The year I spent studying in Florence is a blur of long nights in an old shared apartment in the center of town, walks along the narrow streets to the University building, the ice-cream cones from Vivoli and the double orders of pappa al pomodoro every time I sat down at the trattoria we used to call Unto (the Greasy one). Even then, the throngs of tourists cramming the cobbled streets and piazzas were a nuisance. Unlike Rome, Florence is rather small and it’s impossible to go about your everyday business without having to sidestep multitudes of Japanese, Americans, Germans and their umbrella-carrying tour guides. As beautiful as the city is, I never saw myself living amid that chaos.
The Tuscan countryside, first “colonized” by the British and then “renovated” by the Americans, can also get pretty busy during Spring and Summer – a day trip to Montepulciano or any of the hillside medieval “burgs” can leave you catatonic, after dealing with too many people in too small villages with not enough parking spaces. But, like everywhere else in Italy, not everything is on the tourist must-do lists, and peace and authenticity can still be found.
Fiesole is just such a place. In the Renaissance, the hillside town, built by the Romans, became a vacation spot, both for its proximity to the city, only 6 kilometres, and its serene views. Many Florentines live in Fiesole now and commute into town and those who live in town will head to Fiesole to enjoy a warm Spring day.
A few weeks ago, during a trip to Miami, I met a charming lady, Lolly, who, upon discovering my past as a pastry chef, happened to mention her husband was a pastry chef too. Digging further, it turned out her husband, Febo, is no ordinary pastry chef but runs a fabled and storied pasticceria in Fiesole, one of those you will not necessarily find in the incessant travel blogs and yelp reviews. The ratings I found online are strictly in Italian and the constant refrain is “the best pastry shop in the world”.
Intrigued by such praises, especially in a country where most patisserie is French derived, I dug a little bit more. Both Lolly and Febo obliged my pestering, she with some historical notes and he with some recipes.
Pasticceria Alcedo takes the name from its founder, Alcedo Falli, who started the bake shop at the turn of the last century and quickly established a name for itself and the high quality of its products. Silvano Ticci, aka Febo, in a slightly Dickensian twist, was “given” to the Falli family when he was 12, in 1955, and started apprenticing in the bake shop almost immediately. To this day, Febo still runs the shop and carries all the recipes in his head (he just started the process of writing them down and I am one of the first beneficiaries).
During World War II, the Pasticceria kept General Clark, stationed in the area, supplied with such amazing cakes that a framed thank you letter from the General still hangs on the walls of the small store. It must have been around that time that a British or American cook taught Alcedo how to make an original cheesecake, which is still produced to this day.
The Pasticceria’s specialties run from crowd pleasers like Sacher tortes, to more Tuscan and humble offerings like Schiacciata all’Uva (a sort of grape flatbread).
From what I read, customers are entranced by the chocolate and blackberry croissants and something called “gobbo” (hunchback). Febo sent me a recipe for a delicate Italian cookie (or something we would call a dessert bar), authentically Tuscan. I have never seen this anywhere else in Italy (although versions of it are to be found in the States) and I am passing this on to you with Febo’s permission. I had to substitute some of the ingredients because candied orange peels and cherries cannot be found in the US – I could have made them but I felt it would be unlikely any of you out there would go to such trouble (if you are interested, just e-mail me or leave a comment and I can reply privately).
Now I can’t wait for my next trip to Italy. In the meantime, if any of you happen to be in Florence in the near future, do yourself a favour and head to Fiesole. And bring back a large pastry box – I will be meeting you at the airport.
RECIPE – Yields one 9″x13″ pan
Ingredients for the sweet pastry:
270 g flour (2 1/4 C)
100 g sugar (1/2 C)
Pinch of salt
420 g butter (1 3/4 C), cold and cubed
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons of brandy
4 Tablespoons apricot jam
1. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (you can also do it by hand).
2. Add the butter and mix until the butter is reduced to small peas size.
3. Add the egg, yolk, vanilla extract and zest. Mix until combined. Add the brandy. If the dough is still too stiff (it should come together and not be crumbly), add a few tablespoons of cold water.
4. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for an hour.
5. Roll half of the dough fairly thin, on a lightly floured board (or between two sheets of parchment). Place it in the baking pan, prick it with a fork and bake it at 350F/180C for 15 minutes or until light golden. Let cool.
6. Dissolve the jam on low heat in a small saucepan and use a pastry brush to brush it over the dough. Set aside.
Ingredients for the caramel sauce:
75 g heavy cream
125 g sugar
125 g butter
75 g light tasting honey (acacia, orange etc)
30 g corn syrup
1. Place all the ingredients in a heavy (or non-reactive sauce pot) on medium high heat. Attach a candy thermometer (you want the tip of the thermometer to be in the center of the pot).
2. Cook until the temperature reaches 250F/120C (candy stage). It’s important to be accurate so the caramel is not too soft or too hard. This will take 10 to 15 minutes.
In the meantime, make the filling.
Ingredients for the filling:
250 g almonds ( 1 2/3 C) roughly chopped
100 g cranberries (2/3 C) – or candied orange peel if you can find it
100 g dried sour cherries (2/3 C) – or candied cherries if you can find them
75 g pistachios (1/2 C) roughly chopped
A few tablespoons of dark chocolate (optional)
1. Mix everything together. Once the caramel is ready, add the filling to it and stir to combine.
2. Pour the filling over the prepared dough and leave it to cool and set, about 1 hour.
3. If you wish, melt the chocolate and drizzle it over the florentine. Cut into squares. It will last for a few days in an airtight container (can also be frozen)
Via Gramsci, 39 50014 Fiesole
Province of Florence, Italy