We might say that Paola Pignataro is a good Italian girl (well, lady). She is one of those remarkable women that can tell you all about a certain food that comes from her native home: the why? the what? and even the who! It helps that she works at Carluccio’s – as the restaurant and shop chain’s buyer. So here she shares with us some of her favourite Christmas treats and the stories behind them. Because doesn’t it taste so much better once you know just that little bit more?
A moist and airy sponge made with butter, candied peal and sultanas, finished with a crunchy hazelnut icing.
Most people are familiar with the traditional Italian Panettone, and it’s my personal favourite. We’ve been sourcing our Panettone from the same producer for 20 years, ever since they started out as a small patisserie in Piemonte baking cakes and biscuits in the back room. The producer and I have regular chats on the phone, and he is an absolute goldmine of information about who does what, who supplies who and what is most popular.
Mostaccioli Alle Noci, Fig molasses and walnut biscuits from Calabria.
I’m Neapolitan with a hint of Calabrian, so the Mostaccioli remind me of home, although I can’t really bake them. Mostaccioli are made all over southern Italy as lozenge-shaped biscuits, often made with honey, but the difference between the regional varieties is remarkable. In Napoli, they are simple, not very sweet and coated in dark chocolate and are only made at Christmas. These Mostaccioli are completely different as they are from Calabria and transport me back in time with every bite. The biscuits are topped with walnuts with a chewy texture and somewhat earthy taste as they are made with Calabrian “fig honey”. The fig honey is a form of molasses, the end result of a fig syrup reduction, which gives them a unique texture and flavour reminiscent of ancient preserving methods.
Fortissimo Chilli gift box, Chilli Filei pasta 500g, chilli oil 25cl, chilli pesto 180g, crushed chilli 20g, chilli seeds
Carluccio’s offers a large variety of gift boxes, and this one is my favourite. Perhaps because of its varied selection, or perhaps because of my passion for spice. The Chilli Filei pasta included has a popular shape specific to the Tyrrhenian coast, where our producer is based. It’s very chunky with a satisfying bite, and with the addition of chilli to the pasta dough, little else is needed. It’s the type of pasta that is not just the base for a dish, but the main star. The chilli oil, pesto and crushed dried chillies can be used together or on their own in plenty of dishes. The chilli pot is hand-made in Calabria and the seeds originate from there as well, so you can grow a piece of my home in yours.
Ricciarelli, Traditional soft almond biscuits from Tuscany.
The Ricciarelli have been a part of Carluccio’s Christmas range since the beginning and have been very popular throughout the years. Originating in Tuscany, these simple flourless biscuits, made with almonds, egg whites and sugar are soft inside with a crunchy cracked exterior from the icing sugar that is sprinkled on top before baking. They most likely originated from marzipan, popular in Tuscany since the Middle ages when they were brought back from the Middle East by returning crusaders. Tuscany has always been a popular tourist destination amongst British tourists, so it is quite natural that this Italian treat is widely recognised here the UK, just like Cantucci, Panforte or wild boar ragu.
Limoncello Flask, Limoncello made with Limoni di Sorrento in a hand-painted flask.
The producer of this limoncello has become a friend over the years, and has also managed to become a bit of a celebrity here at Carluccio’s. Some time ago I asked him to shoot a video for staff training and he sent back a video of himself and his sister with the most beautiful background views of the sea and cliffs in Vico Equense on the Sorrento Coast, where they live and work.
For this Christmas he suggested this cute ceramic flask, which is made locally. Being Neapolitan, I can make my own Limoncello (and brag about it extensively), but this is made with Sorrento lemons, which cannot be found in the UK. The “Ovale di Sorrento” is a cultivar of large lemons, grown on the volcanic soil of the Sorrento Coast and the island of Capri. It has a rind particularly rich in oils that make them very aromatic, which is the part of the lemon used to make Limoncello. In fact, the European scheme that grants the geographic origin protection is aimed at emphasising how some characteristics of a product are attributable to its geographic origins.