One of Palermo’s lesser known jewels – the Pasticceria Cappello …

1 July, 2010

Tucked away in an unprepossessing side street (via Colonna Rotta, or the street of the broken column) near Palermo’s famed Norman Palace, you will find the Pasticceria Cappello.  It may be one of the city’s lesser known jewels, but a jewel it is nonetheless.  In Sicily, where sweet-making is an art form and everyone a connoisseur, the Pasticceria Cappello has become something of a legend.      

 Not only will you find perfect examples of all the traditional Sicilian sweets behind its shiny glass counters: cassata (which is not an ice cream, but a baroque looking cake made of sponge cake and ricotta and decorated with brightly coloured candied fruits), cannoli (which should be well-known to anyone who has watched Godfather III lately) and sfinge (a sort of doughnut filled with ricotta), you will also discover some wonderful new creations including the famous seven layer chocolate cake.  Sicily’s sweet making tradition is rich, and closely linked with the island’s colourful past, but here at the Pasticceria Cappello, in the hands of Salvatore Cappello, one of Italy’s master pastry chefs, it is very much alive and continuing to develop.      

 The Cappello family business began when Salvatore’s grandfather moved to Palermo from the nearby countrside and established a dairy in Colonna Rotta in the 1940’s.  After some years, the dairy evolved to become a proper bar, famous for its particular blend of coffee, its cappuccinos, and, in the summer months, its special home-made gelato.  In the 1970’s, at what proved to be an inspired suggestion of Salvatore’s uncle, a small pasticceria was established alongside the bar, making traditional Sicilian sweets like cassata, canolli, and sfinci (little pastry puffs).  For Salvatore, it was to be the beginning of a life-long passion.    In the 1980’s, he moved to Torino to learn from some of Italy’s master pastry chefs.  “There”, he says, “my horizons expanded.  Up till then, I had known only traditional Sicilian sweets.  In Torino, I was exposed to a whole range of new ideas and able to learn from some of Italy’s greatest confectioners”.   

 Salvatore admits to a true passion for chocolate in all its forms and insists on using only the highest quality in his creations.  He knows exactly what he wants and goes to great lengths to get it, travelling regularly to Central America and Madagascar, which is where all his chocolate now comes from.  But if chocolate is perhaps his greatest love, he is clearly in thrall to the whole world of the pasticceria and, with little provocation, will talk at length about its history and philosophy.  He sees the pasticceria as a place where free reign can be given to fantasy and the imagination –far removed from the hardships and economic restraints of daily life.  It  may be, he reflects, that  Sicily’s pasticceria is so rich, fanciful and exuberant simply because the hardships and economic restraints have, for many, been so severe.

 The origins of this rich pasticceria can be found in Sicily’s peasant life and in its convents.  Peasants were responsible for the development and production of many of the raw ingredients on which traditional products were based and the nuns in the convents, with their life of focus and contemplation, created confections of extraordinary intricacy and perfection.   The colourful marzipan fruits one sees almost everywhere in Palermo were, so the story goes, originally made by the nuns at the Martorana convent when they decided to decorate the convent fruit trees for the benefit of a visiting bishop.     

Although he is taking the Sicilian pasticceria to a new level, Salvatore still values highly the traditional products and ingredients.  He fears, though, that there is a risk that the excellent raw materials on which these products were based will be lost.    “Think of ricotta”, he says, “today you find it all year round, when only 15 – 20 years ago, it was made only from the end of October to April i.e. in the cooler months.  To meet the constant market demand, there is now a huge production and, as a result, the quality is drastically reduced.  Do you remember the penetrating, but smooth taste it had once?  Today it isn’t the same”.    

Pasticceria Cappello has recently opened a second shop in via Nicolo Garzilli, close to via Liberta’ in the more fashionable end of town.   In both shops, you will find the same array of irresistable delicacies – little chocolate cakes decorated with wild strawberries and black and red currants, tiny profiteroles, miniature jellies with piped cream and a wild strawberry on top, little glazed custard tarts topped with strawberries and kiwi fruit, almond semifreddo, cannoli, cassatta with its rich candied fruit decorations, and both chocolates and biscuits, including the lace-like marletti of pistacchio or almond, of various shapes and sizes – all beautifully displayed like precious jewels beneath a counter of brightly shining glass and chrome. 

Just to walk in lifts the spirit!  And if you would like a small souvenier to take away with you, an attractively packaged little square box, the size of a golf ball box, might be just the thing.  It contains a little bag of pistacchio nuts from Bronte, on the eastern side of the island, lightly glazed with a smooth white chocolate.

One Response to “One of Palermo’s lesser known jewels – the Pasticceria Cappello …”

  1. Antonio Says:

    They all sound delectable! I think I have passed Salvatore’s shop but did not explore the treasures within. He is obviously a true craftsman, going so far afield to source just the right ingredients. And I suspect there is some truth in the suggestion that, at least historically, such beautiful sweets appeal(ed) to the Sicilians as a foil to the harsh life some experience(d).

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