The recent flurry of Italian restaurant openings (Nico Osteria, Eataly, Cicchetti, Azzurra) has us thinking about some of our favorite classic Italian foods. Namely, sfogliatelle.
A successful sfogliatella—the clamshell-shaped, baked ricotta–filled pastry associated with Naples—is a creature borne of patience and balance. Producing its crunchy, multilayered shell entails a lengthy rite of stretching, folding, rolling and shaping lard-laminated dough. Nail this, and still you face a number of potential blunders: Overcooked or overhandled shells take on a tooth-busting toughness, too-dry filling imparts an unpleasant mealiness and an oversweetened smear of custard at the pastry's mouth threatens to overwhelm the citrus and vanilla notes that subtly perfume the filling.
Except for the most experienced (and least time-pressed) amateur baker, then, the sfogliatella (the plural are called sfogliatelle) is a do-not-try-this-at-home type of pastry. Luckily, some Chicago-area Italian bakeries are doing the work so you don't have to. Here are five spots where you can get your hands on this complex beauty.
Il Giardino del Dolce ($2.75)
Situated along the Italian-American strip that stretches north from Harlem and Diversey, Il Giardino del Dolce (2859 N Harlem Ave) offers a range of products both traditional (cannoli, pasticiotti, baba) and less so (red velvet and German chocolate cake slices). The exterior components of its sfogliatelle are all well and good—the crispness of its shell is not overly pronounced, and the flavor of its custard trimming is pleasant but subdued. All the better, for the filling is the star here: it's dense and smooth in texture, just lightly sweetened, with a complex flavor that marries bright notes of citrus with ricotta's faint umami factor.
Naples Bakery ($2.25)
This Evergreen Park spot (3705 W 95th St) has been run by the same family since it was founded by a Neapolitan immigrant in the 1920s at 69th and Paulina. Despite relocating in the '60s, it retains an old-school charm, evident in touches like the retro exterior signage, as well as a healthy roster of Old World pastries and cookies. The sfogliatelle shells here are supremely flaky, with a texture that manages to be at once crunchy and tender. Baked ricotta fills their interiors completely rather than hiding in the rear, and they're sealed with a generous piping of rich vanilla custard, making every bite fully flavored.
Scafuri Bakery ($3.50)
Apart from a five-year hiatus that ended in 2013, Scafuri Bakery (1337 W Taylor St) has been a Taylor Street mainstay since 1904. Its current management—descendants of the Calabrian founders—turn out crisp sfogliatelle that at first glance appear to be missing something: The daub of custard that crowns most renditions of the pastry here in sweet-toothed Chicago. But in fact, this is how sfogliatelle are done in Naples, which makes Scafuri's version perhaps the most authentic in the city. With only a dusting of powdered sugar for sweetness, the sfogliatelle here wouldn't be out of place on the breakfast table, which is where they're often found alongside a strong coffee in Naples.
Sicilian Bakery ($2.50)
This tidy shop, tucked into a strip mall along the stretch of Cumberland that divides Chicago and Norridge (4632 N Cumberland Ave), offers up two takes on sfogliatelle: The familiar, custard-topped one, and an unorthodox cannoli version. The former is tasty, with a light, fresh shell and a mildly-citrusy filling. Purists be damned, though—it's the cannoli sfogliatella that won us over, thanks to Sicilian's impossibly creamy ricotta. Chocolate chip–studded fresh ricotta on the exterior meets an interior of velvety baked filling uncut by the usual citrus pop and thus, it's unapologetically sweet. Reminiscent almost of cheesecake in its richness, it's a decadent creation, and certainly the most dessert-like of our picks.
Turano Mamma Susi Bakeshop ($2.29)
Most Chicagoans know Turano as bread purveyor to grocery stores and delis across the city. Less familiar are its efforts in the pastry department, the work of Mamma Susi's, a modern (if slightly sterile) storefront appended to the company's gargantuan Berwyn operation (6501 W Roosevelt Rd). Turano's sfogliatelle are workhorses, not transcendent in any single aspect, but solid across the board. They're larger than most, with pleasantly flaky shells that peek out from beneath a liberal sprinkling of powdered sugar. Not-too-sweet custard is spread with a restrained hand, the better to let the filling's subtle flavor through.