Pappalecco vs. Cafe Zucchero in Little Italy

One pretty gentrified (now) but super lively little neighborhood in San Diego is Little Italy, where I was staying during my trip out there. The place has been largely polished up and, with the exception of a few old timer nonno’s and nonna’s left over from the tuna-fishing days and the occasional grandchildren who are eager to uphold their authentically Italian lifestyle and values, the neighborhood has mostly been converted into a kind of museum to showcase Italian/Sicilian culture, rather than one defined by it to the core. Nevertheless, it’s a great area to walk around, sit at the fontana in the sun with a coffee and cigarette, or check out the pretty Lady of the Rosay church, which on Sundays still gathers crowds of mob-looking Italian gents and their smartly dressed Americanized wives and children outside of it. I’ve heard there are multiple festivals in this neighborhood throughout the year as well as a weekly (Saturdays) Mercato where one can buy fresh produce, fish and even some tasty snacks.

One morning, after a particularly long day and night of sightseeing in San Diego (and Tijuana…), I was needing a coffee and pastry to wake me up a bit. I strolled down State Street to Pappalecco, a trendy-looking, modernized Italian cafe and sandwich shop I had had my eye on since my arrival. I ordered a coffee and, browsing the pastry options, selected the Sfogliatelle – a dessert I had a delicious version of once as part of Chef Totaro’s tasting menu at Spasso in Hong Kong, and one which I was happy to run into again. Turns out it was a mistake to order this here…

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29I’m not even sure what compelled the guys at Pappalecco to call this thing a “Sfogliatelle”, since the latter means, in Italian, something along the lines of “many layers” or “many sheets,” referring to the layered, crispy sheets of dough which are suppose to make the outside of the pastry look like dry leaves that have been stacked together. The stuff is supposed to be dusted with powdered sugar for a more dramatic effect. This is specifically called a “Sfogliatelle riccia.” There is, indeed, another version of the pastry from Naples, called the “Sfogliatelle frolla” which uses a shortcrust dough and does not include the characteristic ridges of the pastry. These are plump airy, round pastries, blown up a bit with air to make the dough a bit lighter. Whatever it was that they heated up and slapped on a plate for me at Pappalecco was definitely not even close to either versions of this classic Italian pastry. What I got was a thin pocket of painfully undercooked pastry dough packed with ricotta that had not been drained of its excess liquid and which consequentially made the thing very soggy. The ricotta was very minimally seasoned with lemon peel, but this flavor was overpowered, to say the least, by the gigantic wad of Nutella that they carelessly whacked onto the top of the pastry. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the abuse of this ingredient to such an extent. Besides the fact that there was simply way too much of the thick, rich stuff, the hazelnut and chocolate flavors I usually love had nothing to do with the rest of the pastry. It just did not belong at all. I rarely take a bite of something I’ve paid for only to throw the rest swiftly into the trash a moment later, but this occasion definitely called for it…

45The next morning I decided to give the place another chance, convincing myself that I had just ordered the worst thing on their menu and that, surely, they had something authentic or at least good. I tried to keep it simple this time, so I ordered an Almond Biscotti to go with my cappuccino (which actually wasn’t bad at all). What I got was this… A f*cking under-cooked sugar cookie, obviously flavored with almond extract, with a pathetic little un-peeled almond to show what the thing was supposed to taste like. Folks, I was pretty pissed off. Maybe the gelato of the place is to die for, and maybe my colleagues in San Diego are right in going there for their mid-day paninis. Maybe at lunch time, Pappale-whatever magically turns into Florencio’s. But as soon as I broke a piece off this cookie and peeked that layered, pre-made sugar cookie dough texture inside, I lost all hope in the place. First of all it was round…. The whole point of a biscotti is to dip it into your coffee, so that the dough can soak up the liquid and become moist. The shape of the thing made that impossible. Even if it had been log-shaped, the cookie was soft and buttery, not “twice baked” and coarse by any means. The flavor was way too sweet and that sweetness was of processed sugar and processed almond extract. There was not a hint of that natural nutty-vanilla almond flavor in there at all. Painfully disappointing and just plain rude to serve this to customers expecting an Italian coffee-side sweet, especially for $3 a piece…

Having lost most of my hope in Little “Italy” and what it had to offer in terms of authentic Italian pastries, I was a bit hesitant when my boss asked me to go with her to get some dessert at Cafe Zucchero down the street. According to her, the place had a wonderful selection of cakes, pies, cannolis and other pastries. A bit jaded, I agreed. And I’m happy I did. Though still far from an authentic Italian bakery cafe, this place at least redeemed Little Italy in my eyes in as far as Pappalecco had ruined it for me.

1The selection here was vast, and a lot of stuff looked very good. While there were some odd fusions there, such as a Strawberry and Banana Napoleon and Opera Cakes, as well as cheesecakes flavored with chocolate and stuff, which a real Italian bakery would never have, there were some Cassatini (similar to French version, the Mignon which I always get in Hungary…) and some powdered sugar coated sweet biscuits that looked pretty simple and delicious. I decided to order the Sfogliatelle here as well, to see how it would compare to the horrendous version at P-.

2Ladies and gentleman, this time I actually got a Sfogliatelle. Layers of curled up, crispy, buttery dough, formed into a lobster tail shaped little pastry, which was dusted with powdered sugar that seeped into the grooves of the thing, sweetening it all the more. The filling was dry enough to not sog up the pastry, but moist and creamy enough to enjoy. The ricotta was flavored with a tiny bit of orange or orange zest, which gave it a fresh, citric zing. My only issue with the thing was that the pastry was a tad too dry altogether, but this was probably because we got it at 6pm, when it was no longer fresh out of the oven. It could have also used some raisins or other hydrating element to make the ricotta pop even more. Otherwise, it was a great Sfogliatelle. Still miles away from the quality of that of Chef Totaro, but not bad at all…

3I also ordered the Cannolo here, which came with a ricotta flavored with orange peel (probably the same ricotta used in the Sfogliatelle). No qualms about this one, it was perfectly satisfying and delicious, although maybe also a tiny bit old, since we got it so late in the afternoon. The pastry case was crispy, fried and satisfying, and the filling was creamy and smooth. I appreciated the bit of candied orange peel stuck into one end of the thing because, though I don’t like it when other stuff is stuck on there (like chocolate chips or fruits or – God forbid ! – maraschino cherries), the peel brought a slight bitterness to the thing, which helped round out the sweetness of the ricotta. Well done.

So, the winner of the Little Italy Battle of the Pastry’s? Clearly, Cafe Zucchero. Pappalecco is a joke, and not a very funny one…

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