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The New York Times

A Cake with a Rich History (and a History of Being Rich)

April 11, 1990

LEAD: THE artistry of Sicilian pasticcieri, or pastry chefs, is renowned throughout Italy. But it is at Easter, when they create the queen of Sicilian desserts, cassata siciliana, that the full extent of their virtuosity is apparent.

THE artistry of Sicilian pasticcieri, or pastry chefs, is renowned throughout Italy. But it is at Easter, when they create the queen of Sicilian desserts, cassata siciliana, that the full extent of their virtuosity is apparent.

Ringed with marzipan, topped with shimmery icing, adorned with glaceed fruit and filled with citron- and chocolate-studded ricotta cream between two layers of sponge cake, the cassata siciliana is an elaborate dessert that tests the skills of the finest confectioner. Neither a torte nor a cheesecake, a cassata is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. At its best it is elegant, not gaudy; undeniably sweet, but not cloying.

”Like a turkey is to Thanksgiving, a cassata is to Easter,” said Gina Sciortino, an office manager in Brooklyn who grew up in Sicily. ”But you can’t eat too much of it: a small slice is plenty.” Italian pastry shops in the United States have been making cassatas as long as Sicilians have been crossing the Atlantic, yet this confection remains widely unknown. For one thing, not all bakeries make cassatas. And those that do usually only do so to order. Thus these dazzling cakes are rarely on display.

Although the history of the cassata siciliana goes back a millennium to the Arab domination of Sicily, there is no evidence regarding its adoption as an Easter treat. Perhaps it was cloistered nuns, who had a virtual monopoly on the production of cassatas during the 16th century, who felt that the ideal way to break the Lenten fast was with a concoction that trumpeted indulgence.

With its pastel dressing, the cassata reflects the Sicilian penchant for intricate decoration. It also mirrors the island’s historic mosaic, and its episodes of Roman, Arab, Norman, French and Spanish invaders.

The marzipan – called pasta reale, or royal dough, in Sicily – is a gift of the Arabs, as are the icing and candied fruit. The Arabs introduced sugar cane in Sicily and Spain, where sponge cake, another cassata component, is believed to have originated.

Whereas custard and whipped cream are often used in desserts in other parts of Italy, in Sicily the predominant pastry filling is made with ricotta. Carlo Middione, chef and owner of Vivande in San Francisco, said this is probably because a ricotta-based cream does not require any cooking.

”Once the ricotta was made, it could be made into a dessert by just adding sugar and lemon rind,” he said.

Made by recooking whey, ricotta was first made by the Arabs in Sicily, said Clifford Wright, a writer and historian in Cambridge, Mass. The original cassatas, he said, were probably made in large flat pans. The shape changed during the French occupation, becoming highly decorative. The Spanish probably contributed chocolate, a New World ingredient, to the ricotta cream.

There is some controversy over what constitutes an authentic cassata. This is compounded by the fact that there are two other types besides the classic cassata siciliana: cassata al forno, made with ricotta baked in pastry crust, and cassata gelata, an ice-cream cake. Bakers who fill standard layer cakes with ricotta cream and call the result a cassata further confuse the matter.

Purists argue that the cassata siciliana must be round, with sloping sides usually no more than three inches high. It should be more ricotta cream than actual cake. But Mr. Middione said the cassata should be loaf-shaped and topped with chocolate icing. He makes this version at his restaurant.

When it comes to traditional cassatas, the main bone of contention is the presence of marzipan. Traditionalists insist that the cake be surrounded by a green band of marzipan; the opposing camp believes the marzipan makes the cassata too sweet.

Dennis Canciello, head pastry chef of Ferrara Pastry Shop in Manhattan, said the marzipan version has not been popular in the United States in the last 25 years. ”Most of the old Italians are gone,” he said, ”and the Americans found it too sweet.”

The background of a particular pastry shop’s owners also affects the style of cassata made. ”We are a traditional Neapolitan pastry shop,” said Paolo Palombo, owner of Egidio Pastry Shop in the Bronx, ”and Naples is not very big on pasta reale. If somebody does not specify, we don’t make it with pasta reale. It’s too rich.”

Salvatore Borgognone, a third-generation pasticciere in Staten Island, said the secret to a good cassata is the quality of the ricotta. Most commercial varieties, he said, are too watery to create the proper texture.

But because the cake is so rich, refrain from overindulging. ”Serve just a sliver of it with a cup of black coffee,” he said. ”It’s a classy dessert, a luxury.”

Where to Buy a Cassata Siciliana

Alba Pastry Shop, 7001 18th Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-232-2122. Without marzipan, $14.95 (serves 10) to $45 (serves 30).

Alta Pastry Shop, 2063 62d Street, Brooklyn, 718-837-4244. Without marzipan, $17 (serves 17) to $45 (serves about 35); add $5 for marzipan.

Angelo Royal Pastry Shop, 2482 86th Street, Brooklyn, 718-372-3866. With or without marzipan, $5 a pound.

Artuso Pastry Shop, 672 East 187th Street, Bronx, 212-367-2515. Without marzipan, prices start at $15 (serves 10 to 12).

DeLillo Pastry Shop, 606 East 187th Street, Bronx, 212-367-8198. With or without marzipan, $19 (serves 10) to $38 (serves 25).

Egidio Pastry Shop, 622 East 187th Street, Bronx, 212-295-6077. Without marzipan, $19.95 (serves 12) to $24.95 (serves 25).

Etna Pastry Shop, 715 Broadway, Bayonne, N.J., 201-858-9523. Without marzipan, $17 (serves 17) to $45 (serves about 35); add $5 for marzipan.

Ferrara Pastry Shop, 195 Grand Street, Manhattan, 212-226-6150. Without marzipan, $16 (serves 15) to $125 (serves 100).

Gino’s Pastry Shop, 580 East 187th Street, Bronx, 212-584-3558. Without marzipan, $12 (serves 10) to $28 (serves 25).

Rimini Bakery, 6822 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn, 718-236-0644. With or without marzipan, $17 (serves 12) to $27 (serves 20).

Ruggieri Pastry Shop, 2373 Prospect Avenue, Bronx, 212-367-5737. Without marzipan, $16 (serves 10).

Veniero’s Pastry Shop, 342 East 11th Street, Manhattan, 212-674-7264. Without marzipan, $17 (serves 17) to $35 (serves 25); add $5 for marzipan.

Villabate Pastry Shop, 7117 18th Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-331-8430. With marzipan, $17 (serves 10) to $39 (serves 30).

Villa Bella Bakery, 2278 86th Street, Brooklyn, 718-449-3384. With marzipan, $5 a pound.