Naples Pride & Joy
Brunella Reale Barbati Minischetti, contributing writer, Pisa, Italy
The pastiera napoletana (also referred to as pastiera) is a traditional Neapolitan dessert usually made during Easter time. It is one of the cornerstones of the Neapolitan cuisine, but is also rather popular in the area of Reggio Calabria.
Legend has it that the Parthenope Mermaid, a figure deriving from a springtime pagan festival, was the creator of this dessert. According to the legend, the mermaid, who is also the symbol of the city of Naples, dwelled in the Gulf and every spring she would emerge from the waters to greet the people of Naples with her joyous songs. The mermaid dedicated her melodious and beautiful voice to the citizens of the city. Therefore to thank her, seven of the most beautiful girls of the city offered the mermaid donations from nature: flour, ricotta cheese, eggs, soft grain, water of orange blossoms, spices and sugar. The mermaid took the donations and placed them at the feet of the gods that resided in the bottom of the sea. The gods reunited and transformed the ingredients in what we have to today known as the pastiera.
The pastiera is a shortbread cake made of flour, salt, sugar, butter, eggs and aromas, stuffed with a filling made up of ricotta cheese, candied fruit, sugar, eggs and grain boiled in milk. The gold-yellow cake is crunchy, while the filling is rather soft. Actually, the taste of the cake changes according to the spices and aromas used during the preparation. Each family has their own special way to prepare the cake. The classic recipe calls for cinnamon, candied fruits, orange zest, vanilla and water of orange blossoms, yet today there are numerous variations such as using custard instead of ricotta and incorporating white chocolate in the shortbread crust. Historically, the pastiera was only prepared on Holy Thursday or Good Friday, but with the changing of the times, it can be found throughout the whole Easter season in any pastry shop in Naples.
Next time you’re in Naples, the best place to have a slice of pastiera is at “Scaturchio” in Piazza San Domenico. It is Naple’s oldest and most famous pastry shop. Besides the pastiera, the pastry shop features other famous Neapolitan pastries such as zeppole, babà and sfogliatelle. Also, do not to pass up Scaturchio’s famous pastry “il ministeriale”—a medallion shaped cookie covered in chocolate and filled with a cream of liquor. With its top secret recipe and delightful taste, the ministeriale has won the hearts of the citizens of Naples and is a part of their daily lives.