What comes to mind when you think of iconic symbols of Naples? Many people might say Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii, Christmas creches, songs in dialect, pizza or limoncello. Another culinary delicacy to add to the list is the sfogliatella, a clam-shaped pastry native to Campania. Admired for its texture and subtle sweetness, a sfogliatella can be eaten any time, but most often accompanies an espresso for breakfast. Pronounced roughly sfo-ya-tel-la, its name means “small, thin leaf” as the pastry’s texture resembles stacked leaves.
Like other icons, the sfogliatella has a rich history. According to legend, a nun at the Santa Rosa Monastery/Convent in the fishing village of Conca dei Marini in the province of Salerno, first created the pastry: She combined semolina with lemon liqueur, sugar and dried fruit; then she kneaded dough into two sheets and put the semolina mixture in the center as a filling. Named after the convent of Santa Rosa, the pastry made its way to the city of Naples where a pastry shop owner named Pasquale Pintauro began selling the pastries in 1818. Today, the Monastero Santa Rosa is a luxury hotel and spa perched on a cliff over the Amalfi coast between Amalfi and Positano.
There are two varieties of sfogliatelle in Italy today and one in the United States. The classic is Sfogliatella Riccia (for “curly”) which is made from dough similar to phyllo. It is rolled into a cylinder, sliced into coins, then formed into a cone that houses a filling. The pastry is baked until the layers separate, forming the characteristic ridges. It should be eaten hot, right out of the oven, like croissants.
Sfogliatella Frolla (for “smooth” or “soft”) is a simpler, less labor-intensive pastry that uses a dough similar to pie crust and does not form the characteristic layers of the riccia variety. Both types can have a variety of fillings. The classic filling is a custard-like mixture of semolina, sugar, ricotta, eggs, candied citrus peel and a hint of cinnamon. Some recipes incorporate limoncello or marmalade; some recipes substitute almond paste for the creamy custard.
The American version is called Coda d’aragosta, or more popularly, Lobster Tails. They are a slightly larger version of the sfogliatella riccia and filled with choux pastry (a mixture of butter, water, flour and eggs) before baking. The high moisture content of choux pastry creates steam, which causes the pastry to puff up in the oven and provides space for the final filling. This mixture is usually a mixture of pastry cream (a thick, creamy custard) and whipped cream, which is sweeter than the fillings of the Italian pastries.
Making the classic Italian sfogliatella can be a three-day process. Like its iconic 18th- century relative– the Neapolitan pizza– sfogliatelle require time and skill. Maybe that’s why the original is not readily available in the United States.