We first met Nino Berizia at Gambino Vineyard where he was delivering his pastries and visiting with owner Francesco Raciti. Francesco wanted us to taste Nino’s hazelnut paste cookies and joked that he survived on at least six cookies a day – and a little wine, of course. It was our 21st wedding anniversary the next day and Nino graciously invited us to come to his pasticceria for breakfast in the morning. When we arrived the next day we sat with a coffee and cornetto as Nino told us the story of his family business. At that point our Italian was even worse than it is now, so Nino called his friend Mario who came right over to enjoy a coffee with us and translate.
One of the first things you notice about Nino is the tremendous care he takes with everything he does. I don’t think he even knows what a “short cut” is. From the traditional way he learned his craft, to the high quality ingredients he uses, to the attention that he gives every step in his process – this is a man who clearly honors the knowledge that has been passed down to him. There is also a wonderful sense of family when you visit L’Alhambra Pasticceria. Along with his wife Rosaria, his brother Salvatore and his son and daughter, you’ll often you’ll find Nino’s little grand-daughter Carlotta in his arms, watching him work, or maybe “tasting” his work.
Watching Nino make pastries is like watching a master sculptor create a piece of art. He moves so smoothly and quickly it looks easy, but shaping almond and hazelnut paste into hundreds of uniquely different, perfectly formed cookies every day takes tremendous patience and countless years of practice. Nino explains that when his father-in-law Mariano Barone taught him how to make traditional Sicilian pastries, he would stand on the other side of the stainless steel table and just watch him work…for two years. And I don’t think he’s kidding. The art of Sicilian pastry making is serious business.
After studying with a master pastry chef in Ionia, Sicily (now Giarre and Riposto), Mariano Barone and his seven brothers started L’Alhambra Pasticceria in Linguaglossa in 1939. Mariano had one daughter, Rosaria, and she and her husband Nino ultimately took over L’Alhambra, along with Nino’s brother Salvatore. Nino says his father-in-law Mariano had a certain philosophy about life and work. He told Nino,
“Before you leave this earth, it’s important to contribute something new. Something you can leave behind for people to appreciate and enjoy.”
For L’Alhambra Pasticceria, that something was the hazelnut pastry. Sicily, and the Mount Etna region, has an abundance of almond, pistachio and hazelnut trees, but it is especially known for traditional almond pastries. They were the first in Sicily to use hazelnuts, instead of almonds, as a base for their traditional paste cookies.
At L’Alhambra everything they produce (cookies, cakes, tortes, marzipan, torrone, gelato, and granite) is made with traditional methods and 100% natural ingredients, right down to the extracts. On one of the days we visited L’Alhambra, Nino had just returned from picking lemons at Mario’s property and Salvatore explained how they soaked the lemon peels in alcohol to make the extracts by hand. When you look closely at their beautiful marzipan treats perfectly formed into miniature figs, apricots, strawberries, tomatoes, even mushrooms; it becomes clear that every little fruit and vegetable is unique. Part of what makes each one look so real are the tiny hand painted imperfections, like a few delicate brown dots on a ripe peach. The fruits look so real you imagine they’ve been picked off of a miniature tree from the land of Lilliput in Gulliver‘ Travels. Even in Sicily, this is what sets Nino’s pastries apart. He touches every single piece with his own hands.
Nino once had an offer from a large hotel in the United States to buy his cookies in bulk. The hotel wanted to use them as gifts in the guest rooms and despite the financial opportunity, Nino turned them down. Because he uses no preservatives, the cookies must be eaten within one week in order to maintain their fresh, light, moist taste and texture. Since he knew the cookies would have to be shipped, trucked and end up sitting on a shelf too long, Nino worried people wouldn’t have the same experience or enjoyment of the cookies. After all that care and attention to detail he puts into his pastries, what would be the point?
Nino and Salvatore gave us a demonstration of several different kinds of traditional paste cookies and when you watch the whole process you understand why they taste so delicate and delicious. They start with whole, fresh local almonds or hazelnuts and par-boil them to help remove the skins. One small machine removes the skins and another grinds the nuts into a paste. After twelve times though the grinder, with sugar added part way through, Nino brings the batter to his work table and adds an extract. He kneads the batter by hand to blend the flavors evenly into the paste and then begins to work his magic. His hands move in a rapid blur as he expertly crafts each type of cookie into a traditional shape which identifies it as lemon, orange, pistachio, almond or chocolate.
As the cookies bake, the room fills with an intoxicating, sweet aroma of hazelnuts. I could try to describe the taste and texture of L’Alhambra’s hazelnut paste cookies, but I could never do it justice. Since eating them fresh is a requirement (and you won’t find them anywhere else) you’ll just have to come to Linguaglossa to taste them. Wherever in the world you live, I can promise you it’s worth the trip.
Bar Pasticceria L’Alhambra • Via Guglielmo Marconi, 62, 95015 Linguaglossa CT • 095 643156