version of a piece of sugar cane or bamboo. And if the cannoli shell is the body, surely the filling is the soul. Basic cannoli filling starts with a first-rate ricotta cheese, and then the maker can opt to add a little flavor.

“My grandfather made half vanilla and half chocolate, I can’t tell you why,” Brocato said. “If a customer wants something different, of course we can do it, but otherwise we’ve always done one end vanilla and one end in chocolate.”

Others add candied citrus peel, cherries or rosewater, but today the variety of flavors are seemingly as numerous as the stars. Rouses sells its own cannoli in its bakery along with Brocato’s.

Brocato says he’s seen a surge in demand for Italian dessert, especially from younger people who tend to travel a lot today. “The intimate atmosphere of the smaller bakeries and restaurants interests them, and we are starting to see that peak again,” he said.

Italian cookies, called biscotti, also are popular today. Made to eat with wine or with coffee, most don’t contain lot of shortening. Butter did not exist in Sicily early on, so traditional biscotti are often made with lard. And they are twice baked so the texture is dry and good for dipping.

And speaking of coffee and dipping, the tiramisu is another Italian favorite. Coffee and cocoa-flavored, it’s made of lady’s fingers (dry, sweet biscotti shaped like a large finger) dipped in coffee layered with eggs, sugar and mascarpone cheese. Rouses’ version is a classic recipe.

Here Comes the Sun

Back before the days of refrigeration, Sicilians only made cannoli and other cheese or cream-based delicacies in the colder months. During the hot summers they switched to gelato, the Italian word for ice cream.

“Easter Sunday was the only day you had both,” Brocato said. “It was the last day of cannoli and fig cookies, and then in the summer it was just gelato.”

Made with milk, not cream, gelatos are more dense than American ice cream, and the flavors more intense. Containing a much lower percentage of butterfat than ice cream, they are served at a higher temperature. Like their cannoli cousins, they come in all sorts of flavors.

Silvia Bertolazzi calls herself an ambassador for gelato. Her Carpe Diem! Gelato-Espresso Bar in downtown Lafayette has become a well-known source for authentic Italian gelato, and her expertise in crafting the dessert was recently featured on NBC’s Today Show.

Italian ices, another summer favorite, contain no fat at all. Called granita in Italy, ices are made from fresh fruit, sugar and water. Remind you of the New Orleans snowball? Not surprising!

Shaved ice snowballs originated in New Orleans in the 1900s. New immigrants to the city mixed hand-shaved ice with syrup and served it from carts. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, two different entrepreneurs developed ice-shaving machines that simplified the snowball-making process. George Ortolano, the son of Sicilian immigrants, invented the SnoWizard around the same time that Ernest Hansen created the Sno-Bliz. Both machines are still in use today, and both families are still operating stands.