Half the fun of visiting Italian neighborhoods is in asking locals about their favorite pizzeria and bakery. This is not an easy answer. Trust me. Their response is specific and passionate. Who makes the best pizza? Well, you need to rephrase that by asking who makes the best pizza sauce, cheesiest pizza, best thick crust, thin crust, best pizza to fold in half and eat in one hand….and the list goes on. Italian bakeries are no different. As a matter of fact, their bragging rights are even more specific because they relate to the baked goods they produce. Best bread, best cannoli, best sfogliatelle, best cassata cake, best rainbow bars and of course, who makes the best pignoli cookies. What makes them the best? Are they crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside and filled with almond paste to die for? Then let’s talk about the nuts. Are they sweet, toasted and above all, covering every space on top of the cookie? Do you get them plain or with confectioners’ sugar on top? “Oh yes please” or “No way, it ruins the presentation and taste of the nuts.” The options are endless and the opinions are firm usually ending in “everyone knows they make the best”.
Astoria, New York City had great bakeries on every block from 30th Street to 37th Street where I went to school at Most Precious Blood. This did not even cover the other avenues let alone Steinway Street or Ditmars Blvd where La Guli Pastry Shop reigned Italian supreme but Ditmars is another blog dedicated to the love of good Greek streetfood.
Caiazzo’s Bakery was located on Broadway between 33rd and 34th Streets, just 2 short blocks from my home. My mother entrusted me with the important task of going to Caiazzo’s to buy my father’s sesame seeded Italian cookies. I know they were made fresh that day because I was blown away by the strong aroma when I stepped in the store. Caiazzo’s was known for their Italian loaves, focaccia and pizza bread, sesame cookies and pignoli cookies. I gave the owner, a little Italian lady dressed in black and sitting on the stool next to the register my money. She carefully weighed the brown bags and smiled as I left with a bag of Dad’s sesame faves but not without a little bag of (Oh Yes!) Pignoli cookies for myself. They had a delicious chewy almond paste on the inside, a crisp golden bakery crust on the outside and an abundance of sweet little pine nuts all lover the cookie. Who could want anything else?
I’ve read recipes and baked Pignoli cookies over the years. Some were pretty decent but nothing compared to the memorable taste of this iconic neighborhood bakery. It seems like a cookie of this character would appeal to adults but this little Italian girl and her cookie loving pals enjoyed the entire experience of eating them and that is exactly what it was – an experience. In the same spirit that Oreo® lovers break apart the cookie so they can eat the white icing first, my friends and I knew that there is an exact way to eat Pignoli cookies. You had to first eat all of the pine nuts one by one. Then savor the chewy almond paste filling for last.
Caiazzo’s is gone but the popularity for pignoli cookies lives on. Go online and check out Ferrara’s in Little Italy, NY or visit your local bakeries and make your own decision on local bragging rights. For me, it’s DeRomo’s gourmet market, restaurant and bakery in Bonita Springs, Florida. The family is originally from the Bronx and it’s a little like going home.
DeRomo’s Pignoli Cookies. There were a little more than 7 in the box when we bought them.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Sicily, head to Trapani, Cefalu or Catania for some traditional Sicilian dolce. You will find these same cookies are made with pignoli nuts, hazlenuts and pistachios. Some are even enrobed in chocolate. They were a very close second if not just as good as Caiazzo’s but this came as no surprise since the Pignoli cookie is a traditional southern Italian dolce.
Check Out these Pignoli, Hazelnuts and Pistachio Sicilian Versions from Cefalu.
These Colorful Marzipan Fruits accompany the chocolate enrobed pignoli and almond cookies on the far right.
The Pasticceria was in Catania.
My advice is to give our French counterparts, the macarons a rest after years of hype and give Pignoli cookies a try. Then let the world know who makes the best in your neighborhood.