This winter, 250 made-in-Italy, naturally leavened panettoni got to partake in one of the birthrights of traveling to New York: Getting stuck at JFK airport.
Cafe owner and Italian foods importer Cristiano Rossi had shipped the panettoni to New York at the end of November for the first-ever New York Panettone Festival. So began the weeks-long saga with customs to release hundreds of panettoni — 49 varieties — from import limbo. “I didn’t sleep for a week,” said Rossi.
By December, he was begging with customs agents at 2:30am the night before the festival to let his precious breads out of the cursed airport. “I promised a panettone for each of them and they release[d] some,” he said. Bribery with baked goods is too easy — “everyone is the same,” Rossi said — but, va bene, at least it worked.
Rossi, an Italian pastry superfan, organized the festival to celebrate the past, present, and future of a holiday dessert that has — at best — a checkered fandom in the United States. For many Americans, the delicate, fruity Italian holiday bread is more than an acquired taste — I’ve tried for years to convert friends but have had little success. That’s in large part due to the decades of dishonor brought on by commercially produced panettone, sold cheaply and sometimes year-round in grocery stores across the country. Those breads share almost nothing in common with the traditional, labor-intensive panettone made and sold all over Italy. What most Americans know as panettoni are overly sweet, dry, and dense fruit breads. And so this Italian Christmas treat, which takes a minimum of 36 hours to make if done correctly, is stripped of its artisanal spirit.
Rossi is on a mission to change that. Over two weekends this December, Rossi hoped to prove — through generous free samples of panettone made by some of Italy’s world-famous, award-winning pastry chefs — that panettone can be and should be for everyone.
In the small plaza right on the waterfront in Long Island City, Queens, there was at least one guest of honor there to help Rossi on his mission: Lidia Bastianich, the beloved Italian TV personality, cookbook writer, and sauce purveyor walked around with Rossi as he led a handful of visitors at the free event. While tasting chunky slices hand-cut by Rossi himself, Bastianich explained the flaws of the panettoni most Americans have access to.
“You can really taste the preservatives in all of them,” Bastianich said. The industrial versions are nothing like Ischian panettone with caramel and pistachios, a Vesuvio-created variety made with white figs and chocolate, or a Tuscan version with saffron, whiskey, and chamomile from San Gimignano, all of which have much shorter shelf lives.
Despite failed past attempts to introduce artisanal panettone to Americans, Bastianich maintains that better days are coming as palates evolve. “People are really informed, they’re educated now. They are willing to spend money to eat well and eat healthy,” she said. What role do Italian pastry chefs have in that effort? “You gotta bring the good stuff from Italy, like the Italians eat.”
Like Rossi, Bastianich grew up eating panettone for the holidays, often alongside a nip of grappa. Due to the bread’s naturally leavened nature, panettoni tend to keep for several days after Christmas is over. “Then, it’s breakfast with a cafe latte. For the next few days, even if it gets toasted, it’s good.” It turns into great desserts, too, Bastianich says: “a slice of panettone with ice cream, with some cherries on top of that.”
“French toast,” added Rossi enthusiastically, bread knife in hand.
While there were still some producers absent from the first day of the panettone festival, their products still being inspected for contraband by the TSA, those present were committed to Rossi and Bastianich’s dream of a great American panettone future, too.
Biagio Settepani, owner of Bruno’s Cafe in Staten Island, has been making panettone for over 40 years. He believes that American consumers have many misconceptions about it, but the hardest barrier to entry is the cost of a handmade loaf.
“You see a commercial panettone for $5.99 at Costco,” he said. “You come to my shop and it’s 30 dollars. What the consumer gets at Costco, that product is done a year before.” At Bruno’s, where Settepani’s son Joseph is executive pastry chef, Settepani sells fresh panettoni, almost always made only three days before. “Sometimes you have to explain to people when they say, ‘Oh my god, you’re so expensive.’ You’re welcome to come and see the process of making panettone.”
That process is incredibly labor intensive — from the days of monitoring and feeding a natural starter (called a lievito madre), to the delicate art of shaping and allowing to rise an extremely wet, buttery, and loaded enriched dough. Panettone bakers must be highly skilled, which is why Settepani’s favorite part of the whole ordeal isn’t necessarily the making part. It’s the eating.
There was at least one panettone convert at the waterfront that Friday: a little girl with a giant slice held tightly in a tiny hand, chomping away with a studied intensity. Her mom hadn’t tried much panettone, but she was impressed by the thoughtful packaging of many of the breads on sale. “I’m a food fan so I thought it would be a great opportunity [to come to the festival],” she said. “I’m going to buy them as gifts.”
The day ended with glasses of prosecco and Americanos, to the grumbling disdain of at least one of the Italian organizers. (For him, it was espresso or bust.) Reflecting on the future of panettone stateside, Bastianich brought up its popularity in Italy. “In Italy, we sell mountains of them,” she said. “[In America] it’s gaining traction. It’s the Italian flavor, it’s the Italian tradition. It’s an art.”