When I think of lemon pastries, the image of sticky, fluorescent yellow bars comes to mind. You usually find them at a church-basement potluck or your grandma’s house. I never liked them. I vote them “Least Satisfying” in the bar category, with the Seven-Layer Bar coming in close behind.
I love lemons, but prefer them mostly in my cocktails and over my calamari – not so much in my desserts. But when you are in the land of lemon groves, you damn well better eat all the lemons you can.
The streets of Sorrento are an endless advertisement for lemons. Lemon soap, lemon-decorated souvenirs, Limoncello tastings. The buildings are a sunny yellow and the tang of citrus floats through the air. I popped into Pasticceria Don Peppe to peek at their treats and the most precious dome-shaped lemon cakes caught my eye. If I’m going to eat a lemon dessert it should be here, right?
In broken Italian, I asked the young man what they were called, thinking it would be something fancy, and he said “Lemon cake.” Gotcha. I took my cake outside and ate it while buses and hordes of tourists shared the narrow street next to me.
Everything about it was light – the flavor, the frosting, the actual cake. It was subtle and pretty, adorned with lemon zest and a slice of candied lemon. I felt embarrassed for those gummy lemon bars having to contend with this beauty queen of a confection. My opinion of lemon treats was improving.
Our home base was just up the road in Naples, a vibrant, crowded, spectacle of a city whose busy streets leave you feeling roughed up, even after a leisurely walk. On our last night in this crazy town, we sat outside and ate as much pizza and mozzarella di bufala as possible. Though I was stuffed, I asked our waiter if I could see the dessert menu. He excitedly gestured for me to follow him into the restaurant to view the options myself.
When I asked which was his favorite, he pointed to a messy, cake/pie mash-up with a slice missing. I said, “Si si!,” not entirely sure what I agreed to. Each bite was better than the next – sponge cake with a thick layer of lemon custard and cherries, topped with a tower of crunchy, airy meringue. The waiter told me it was “Zuppe Inglese,” (English Soup) and was made just an hour ago. Again, a dessert featuring so much lemon has never tasted so good. And the meringue was like those warm crusty chunks you pull off the bottom of an angel food cake after taking it out of the oven. Yum – another lemon success.
Very few dinners ended without a small glass of the ultra-lemony after-dinner drink, Limoncello. My favorite Italian dinner was in Florence at Antica Trattoria da Tito, where the waiter brought a bottle of Limoncello to our table and told us to keep filling our glasses and the those of the cute French couple next to us.
After too much liquor and awkward French small talk, we visited the cashier to pay our bill. She sized up the line of people at her host stand, put about seven shot glasses down, handed me a bottle of Limoncello and told me to pour enough for everyone including her. I handed them out, we all raised our glasses, shared a collective, joyful “wooo,” and made our shots disappear.
At that moment I knew I was officially over Limoncello, and had to put a pause on all things lemon for the rest of the trip. As it turns out, there are only so many lemons you can take before your body says, “No grazie.”