Long before Piemonte Biscotti was born in this century, Bar-Pasticceria Piemonte served coffee, pastries, ice cream and sorbet to the inhabitants of a small town in the hills of the Province of Enna, Sicily, for more than half of the last. The business, founded in 1934 by my grandparents, sold simple sweets and ice cream cones, created by my grandmother and her daughter, my father's sister, in a small room that was part of the family home and carpentry workshop.
Destroyed during the Allied bombing in 1943, the home and business were relocated after World War II to a single structure on the village's main square, just steps from the church where my parents were married a few years later. My father, the eldest and a carpenter by trade, his sister, and two brothers worked to grow the business, adding a movie theater, which later became a hall for weddings, baptism celebrations, and carnival festivities, still observed in the village today.
My parents and older sister left Sicily not long after the war, settling in upstate New York, where my father established himself as a builder and my mother as a factory seamstress. In Sicily, my aunt and uncles continued to innovate and improvise for the caffè, adding more elaborate sweets, flavored ices, and a "tavola calda" ("hot table"), that served savory snacks like small pizzas, stuffed cheese pies, and traditional Sicilian arancini (filled rice balls).
With seating spilling onto the main piazza, the caffè patrons could sip espresso, enjoy a pastry, and chat with friends and neighbors passing by during their evening stroll. In America, where houses were connected by car rides and work dominated the daily schedule, my family mimicked this cherished ritual on weekend evenings in our home, with friends dropping by for camaraderie over coffee and the ever-present dolci – cookies, cookies, cannoli, or fried sugared dough – that my mother prepared.
One of my earliest childhood memories – from a summer visit to my parents' village when I was just three – is of the smell of coffee and lemon ice, or granita, which drifted from the caffè to the family living quarters above. Later, when my uncles visited us for extended stays, I watched and learned whenever a baking lesson spontaneously occurred. My mother would mix and measure, but my father was never far, tasting for authenticity or sawing someone's broom into segments to shape the shells for cannoli.
Years later, when I returned to Italy as a student, I visited my relatives in Sicily often, and along the way developed an insatiable addiction to the heavenly perfume of warm brioche rising from the bakery kitchen in the early morning hours, and shared the singular, memorable experience of breaking open a fruit-and-nut -studded panettone and a bottle of port with my weary uncle one starry midnight--our caffè dinner alfresco after an especially busy workday. Soon, cantuccini, simple almond biscotti, that were everywhere in Tuscany, joined my list of favorites, and my habit of scribbling travel recipe notes began.
I have had many culinary mentors, but it was my mother, whose expert domesticity, sharp tongue, and high expectations in all things, led me to experiment in the kitchen early on, at first out of a determination to please, but eventually out of a desire to preserve the tradition and rekindle the joy of sharing good food in company that was so much a part of the village life left behind. Piemonte Biscotti begins in this century with biscotti because they are delicious, portable, and have a long shelf-life. In short, they are easy to share in numbers and to preserve. But who knows where the coming decades will lead us?
It is to my mother, whose memory has now faded, and to my father, uncles, and aunts, now gone, and to the many, many friends and family members who have joined our table that I dedicate my baking. Without them and the countless times I have prepared an espresso or a plate of pastries to serve or gift, there would be no Piemonte Biscotti.
"Take a plate," my mother often said. "You make friends." We hope you will, too.
Francesca Piemonte Slesinger