Warning, images in this post will make you hungry!
It happened on a Sunday during the month of August. I am uncertain of the year but it was some time ago, perhaps 10 years ago now? We’re in Italy, as we generally are in August, and I find myself in a bit of a predicament. I’m almost down to zero in the gas tank on the rental. It’s not a big deal, one might
think. I am at home and not stuck on the side of the road somewhere, but I have afternoon plans and I am certain what’s in the tank isn’t going to get me there. “You always do this, always. Why? Why do you always do THIS skifo?” Asks my sister in a tone I have heard before. This is coming from someone who generally has ¾ of a tank and thinks she needs to refill. She’s right, this time is different. I am not in Boston, my AAA card isn’t going to help here, and there isn’t a gas station close enough to our
home. And it’s Sunday. Why is that so bad, you ask? Because many, perhaps most, gas stations are
closed on Sundays in Southern Italy!
I ask the locals in my town and they tell me that, yes, most gas stations within 5-10 miles are closed. And there goes the afternoon plans, I think. Not that I even have 5 miles worth of gas. “But” says the local, “But there is an self-service station in Gasperina, you can try there, but there’s no guarantee
that the pump is working, it usually isn’t.” Gasperina is about 3 - 4 miles from our home. Now I must
decide, do I drive to Gasperina and risk getting stuck there or just stay home for the day, cancel afternoon plans, and hope that tomorrow I can drive myself to the nearest gas station and actually have enough gas to get there. “O la va o la spacca” I tell my sister. Basically meaning it will either work out or it won’t, but I am going to try and get gas. “I’m coming with you,” she says, “at least you will have company when we have to hitch hike back.”
And off we go, headed towards Gasperina. Small hill towns in Southern Italy can make for a tricky
drive. You’re going up a hill, down a hill; you run into people, you drive several miles without signs of
life. I wonder when the car is going to start stalling. As we drive, we come across a cute fountain,
“Oh can we stop and fill our water bottles?” I ask my sister. She gives me a look that says, “You got to be kidding me.” “No?” I ask. “DRIVE!” she screams. This sums our relationship pretty well. She, the
responsible one, I, the somewhat reckless one. I, the one who drives with the gaslight on but assume I will always get there. For the record, I have never had to call AAA for gas yet!
By miracle of miracles, we get to the gas station. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Does the pump work? Will we be spending the day by the side of the road? Under the August sun in Southern Italy’s heat? After several attempts to slide cash, credit card, coins, what ever the machine will take, I hear
the click. It works! And we both lay out a sigh of relief so loud, I am sure we’re heard from miles.
I need to make a U-turn to head back, so I go up the street a few hundred feet. “I smell something.” I
tell my sister. “Yeah, you reek of gas.” But that’s not it. I can smell deliciousness a mile away and what I smell is heaven. And then I see the sign. “Pasticceria Papucci” – of course! I am smelling a
pasticceria, or pastry shop, and my life is never going to be the same from that day on! And when we walk in, the smell is intensified that much more, that I think I am going to faint. This smell should
come in a perfume bottle.
Pasticceria Papucci may be small in size, but the selection and quality of the pastry is second to
none, and I have tried many, but always return to Papucci. The pastecceria is now owned by Nicola
Papucci, a 40 year old American-born, (Philadelphia) who grew up in southern Italy pretty much his
entire life. He moved back to Italy when he was two years old but occasionally returns to the States.
His uncle initially started the bakery in 1962, then his dad took over. He has been baking up a storm for over 23 years now. When I asked him where he went to school, he laughs! “School, I went to the best school and learned from the best, my father.” This reinforces my personal theory that one does
not need professional culinary school to be able to prepare delicious food. “I went to school to study accounting” – or “raggioniere” in Italian, but clearly, his talent is better served in the kitchen.
What’s your favorite thing to work with, I ask. Judging by how out-of-this world his pastry cream is, I expect he will say making creams. “Lavorare con pasta di mandorla” he says. Pasta di mandorla is
almond paste, with this he can make delicious cookies, especially the amaretti. Amaretti are made
with almond paste, flour, egg whites and sugar. And once again, the ones he makes are the best I have ever had. Some of my other favorites include the “maddalene” which are cylinder-shaped cookies, the cream filled lobster tails, the fruit tarts, cannolis, hazelnut-cream-filled bignes, tiramisu,
ricotta cannoli, you get the picture, they are all my favorite!
I’ve been gifting Nicola’s pastries to friends and family for years now. It’s custom when visiting friends or loved ones in Italy to bring the hosts a gift and I have been happily gifting these since the first day I had them. And every host tells me the same thing, “these are the best I have ever had, where is this shop?” My cousins live in a nearby city called Soverato. Soverato, unlike my own town, or Gasperina, is a larger city and it is filled with pastry shops and gelaterie. Yet, I always go out of my
way to head to Gasperina to buy pastries when visiting them. It’s worth the drive over and by now,
it’s what my family expects. I don’t dare bring pastry from a different shop.
Nicola’s cakes are Instagram worthy to say the least. My mother, who gets to celebrate her birthday
in Italy pretty often, always requests a cake from Pasticceria Papucci. “You ordered it, right?” She
asks in anticipation. And of course I did. “But did you make it a big one?” “We’re not that many.” I
remind her. That’s not the point, that’s never the point. If it’s a small gathering of 10, we order a
cake for 24; amazingly, it tastes better the next day. She doesn’t want gifts, doesn’t want a
celebration, but a giant cake from Pasticceria Papucci? It better be there or we will never hear the
end of it!
If you are headed anywhere in Calabria, I want you to know that no matter where you are, this is
worth the drive! I guarantee it will be the highlight of your trip. Shamefully, it always is for me, even more so than seeing some family members! It’s my first stop upon arriving, and the last stop before
leaving. With many more visits in between. When I am back in the States, I miss the pastries of
Pasticceria Papucci probably more than anything else I miss about Italy! I cannot recommend this
place enough! Start by joining their Facebook group for inspiration, until you make it there for
Find it here: Via Gramsci, 7, Gasperina.
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