To live a dolce vita means living with an open heart and soul, indulging in life with all your senses. It means having the eyes to see real beauty, having the nose to smell intoxicating scents, having the ears to hear dreamy sounds, having the mouth to taste delicate flavors, having the body to perceive soft sensations. It means being aware of yourself, of your emotions and desires. It means finding happiness in ordinary yet unique things.
There is a place where you can learn all this. A place scented with saffron where you can find a natural paradise among houses with flaked paint, where famous artists play on the streets, where men have not forgotten how to pay compliments, and where women seductively swing their hips. It is a place where people take the art of dolce vita to perfection. Where you can enjoy little pleasures, live every day as if it was your first and last, breath in the air of true freedom and be whatever and whoever you want to be. In this place, where the real Italian heart is still beating, where people are delightfully vain as well as childishly honest, and where passion is more than just a word, you realize that living the sweet life is not as hard as it may seem.
Let’s wander together for a while along Milanese boulevards and the narrow winding streets of the surrounding villages. Let’s go on a journey that will take us to the atelier of untameable Carla, to the sweet heaven of irresistible Antonietta, among the peculiar characters of bohemian Brera, to the silk workshop of Maria Elena, to see Fernanda’s disobedient genius, to the famous La Scala with Francesco and Giovanna, and to the cradle of Milanese high fashion by madam Mila. Then to the hills that once belonged to pirates and today are owned by lovers. On to misty paths haunted by ghosts and then to secret corners that witnessed passionate stories of love, desire, and heartbreak.
Let’s meet the delicious Milanese women, amazing and unique, whose lives have been irreversibly changed by Milan and who have also changed the face and character of Milan forever. Women whose fate has become entwined with the city’s present and past, with its everyday life, and its transformation throughout history. We can also meet the men who have succumbed to the temptation of sultry hips and mysterious voices in the dark. Who, insane from luscious lips and inspired by irresistible legs, have marked the world with their presence and made it a deliciously bittersweet place to be.
Let’s simply uncover all the sweet, passionate, and dark Milanese secrets that have up to now remained unrevealed. The chique secrets that will teach you to live your own dolce vita no matter where in the world you are. Because la vita e bella, life is beautiful, and the most amazing wonders of this world often hide in the simplest things.
If we were to attribute human traits to a city, Milan has a refined spirit, ingenious brain, sensual body, elegant walk, and a sweet soul, maybe the sweetest of all Italian cities. Nowhere else will you find so many cafés, patisseries, and bakeries smelling of vanilla than here. All the sweet traditions of sweet-toothed Italy have met on this Milanese crossroad to show off the best that has been pleasing the soul and tongue of Italians for centuries.
Pasticceria Da Antonietta, or Antonietta’s confectionary, in Via Fontanelli, is a sweet-smelling corner of Southern Italy where the sweet charms of Napels and Palermo have been welded for twenty years. That’s where confectioner Antonietta’s parents came from many years ago to look for work. Antonietta grew up surrounded by traditional southern delicacies enriched with ingredients proven over generations that could not miss on Fiduccis’ table at any family lunch or dinner. She studied the intricate alchemy of icings, creams, and fragile dough, she baked, fried, candied, and filled, until rumor of her exceptional art spread all over Milan.
Antonietta started to create sweet surprises for family celebrations, weddings, and various holidays; her sweet hands were as skilful as the hands of reputable confectioners in restaurants of famous names, maybe even more so, and her creations were even more delicious because she made them with the authentic Neapolitan passion.
When Antonietta was twenty-one years old, her heart got broken by seductive, bewitching Francesco, for whom she had been making his favorite profiterole, fluffy cream puffs with a scrumptious filling, for two years. Antonietta found out that Francesco exchanged her sweet love for a daughter of a Milanese councilman, who did not know how to make profiterole but had a fat dowry from her daddy. When Antonietta recovered from Francesco’s betrayal, she decided she would never again dedicate her sweet art only to one man. She opened Pasticceria Da Antonietta, which soon became a far-famed place and a favorite destination of all the Milanese with a sweet tooth.
Today, Antonietta is forty-one but you would say she is at least ten years younger. Her raven-black hair smells of cinnamon, and her Palermo curves that she had inherited from her Sicilian mother drive young Felipe from next door insane, as well as decent seventy-something Mariano from the opposite house. Although she could have made a much bigger business out of her confectionary a long time ago, she still keeps her small store on the corner and makes all the pastry with her own hands. And although her patisserie is full of delicacies from the whole of Italy and even from neighboring France, most clients come back mostly for the irresistible Neapolitan sfogliatelle, pastiere, and the Sicilian cassata. This is the pastry of Antonietta’s childhood, the treasure of the Fiducci family, and Antonietta’s big love. Its baking runs in her blood and she has taken it to complete and unbeatable perfection. And what’s more, over a cup of mint tea, she will tell you its history because Antonietta knows absolutely everything about the sweet love of her heart.
Sfogliatelle are fluffy sweet rolls from Napels, first created by monks from a certain Neapolitan monastery. For many years, the recipe was a secret domain of the monks, simply because only those within the monastery walls had enough time to bake the laborious sfogliatelle. Sfogliatelle are made of fragile dough that is rolled to create several layers, cut into pieces and then filled with orange ricotta or almond paste. The main ingredient is candied lemon peel, giving sfogliatelle their typical scent. Antonietta has her huge lemons delivered directly from the Amalfi coast where they ripen under the Neapolitan sun and are saturated with sea breeze.
Pastiera is a dessert of many aromas, whose origin goes back to the pagan celebrations of the spring. In the middle ages it was rediscovered by a Neapolitan nun who, led by purely spiritual intentions, created this divine yet sinfully profane temptation. This woman of God wanted to prepare an exceptional dessert that would celebrate Christ’s resurrection and smell like orange trees in the convent garden. She mixed flour with home-made ricotta, added eggs as the symbol of a new life, water smelling of infused orange blossoms, the convent’s very own cider, and a combination of oriental spices that gave a spark of pagan sensuality to her devout doings.
The Sicilian cassata was brought to Italy in the ninth century by Arabs, who ruled Sicily for three hundred years. After they left, nuns of Palermo convents took the cassata to perfection, and thanks to them, the cassata of today harmoniously combines the spicy sweetness of Arabic pastries and fruity
flavors of Sicily. This colorful dessert proves that convents were not just a place of asceticism and spiritual contemplation and that they also witnessed completely unspiritual epicurean pleasure. The Palermo cassata is made of a light sponge biscuit that nuns soaked in chaste-fruit juice, which Antonietta replaced with a totally unchaste liqueur that she invented herself. Slices of the sponge biscuit are then pasted together by layers of ricotta and vanilla or chocolate cream. This base is then poured over with a marzipan icing and on top of that, pink and green sugar icings create colorful stripes on the white marzipan. Finally, the cake is decorated with deep-red Sicilian cherries and juicy citruses. What is there left to say? Maybe only Antonietta’s loving words dedicated to cassata: “Just as well the nuns of Palermo didn’t keep this sweet secret to themselves.”
Whether you decide to savor mint tea and Neapolitan pastries in Antonietta’s sweet-smelling paradise or in any of the countless Milanese pasticcerias, you won’t regret it. Milan literally lures you to lose yourself in the delicious delights the city offers wherever you go. Italian’s sweet life is really sweet, and in Milan, maybe twice as much.
– Excerpt from Chique Secrets of Dolce Vita by Barbara Conelli
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