I received the email today at 12:32pm. I knew it was coming but I also knew I wasn’t going to like it. Even if I tried to look away, quickly delete or bury my head in the sand, I knew there was nothing I could do. The subject line read: “Pasticceria Natalina closing in one month…” and with a sigh of regret, I clicked it open knowing what I was about to read.
Ah, Pasticceria Natalina. The little jewel box of a pastry shop that I adore. Several years ago, I finally made my way to a little Sicilian bakery on Chicago’s Northside that I had been reading about for far too long. I had been meaning to go for quite some time but things don’t always happen as quickly as they should. On this particular day, I made a point of stopping. It was about damn time.
I found myself in a sunny if tiny shop with a few glass display cases and a clear view right into the small kitchen. A lovely slim woman, whom I would later learn was Natalie herself, greeted me warmly. I looked around at all the beautiful things, a little in awe. And then I spied them. Sfogliatelle. The pastry of my Italian dreams. I was about to fall in love.
I have a bit of an obsession with these difficult to pronounce beauties. Sfogliatelle are shell shaped pastries often filled with a sweet semolina filling and good versions are notoriously difficult to find. “Sfogliatelle” means “many leaves or layers” in some Italian dialect and the pastry’s texture resembles crisp leaves stacked upon each other. To make the distinctive shape, the dough is stretched very, very thinly on a long table, slathered in butter and/or lard, and then rolled into a tight log. Disks are cut from the end and the layers are slowly and deliberately stretched to form a cone shape that holds the filling. I liken it to a collapsible cup, some call it a clamshell. During baking, the edges crisp up to form the characteristic ridges.
Made properly, they’re really quite fantastic. Made improperly, they’re awful heavy gut bombs. And I have news for you … most of the sfogliatelle we eat in this country comes from one of two bakeries in Brooklyn. And they ain’t good. What they are is cheap and most local bakeries find this to be much easier than making them from scratch. True story.
I first discovered sfogliatelle while traveling in Southern Italy where I sought them out, again and again. When Gourmet ran a story about sfogliatelle in 2001, I marked the multi-page recipe. My opportunity came in culinary school where my Chef said he would give me a flat out “A” just for attempting them. They didn’t even have to be good – he was as curious as I. So, of course I made them and I took that “A”. How could I not? They were a TON of work and very good. But they could’ve been better.
Not long after, I had Natalie’s and my heart sang. I was instantly transported to that little bakery in Sorrento. Not only did she have the traditional semolina filling, there was another called the Aragosta or “lobster claw” that had the same shell but a ricotta filling, much like a cannoli. Now those, I really loved. They were delicious – and expensive – but I didn’t care. This woman had a gift and I was happy to pay for it. It was clear that she cared deeply about these pastries, taking great care to make everything from scratch, using traditional methods and authentic ingredients, many of them imported. This is something I can relate to, understand. Not everyone was so understanding. Or appreciative.
Natalie and her husband Nick have had a rough go of it in the last few years. Probably one too many people wandering in looking for $1.50 cupcake became too much. When people don’t “get” what you do, it can become frustrating.
Yes, their pastries were expensive. No question. Were they worth the high price tag? In my opinion, absolutely. I know of no one doing what they did and I was more than happy to pony up my meager dollars. Money well spent. Maybe I’m funny like that.
Over the years I read the unflattering press, saw the blog rants, heard the stories. Truth be told, I never saw it. Any of it. They were always nice and extremely generous to me. Are they quirky and unusual? Certainly, but get to know them and you’ll learn they’re funny, outrageous, passionate people. With talent comes a little bit of crazy sometimes. Maybe that’s why I like them so much. They’re my kind of folks.
So they’ve decided to pack it in and move on. Do some traveling. Experience life without the yoke of a small business holding them down. More power to them.
I get it. I feel for them. I’ll miss them terribly and regret I didn’t get to their shop more often. I’m enormously grateful that Natalie took the time one night to show Gale Gand and I how to shape sfogliatelle. It was a wonderful lesson. It gave me great joy to know someone was still making these pastries – not only sfogliatelle but also the aragosta, special Italian cookies and most especially the best damn cannoli I’ve ever had. But it leaves a little hole in my heart knowing that they’re moving on.
So everyone, last day is May 22nd and check the website for their schedule as they’re only making certain things on certain days and by reservation only. Last chance to get your fill. Sigh.
Maybe I can get that sfogliatelle recipe out of her before she leaves. And the cannoli. And quite a few other things I can only wish for. Oh crap.
I’ll miss you Natalie and Nick. Your beautiful and delicious pastries, sure, but also the blaring rap music that scares away the timid customers. Your perfect espressos. The funny bathroom paintings. And most especially the crazy wacky things that come out of your mouths that I never quite expect or know how to respond. In bocca al lupo, my friends. I wish you well.