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Baking Up Personal Experience: A Conversation with Renato Poliafito

By on Tuesday, June 25th, 2024 at 4:11 pm | 814 views

Renato Poliafito, a pastry chef based in Brooklyn and the cover of his latest cookbook, Dolci

Renato Poliafito began his baking career two decades ago in Red Hook, Brooklyn where he co-founded Baked NYC. He’s a James Beard-nominated pastry chef and co-author of multiple previous baking recipe books. In 2019 he launched a new project, the Italian-inspired café, Ciao, Gloria, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

The café offers breakfast, lunch, and a full array of sweet and savory snacks. The flavors are a combination of contemporary American cuisine, like avocado toast, and Italian American flavors, like pesto chicken and mortadella sandwiches.

The highlight of Ciao, Gloria are the baked goods. Poliafito draws on the flavors from New York City and his Italian heritage. In his latest cookbook, Dolci!: American Baking with an Italian Accent, he highlights some of his favorite recipes, curating a selection of pies, cookies, breads, specialties, cakes, cocktails, and savory snacks.

Poliafito grew up in Middle Village, Queens. His parents had emigrated from Italy, first settling in Bushwick, Brooklyn, not far from Circo’s Pastry Shop, a classic Italian American bakery with a window filled with pastries like Sfogliatelle and Genovese. The family occasionally returned to Sicily for summer vacations, but Poliafito explains in the introduction of the book, “even in New York, I couldn’t escape Italy.”

The combination of influences, of New York and Italy, of Italian and Italian American, are what make Dolci! a fresh take and delicious contribution to a Nouveau Italian American cuisine defining our current decade. I spoke with Renato over Zoom from Brooklyn, although he was just a three-miles away in the office of his café, Ciao, Gloria. We discussed how he curated the recipes in the book, flavors, and baking techniques.

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RED SAUCE AMERICA: You’re taking Italian American cuisine and mixing it with Italian cuisine and modern New York cuisine. The recipes are very contemporary. How did you balance tradition and contemporary flavor? What was the philosophy behind the choices?

RENATO POLIAFITO: I sat with it for a while. I had come up with idea for this book in 2017, and it had been marinating in my head for a few years. I tend to look at a book as a whole and try to come up with the table of contents first. I throw in things I want to attack, the things I’m interested in, the things I’ve never tried before. It creates a giant mishmash of recipes, and I work with them together.

I don’t want it to be too repetitive. I wanted it to be a personal cookbook and based off my experience with food, my experience being an Italian American.

I had a bakery for many years—called Baked—and I grew up with Sicilian parents, and all of those things influenced my outlook with pastry and food. So that’s how the table of contents and the recipes came together. It was kind of organic with a slightly critical eye, where I said, this recipe is too close to this other recipe, or where I cut a recipe that I’m not in love with.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: Throughout the book you are drawing on inspiration from all these different regions. There was a cake from Tyrol, Zalletti from Venice, but also southern cuisine—the whole peninsula was represented. How did that come about?

POLIAFITO: Italy has 20 regions, each region is vastly different from the other, but there are threads and similarities, like with a cookie or a biscotti from the north, you’ll also find in southern Italy, by a different name or a slightly different preparation. But they all exist and have their own story, and their own mythology. Which is also interesting because everyone stakes claim to everything. Everything has a story, and sometimes the stories are nice—are they necessarily true? Probably not.

For me, coming up with that, and figuring that out was the biggest challenge. I wanted to make sure each region was represented. I think as Americans, especially in the northeast, we’re super familiar with southern Italian food. Northern Italian food isn’t as well represented. I feel like the book is a little southern leaning because of familiarity and what’s popular, but I wanted to make sure I got good northern recipes in there as well.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: In choosing these recipes, were there any techniques or flavors that you saw as particularly modern that you wanted to integrate?

POLIAFITO: I kind of did that with the Ode to Iris. Traditionally, it is basically a breaded, fried doughnut filled with ricotta cream—one of my mom’s favorite childhood pastries. But I felt that with this book, as I was looking at it, had a lot of fried things.

I know Italians love their fried everything. But I wanted to re-approach this because I didn’t feel like the book needed another fried, ricotta filled recipe. I treated it more like a cream bun, so it’s a soft, milky brioche. Then I filled it with a dark rich chocolate pastry cream. And instead of deep frying, I tossed it in butter and sugar for a crunchy crust. It emulates the Iris in a way, like an homage. But I dragged it into the 21st Century.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: One of the flavors that sticks out to me is the a gingerbread Amaretti cookie. I love gingerbread, but it never struck me as particularly Italian.

POLIAFITO: When putting together this book and the inspiration to Ciao, Gloria, my cafe, both are a reflection of who I am as a person and an Italian American. That approach kind of opens those doors when you’re thinking about recipes, because then you can start mingling those American flavor profiles with Italian recipes. That’s the gingerbread Amaretti—they are such a classically Italian cookie, and gingerbread is such an incredible American holiday flavor.

Amaretti lend themselves to flavor profiles, like incorporating cocoa or lemon or chocolate or pistachio, so I wanted to try gingerbread. It was a recipe that evolved in the cafe our first Christmas. We were like: let’s infuse some spices into this Amaretti and see what happens. And it turned out to be a really delicious, kind of warm, but also almondy, marzipan flavor.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: The recipe that caught my eye were the ricotta black and whites—cookies drawing on local flavors. They seemed like the essence of the book in merging Italian American cuisine with New York culture.

POLIAFITO: It was a pleasure to do that, to come up with these combos.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: Are any of these recipes drawing from family recipes?

POLIAFITO: My grandparents lived in Sicily. My exposure to them was somewhat limited. Every few years I would see them – it was only my grandmother on mom’s side and grandfather on my dad’s side. They weren’t really bakers. My Dad’s Dad was a bread baker a long time ago, so I guess a little bit of it is in my DNA. My mom had this repertoire of 4 or 5 things she would make. A lot of these recipes are me as a young adult going to into adulthood trying to figure out what I like and what I could work on.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: One of the other things I noticed about the book is Kevin Miyazaki’s beautiful photos of Italy, but also the neighborhood bakeries in Brooklyn. How did you decide which Brooklyn bakeries to highlight?

POLIAFITO: It was a tough decision. Originally, this book was supposed to be equal parts Brooklyn and Italy. And I realized I wanted this to be a little more armchair travel, I want people to read it and be like: okay, let’s book our trip.

When I was picking places in Brooklyn, I went down a list of my favorite places. I reached out and was like: hey, do you mind if we come by one day and take a few photos?

I knew I definitely wanted Circo’s in there, because when my mom and dad moved here, they lived in Bushwick. Circo’s was the pastry shop they would go to in the early ’60s. They were the nicest. They were really great. And the other ones were places that were institutions and familiar to so many people who lived or who have come through New York. I wanted to make sure they were represented and that we showed a little bit of that.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: Is there a comradery among pastry chefs or are they looking at what you are doing as not really Italian American anymore?

POLIAFITO: I think I’m in a different category. If you walk into [Ciao, Gloria], it’s not like there are cannoli falling off the shelves. It’s a different approach.

I consider it a daytime cafe with a really strong bakery component. Our baked goods are just as much American as they are Italian. Next to a really great chocolate chip cookie you’ll find an almond anise biscotti. My interpretation of a cannoli cake sits next to a birthday layer cake. It’s that kind of dichotomy that I really enjoy and that I think is really representative of who I am.

I love Italian bakeries—they were an inspiration, but it’s a slightly different beast. I don’t make sfogliatelle, I don’t any of that stuff, but I try to pay homage to my Italian experience.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: You also have savory foods in the book, a whole street food section. The last two or three years there has been a lot more interest in Italian street foods. Do you see that as result of owning a cafe where people are buying small foods, or it is part of a broader narrative of the changing Italian American experiences?

POLIAFITO: I think that street food in Italy is such a common thing. When you walk into a bar for example, you have your pastries, you have your savory all in the same place. You have your coffee and an arancini, or crostata. For me, they all envelope the same universe.

I wanted to have a savory chapter because I love savory as well. It’s not just about sweets. I feel like the items I chose for this particular chapter happened to work in that aperitivo moment, or some kind of savory moment, or a baked item that happens to be savory like the Caponata Bombas. That was my approach.

Ciao, Gloria has a very robust savory program. We make morning egg sandwiches, we make toasts, we have focaccia sandwiches, we have salads and green bowls. I wanted to create an environment here where people can come at multiple points during the day and eat and enjoy and relax, just like they would go to an Italian bar.

In Italy, it’s a little faster, you kind of go, take your shot, eat whatever you need to eat, say hello, and then head out. But we’re in America, and I had to accommodate that experience.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: Speaking of aperitivo, you do have cocktails in the book—some of them reference unique ingredients. From a practical standpoint, where do you get your unique liqueurs from in New York?

POLIAFITO: I have a nice relationship with the amaro company Faccia Brutto. They’re not too far away from Ciao, Gloria, and produce on Atlantic Avenue. They’re really, really great. I’m having this little love affair with amaro right now. They pop up in a few recipes in the book, and I’m working on opening a new restaurant that will have a liquor license. It will have a limited menu of drinks, almost like a micro bar. I’m working with Faccia Brutto becuase I really want to feature these guys. Talk about Italian American – we’re in America, its created in America, but it really does a great job at ki creating that Italian amaro experience.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: Have you thought about creating your own amaro?

POLIAFITO: I would love to try. The place is going to be called Pasta Night, it’s a pasta place—I’d love to maybe experiment with amaro. I have all these grand ideas, but it will probably just be me handing delivery orders to door dash people.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: The book has a whole section of foundational recipes—basics that are part of the other recipes. You also talk about the importance of measuring ingredients by weight. Do you have any recommendations on which recipes are better for the novice?

POLIAFITO: I try to push that narrative about using a scale when baking and measuring out in grams. It’s as mathematical as you can get. It almost becomes foolproof. If you are not a baker, or routine baker, I think measuring your ingredients and making a mise en place allows you to pretty much achieve anything in this book.

Now, that said, if you want to do something a little simpler, try the pasta frolla, make a crostata, learn that way. Those are rustic simple things to make. Biscotti, any of the cookies, the brownie—I try to create levels in the book, where there are simplistic recipes, and then you have more complex recipes. Tiramisù is an easy one, the Biancomangiare is very easy, and they are all very pretty and tasty.

RED SAUCE AMERICA: You have a recipe for traditional Zeppole di San Giuseppe. In Rhode Island, there is a local tradition of stuffing these with unique and different flavors. Have you tried any of those?

POLIAFITO: I think there is always this taboo of doctoring an Italian recipe, where if you change this and that, you could get drawn and tied. I feel that I take some major liberties in this book, and I’m curious to see how its interpreted by Italians.

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Read

Dolci!: American Baking with an Italian Accent
Knopf Publishing Group
June 25, 2024

Eat

Ciao, Gloria
550 Vanderbilt Ave,
Brooklyn