The Not-Too-Sweet Life: Versatile Italian desserts are a delight to explore

The kitchen of La Dolce Via bakery and cafe in Forest Park Southeast looks a lot like mine in the middle of a pie-making project. Measuring cups and silver mixing bowls are stacked in tall, old-fashioned cabinets. Baked crusts sit ready for owner Marcia Sindel to fill.

Sindel is making a Strawberry Cake Roll. As we talk, she cuts strawberries with her eyes on me, as if it’s as routine as brushing one’s teeth. Strawberry Cake Roll is obviously not an Italian dessert, but Sindel treats it like one. “I like the style of Italian desserts, which punch you in the face with flavor,” Sindel said. “I approach everything like the Italians do, with as little sugar as possible and as much flavor as I can add.”

Though she’s not Italian, Sindel can “Italianize” just about any recipe. For example, if she has a lemon meringue pie recipe that that calls for four lemons and a lot of sugar, she’ll use eight lemons and cut the sugar in half.

Like Sindel, some bakers and chefs take a basic element or ingredient of Italian desserts and add modern or Americanized twists, while others attempt to keep recipes as authentic as possible.

David Koepke, who co-owns the Gelateria on Washington Avenue, has a clientele looking for a particular product: gelato. Many who come into his shop ate the Italian ice cream on a trip to Rome and want the dessert to transport them back to Italy. To make his product as authentic as possible, Koepke closely follows traditional Italian recipes for gelato. Gelato has been perfected over years and years; he says it’s not his right to change the product.

There are two types of gelato: a milk-based Venetian style and sorbetto, a non-dairy version, typically made with water and iced fruit puree. Koepke said that because the Venetian style is richer and creamier, it tastes more satisfying to his American palate. The Gelateria focuses on that product, though a few sorbets are available, too.

The type of gelato, as well as other desserts, available in Italy depends on the region. In general, Italians do not eat rich foods for dessert, with the exception of the Piedmont region. Piedmont is known for its chocolate mousse dotted with hazelnuts.

“Desserts aren’t traditionally sweet, except in Piedmont,” said Trattoria Marcella’s chef and owner, Steve Komorek, who took a Slow Food Masters course in regional Italian cooking in Italy for three months. “Everywhere else, the dessert is more like food than ‘dessert.’ I don’t know how many meals I ended with nuts, fruits and biscotti.”

No matter what’s traditional in Italy, Americans generally want rich, decadent desserts. When he first opened his restaurant in 1995, Komorek tried to provide more traditional Italian desserts, such as biscotti. But he quickly discovered that simple desserts have little selling power in the United States.

“When I first opened, I was very limited,” Komorek said. “Now, we take a simple biscotti with a few nuts, dip it in chocolate, stripe it in white chocolate. That’s a very American way of doing it. We look for something rich and powerful in flavors.”

For Giada De Laurentiis, host of the Food Network show “Everyday Italian,” dessert was always a part of her family’s meal; it still is. During a recent stop at the Missouri Athletic Club, where she was promoting her new book, “Giada’s Family Dinners,” De Laurentiis polished off a salad. After she finished, she paused to think of what to have for dessert, then said, “Oh, I know!” She pulled out a box of chocolates from her purse.

“I eat dinner so I can have dessert,” De Laurentiis said. “The point is to put a smile on my face, and dessert always does. If I could live on dessert, I would.”

De Laurentiis likes to take traditional family desserts and add modern twists. She focuses on making recipes accessible and easy for her American audience to replicate. To do this, De Laurentiis said the ingredients must be relatively easy to find. She also likes desserts she can make before eating the main meal: “No one wants to go into the kitchen after cooking dinner.”

Raspberry Tiramisu, which must be prepared at least three hours before serving, is her favorite dessert at the moment. Her recipe is like a traditional tiramisu, but easier because no espresso is required. “I’m making it younger in a way,” De Laurentiis said. “This version is lighter and more colorful.”

You don’t have to be a Food Network star to make a great Italian dessert. Try making one of the recipes printed here or, better yet, head to an Italian eatery and have them make it for you. How you approach Italian desserts is up to you – the most important thing is to save room for them. Speaking of which, I think I have some gelato in
my freezer.