La Dolce Vita Rich and sweet, Italy's desserts seduce the palate

June 14, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Anyone who has spent any time in Italy has discovered this great truth: Italians really know how to live. Perhaps it's because they've been practicing civilization for so long, or perhaps no culture could fail to thrive in the splendid Mediterranean climate.

"It is easy to fall under the spell of Italy," writes London-based cooking teacher and cookbook author Claudia Roden. Everyone can "be irresistibly charmed by a country so full of natural beauty, art, music and tradition; by a quality of life that warms the heart and by food that is simple and unaffected but full of rich flavors and delightful touches."

Even in the smallest hill town or valley village, even in settings as ancient and eerily precarious as Venice or as ancient and inherently stately as Rome, even amid the hustle and bustle of a modern and forward-looking city such as Milan, good food, good wine, great flowers, pleasant settings and fine opportunities to sit and share a snack or meal abound.

As do plenty of opportunities to savor a sweet, after a meal or at a sidewalk cafe with cappuccino. Because most Italian desserts are light and many are cool or frozen, they're especially suited to summer.

One of the more famous proponents of Italian regional cooking is Lorenza de'Medici, descended from arguably the most famous culinary family in Western culture: Her ancestor, Catherine de'Medici, is credited with teaching the French to cook after her marriage in 1533 to the duc d'Orleans, second son of King Francis I of France. Today's Ms. de'Medici favors simple, mostly fruit-based desserts and simple, baked specialties. The "Italy the Beautiful Cookbook," with recipes by today's Ms. de'Medici and text by Patrizia Passigli, has this to say about "i dolci":

"There is a saying that the dessert is the poetry of cooking, the lyrical point in any meal. Certainly it creates high expectations. . . . There are a large number of traditional sweets and cakes, with an infinite number of local variations. . . . The ingredients are few, and they are repeated from north to south -- flour, milk, sugar, honey, almonds, chestnuts -- all basic country ingredients, which testify to a widespread agricultural economy and recall the cuisine of the ancient Romans, although adjustments have been made over the centuries."

It's true that most family meals in Italy end with a simple fruit dish; sometimes the fruit is poached in wine or syrup and served with cream or the custard-like zabaglione.

"There are few more satisfying or civilized ways to conclude a fine meal than with fresh ripe fruit and cheese," Ms. de'Medici notes in a later book, "The Heritage of Italian Cooking." "Italians appreciate their bounty of good fruit and have, over the centuries, devised numerous wonderfully simple ways of using it to cleanse the palate and stimulate digeestive juices after the daily meal."

But for guests, for special occasions and when eating out,

Italians have a vast repertoire of treats.

Americans who are used to the usual fare in American-Italian restaurants might be astonished by variety and range of sweets.

Another noted Italian cooking teacher, author and chef Guiliano Bugialli, says in "The Fine Art of Italian Cooking," "Italian desserts run the gamut of complicated pastries; creams and custards; sweet breads and schiacciate; nut biscuits; specialties with chestnuts and chestnut flavor; crespelle [crepes]; rice desserts; fruit fried in batter; budini [most using the principle that the French called 'souffle' when they adopted it]; meringues; fruit in pastry drums; stuffed fruit; special seasonal fruits, such as fragoline di bosco [wild strawberries] adorned simply with wine or whipped cream."

"The famous, seductive Italian desserts are usually reserved for special occasions," Ms. de'Medici says in "The Heritage of Italian Cooking." "But, as the calendar is gratifyingly replete with religious feast days and Italians love to celebrate with exuberant meals, the national heritage of desserts has remained thankfully intact."

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