To Marc Murphy, executive chef and restaurateur of Landmarc and Ditch Plains, Italian desserts are perfect. They’re simple, not too sweet, and served in smaller, just-right portions.
“It’s not about [being] over the top, six layers of whipped cream, and sparklers coming off the top like you do in France, with tempered chocolate and complexities like that,” Murphy says. “It’s taken a bit differently over in Italy. You just have to have something right before the espresso and the grappa.”
In his time spent living in Italy (he was born in Milan), Murphy says it was common for diners to be served whatever fruit was fresh at the market that day for the dessert course—a simplicity he says is underrated in many U.S. restaurants, where decadence rules the dessert menu.
“If I had to describe Italian desserts in one word, it would be subtleness,” he says. “The subtlety of flavor is, I think, the reason that Italian desserts can be under-appreciated and could use some more recognition.”
Murphy is certainly doing his part to get simple Italian desserts the recognition they deserve by allowing subtlety to shine through in the dessert menu at his latest restaurant, Kingside.
We had Murphy go to bat for his beloved tiramisu, while chef Adrienne Bandlow stands up for the other Italian staple: cannoli.
In this corner: Tiramisu
The Italian word tiramisù translates literally to “pick me up.” And after years of stagnation in the U.S. market, the dessert has been in need of a little elevation.
The Pistachio Tiramisu at Kingside in uptown New York City does just that by presenting a fresh, flavorful, and elegant spin on the old mainstay.
“Tiramisu is one of those desserts that was around a lot in America, and maybe even overused at a certain point,” Murphy says. “It was great for so many years for a reason, and when I found this new twist, I just felt like, ‘Tiramisu is not dead! It’s still delicious and exciting.’”
Tiramisu is traditionally made by layering coffee-dipped ladyfingers with a cocoa-flavored mixture of eggs, sugar, brandy, and Mascarpone cheese. But while visiting some friends in Rome, Murphy discovered a new take to tiramisu that he loved: Adding pistachios, another favorite flavor in Italian cuisine, but one that he had never seen used in this way. He was especially surprised to see this twist in Rome, where the cuisine is notoriously entrenched in tradition and consumers are wary of innovation.
“It’s a place where, if it doesn’t taste like mom made it, then it’s not right. So this really surprised and impressed me,” Murphy says.
He immediately put the recipe on the dessert menu when he opened Kingside in 2013. The Pistachio Tiramisu also got a spot in his April 2015 cookbook, Season with Authority.
While the recipe contains all of the classic ingredients, the pistachio paste, whole shelled pistachios, and a pinch of cream tartar bring a little something different to the table, especially when coupled with its presentation in a small glass jar.
By drawing attention to a dish that was at one point so standardized and ubiquitous that it was often overlooked, Murphy is bringing back the spark to tiramisu, and supporting a resurgence of respect for its subtlety.
In that corner: Cannoli
Just as tiramisu has a lovely translation, cannoli has one to rival it. The name of the crispy, sweet cream- or cheese-filled dessert simply means “tube of love.” While Ricotta is the most popular (and also the cheapest) filling, the pastry is up for delicious interpretation, so long as the love shines through.
At Seattle’s Holy Cannoli, founder and owner Adrienne Bandlow takes a high-quality chef’s cream and cooks it down as though she were making Ricotta cheese, but without separating the curds from the whey. She then adds thickening agents. The result is a perfectly even-textured, hearty filling that is akin to pastry cream. Throughout her studies of cannoli, she’s come across a variety of filling preferences, from Ricotta to mashed cannellini beans with cocoa powder.
Unlike Murphy, Bandlow didn’t grow up abroad. She did, however, grow up surrounded by Detroit’s large, vibrant, Italian-American community, watching her grandmother and aunt make pastas, soups, and desserts in her home kitchen and cultivating an innate love for Italian cuisine. When she was a teenager, her family moved to Seattle seeking better economic opportunities. Suddenly, Bandlow was dislodged from her familiar community, and she made herself at home by trying her hand in the kitchen.
“Just like anyone who’s left their homeland and gone somewhere else, I had to figure out how to assimilate and still bring what I knew into my new life,” she says. “I couldn’t go to the deli down the street to get my favorite foods anymore, so I just started making them myself.” Without culinary training, Bandlow relied on calls to her grandmother for advice. She also trusted her own palate, which had developed from years of eating Italian classics.
The cannoli that would eventually change the course of her career was, she admits, none too impressive. Bandlow’s boss at a feminist nonprofit had mentioned off the cuff that she had never been able to find a good cannoli in the Pacific Northwest. To get some brownie points (“cannoli points,” as she calls it), Bandlow rushed off to call her grandmother for a recipe and some advice. Her first effort was fraught: the filling was thin with chunks, and she remembers having to pack chocolate in to keep it from seeping out of the sides of the shell.
Nonetheless, her boss was impressed, and Bandlow became determined to perfect the dessert and share the little pastries of love.
“After that first one—which was pretty embarrassing to be honest—I just started making them for friends, and people would get super jazzed about it,” she says. “Nobody knew what they were, and they were stoked to discover an Italian pastry that they’d never tasted.”
At the time, Bandlow was determined to go into the nonprofit sector. But she began to realize that her pastries were giving people more immediate, tangible joy than the complicated, slow-moving legislation she had plans to tackle over the course of her career. After fitting in as many entrepreneurship classes as she could in a three-month window, Bandlow opened Holy Cannoli in November 2011 to share the love.
Not all of Bandlow’s cannoli fit into the “subtle” category, with full-flavored options like Limoncello and Salted Caramel Pecan. Still, the original, Traditional cannoli with vanilla cream and a hint of cinnamon and chocolate is and always will be Bandlow’s favorite: a simple sweet that reminds her of her heritage.