5406 N. Clark
It wasn’t a good day for marzipan. The previous night Natalie Zarzour had slept only two-and-a-half hours in the shop where she now stood building a cassatine–a miniature cassata, the elaborate glazed and fruit-bedecked Sicilian Easter cake. Under normal circumstances it takes her just an hour or so to stamp out a dozen light green disks of marzipan, mold them in custard cups, fill them with sponge cake, sheep’s-milk ricotta, and chocolate, and douse them with rose water and tangerine liqueur. But because the temperature outside had reached the 70s and the humidity was making the sweet almond paste sticky she aborted four attempts.
Since opening their pastry shop Pasticceria Natalina on Valentine’s Day, Zarzour and her husband, Nick, have labored to the point of exhaustion to introduce their customers to the culture of Sicilian dolci, where there are no shortcuts, the cannoli are filled to order, and it’s appropriate to indulge in something sweet anytime but dessert.
When most Italian immigrants were settling along Grand Avenue or Taylor Street, Zarzour’s maternal grandparents left Palermo for Palos Heights, where her grandfather took a job as a hospital lab technician. Like many newcomers, they wanted their children to assimilate, but their isolation kept the family’s food traditions alive. “I think I got to learn more intricate recipes because they weren’t close to the delis and bakeries,” says Zarzour. “They had to make their own because it was so far.”
On her first trip to Sicily, at age 15, Zarzour discovered the immense difference between regional Italian foods and what passed for them in America, where immigrants were forced to make substitutions for original ingredients that never made the trip to the New World. Sicily’s pastry culture was defined and refined over centuries of conquest by and commerce with the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. “You get a lot of exotic ingredients–pistachios, rose water, and citrus fruits,” she says. “A lot of those earthy, exotic flavors together with classical French techniques, and that’s really what makes Sicilian pastry so magical.”
Zarzour already had a handle on the simple sweets familiar to Sicilian home cooks, but she had a lot to learn about the baroque, fanciful constructions found strictly in pastry shops, like minne de vergine–highly suggestive custard-filled “breasts of the virgin,” made in honor of Saint Agatha, whose breasts were lopped off when she refused to renounce the faith. Many of these were developed in monasteries and convents to raise funds for the church and originally only appeared on certain holidays and festivals. Now the attitude is bit more permissive. Dolci present a “reason to stop doing whatever you might not want to be doing and enjoy yourself,” Zarzour says.
Friends and family encouraged her to go to culinary school, but though she started researching recipes, she decided to study political science at UIC instead. There she met Nick, an engineering student from Lebanon, a country with its own cross-cultural pastry tradition, heavily influenced by French colonization. The pair married four-and-a-half years ago and have taken trips to Italy and to Nick’s hometown of Zahle, where Natalie did a short apprenticeship at a French pastry shop. “If you can learn French technique it makes anything you do automatically better,” she says.
Meanwhile both were dissatisfied with their career paths–Nick was working in construction management, Natalie had transferred to DePaul–and they began to plot an escape. Natalie had received a small inheritance from her grandparents. “I thought if I did something with the money that they would be proud of, it would honor them and hopefully they’d be watching over it,” she says. Hence the Sicilian pastry shop. The Zarzours were looking in Andersonville–they live nearby–when they found their space, a former Chinese take-out joint. In addition to the inheritance, loans and personal funds went toward the rebuilding.
Natalie didn’t want to substitute for critical ingredients like the tangy Sicilian sheep’s-milk ricotta required for the cannoli and cassatine, so she uses wholesale importers for some products. For others, like the bitter Sicilian almonds required for the marzipan, she goes direct to the producers.
She thought that once she got in a kitchen with commercial equipment the painstaking, labor-intensive recipes would get easier. They haven’t. Natalie says it takes three days to make the frutti di martorana, hand-painted marzipan figs, plums, prickly pears, oranges, and lemons that look as if they just fell from the tree. Nick can spend an entire afternoon cutting and frying cannoli shells for the weekend.
In the weeks since opening, Natalie has rolled out an exotic, ever changing selection: orange blossom or rosewater rice puddings; a boozy rum baba; zeppole, deep-fried fritters filled with custard and sour amarana cherries, traditionally served for Saint Joseph’s Day; spicy iced fig cookies called cuccidatti; shell-shaped, ricotta-filled Neopolitan sfogliatelle; and delicate, savory fazzoletti (“little handkerchiefs”), puff pastries filled with combinations like peas, prosciutto, and mint or artichoke hearts, capers, raisins, and pine nuts.
Choosing among her offerings can be agonizing–and they’re expensive. One particular cookie made almost entirely of crushed pistachios goes for more than $20 a pound. The Zarzours are betting people will understand what premium ingredients are worth. And that’s why Natalie’s willing to persevere with something as difficult and expensive as the cassatine. “I can’t really afford to pay people to do that stuff, because I’ll be paying so much in overhead to get so little product,” she says. “These are things that I absolutely have to do myself. It’s not one of my most popular items but it’s one of the most special. If they sell only a dozen in two days I’m happy.” –Mike Sula
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.