Pizza and Panettone

October 31, 2023

By Art Petrosemolo

Being of Italian extraction and a last name that begins with “P,” I was destined to write about Pizza and Panettones – two Italian specialties from different ends of the food spectrum. 

I am a New Haven, Connecticut, native and I don’t get back there often, but when I do, I plan it so I can meet friends on Wooster Street for New Haven pizza. What makes New Haven pizza different you ask? I have been trying to write about what makes it different for years for Lancaster Farming but none of my editors were interested.

Well recently the Washington Post gave New Haven pizza a title similar to Chicago, New York or Detroit pizza. The WP  said “New Haven Style” pizza had a style of its own and called it that. Oh, by the way, we don’t call it pizza in New Haven, it’s “a-pizza” but we say “a-beets.”

Some people describe it as a hotter, crispier and dirtier than other pizzas. That means it is cooked in a coal-fired oven and if you’re not careful it is so hot, it burns the roof of your mouth. Take it from one who knows, it isn’t a pleasant experience. It’s crispy which means it doesn’t have a soft crust like all the breads we eat in Lancaster County. And the black stuff isn’t dirt, it’s char from the hot bricks in the old, coal fired brick ovens. 

And some of us eat our New Haven Style Pizza without cheese (oh, we call that stuff  “mootz”  for mozzarella) and order a traditional “tomato pie” the way it was first made back in Naples centuries ago.

New Haven Style pizza was brought to this country by my immigrant ancestors who moved from New York to New Haven early in the 20th century. Don’t look for it here. You’ll have to go to New Haven (230 miles and four-plus hours away) and stand in line at Pepe’s (my choice), or Sally’s on Wooster Street or Modern Pizza (my second favorite) on State Street.

Well the new features editor at Lancaster Farming heard my pizza plea and I was able to do my pizza story in early October during national pizza month about the same time I started to research my second Italian favorite – panettone. 

Panettone is an Italian holiday bread usually made for Christmas and New Year celebrations. It is a domed bread with a soft and fluffy center that includes pieces of candied fruits, raisins and lemon zest.

It can be eaten plain, with coffee or as a snack. I like it for breakfast lathered with butter. Although Tina is a great baker and she bakes Italian bread (with a real crust) and Italian cookies for me, we got used to eating Bauducco panettone (sold starting around Halloween in square yellow boxes in supermarkets).

Well, I learned this year that the panettone you can buy at Halloween was baked weeks (maybe weeks and weeks) before. And it wasn’t even baked in the United States. Look at the yellow box on your next visit to the supermarket and you’ll see Bauducco panettone was baked in Brazil (at least its baked by an Italian family who immigrated there in the 20th century).

So in October I went in search of a real panettone made in a real Italian bakery and although it may be made in one of the bakeries in South Philadelphia, it is made there seasonally and no one wanted to talk to me. 

I found my Italian bakery – Settepani – in Brooklyn, New York and made the pilgrimage to Williamsburg. I spent the night in New Jersey with friends and it took two-and-a-half hours to drive the 50 miles to Brooklyn on the infamous Brooklyn–Queens–Expressway. But the trip was worth it. Bilena Settepani, a master baker (the Panettone Princess) and her dad Chef Nino, taught me about real panettone. Belina says it’s all about quality ingredients like imported flour that is not milled until the grain is washed. “You probably wouldn’t use flour again if you saw all the debris washed off the grain,” says Bilena.

For Bilena, the traditional recipe takes three days. The dough rises multiple times before she forms it into a ball and bakes it. Belina says, “Although our ovens are big enough to make dozens at a time, the bread has to cool upside down for four hours to trap the air and keep the interior fluffy which is not an easy trick.”

Well, naturally I took a panettone home, (two actually as one went to our neighbors Jan and Tom Ford), and it brought tears to my eyes at how good it was and it was consumed in two days. My story and video is done and will appear in Lancaster Farming soon. 

Well artisanal panettones like the one from Settepani costs $40 and up depending on frostings and fillings (I’m a classic, plain panettone guy myself). So Tina and I got the bug and bought the special baking cones and have made one, two-day panettone from an on-line recipe. It looked good but was overcooked, dry, hard and trashed. We’ll try again, maybe two more times before Thanksgiving when we plan to serve it to guests. But if we fail, I guess I’m buying $40 panettones.

Watch Bilena Settepani make a special Pistachio Panettone in my video.

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