The Under-The-Radar Italian Dessert You Need To Try

It’s mid-morning in the medieval town of Sarzana and another hot summer’s day is slowly waking up. I traveled here from Lerici to get to know the countryside of the southern Riviera better, an area that attracts more attention from visitors excited about the nearby coast. (I also heard there is a great patisserie to visit and as someone who is no stranger to Italian sweets you must check it out.) A few tourists are out and you are wondering if it is too early during the day, to assess the tourist scene, but a few minutes later a line of enthusiastic tourists suddenly emerges from a just-docked cruise ship in La Spezia (about 10 miles away) and turns a corner. They march happily towards a nearby church, and the streets quickly return to their inhabitants – only quietly.

One place that hops, though, is the Pasticceria Gemmi in Sarzana’s historic center, a must-see landmark, at least for culinary travelers, as is the city’s Fortezza Firmafede, a citadel built in the 13th century and later attacked by none other than Lorenzo de became Medici. Besides its history – parts of the Pasticceria building date back to the Middle Ages – and being one of the most popular meeting places and cultural centers of Sarzana, Gemmi is known for a special cake, the Spungata (or Spongata), a pastry, like many other foods in Italy, with a very long history.

“Antiche e misteriose” (“antique and mysterious”) is how the Gemmi brochure describes the backstory of the spungata, and as Fiammetta Gemmi, the owner of the pastry shop and Il Loggiato, a restaurant and venue, describes how it came to be, I half expected to hear tales of daring and intrigue surrounding its creation. But the spongata’s mystique stems largely from its ancient origins. Gemmi says a version of the candy has existed since Roman times, when tradition has it that it was given away during the end-of-year holidays. The term spongata comes from the Latin word “spongia,” or sponge, she says, but her father Silvano, who bought the pasticceria nearly 90 years ago (it was founded by a Swiss family in 1854), preferred to call the cake his name in the Sarzana Dialect – Spungata.

Spongata reappeared in the Middle Ages. Legend also has it that pilgrims passed through Sarzana on the Via Francigena, a route that took them from Canterbury to Rome and Puglia when they could sail to the Holy Land, and because the cake kept well it was used as food for travellers the long religious road. Other accounts of the history of spongata attribute its introduction to the Italian peninsula at a later date, in the 16th century, by Jewish refugees from Spain.

While Spongata can also be found in other places like Emilia-Romagna and towns in northern Tuscany, it is particularly associated with Sarzana. That’s thanks in large part to Silvano Gemmi, who saw its potential not just as a holiday treat, but as something to be served all year round, like Siena’s panforte. The recipe used today is the one inherited from her father, dating back to the founding of the pasticceria in the mid-19th century.

While Spongata is round and low like Panforte, this is a softer sweet, baked with a pasta frolla dough and a fruit compote filling made with local apples, pears, toasted pisa pine nuts, almonds, candied oranges and cinnamon, “which gives it its distinctiveness Fragrance and long shelf life,” says Gemmi. When I tasted the cake, the flavors reminded me more of strudel or rugelach than panforte; Needless to say, it’s delicious and will disappear from your plate far too quickly. You can order spungata to take away (Gemmi also delivers to the US), but for an introductory experience, you can’t beat sampling while seated at a table in the Pasticceria’s ground-level salon, an atmospheric space with vaulted ceilings and frescoes .

Although Spongata is the Pasticceria’s most famous dessert, it brings forth other temptations, such as Buccellato, a sweet bread made with raisins and aniseed. Sicily and Lucca make famous versions, but the bakery is known for its own recipe. Her focaccia di sarzana, which Gemmi describes as a Ligurian treat “par excellence,” differs from the Genoese equivalent in that olive oil replaces the butter normally used, which “makes it lighter,” she says. Orange, cedro and anise are other ingredients.

Sweets aren’t Gemmi’s only offerings. On the second floor of the Pasticceria is the Il Loggiato restaurant; its 16th-century loggia is an ideal place for a dinner in mild weather. There are also private rooms for special events, weddings and concerts. Fiammetta Gemmi is closely involved in the cultural life of her city. Through the connections she forged with artists performing in her space, Gemmi was able to help organize the annual Sarzana Opera Festival, which celebrates its 22nd anniversary this year.

Many of the opera events take place in key locations around the city, such as Piazza Matteotti and the Chiesa di San Francesco. Among the other points of interest, in addition to the Firmafede Fortress, there is the Sarzanello Castle; a museum dedicated to the fortresses (MUdeF), often used for exhibitions of contemporary art; the Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral; a church (St. Andrew) from the 10th century; the early 19th-century Teatro degli Impavidi; and shops and cafes in the historic center, an area that Silvano Gemmi helped shape. “He was the first to write ‘centro storico’ in charcoal on the plaque on Via Mazzini, a central street in the city,” says Gemmi.

“There are many memories and lessons,” says Gemmi when asked what she learned about the business from her father. She cites his dedication to the craft and determination to preserve ancient recipes and local culinary culture, as well as his “spirit of hospitality towards everyone who discovered Sarzana, not just our pastry shop”.

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