Popularized in overpriced coffee bars, biscotti stopped being gourmet around the same time Dunkin' Donuts started serving cappuccino. As the biscotti became "fancier"-dunked in heavy layers of chocolate coating, drizzled in a sugar glaze-the more American they became. Knowing how hard biscotti are supposed to be, I used to hesitate before I would bite into one. Now I have enough experience to know that mass-produced biscotti not only will yield to your teeth, they will disintegrate in your coffee about as quickly as a graham cracker. The truth is, most American biscotti are just cookies in disguise.
On a visit to Fairway Supermarket last year, some small cellophane bags near the cheese department made me pause. They contained chalky, almost fossilized-looking biscotti. I invested in a bag, cracked it open when I left the store and took my first bite in the fresh air. I crunched. And crunched.
Though they didn't break my teeth, these were the most authentic store-bought biscotti I'd eaten in some time. I was even more pleased to find that they were made in Brooklyn. Silvana Nardone is the 32-year-old Brooklynite behind Fanciulla ("girl" in Neapolitan slang) Foods, the one-and-a-half-year-old wholesale bakery in Red Hook responsible for my find. When I arrived on a recent morning visit, the bakery was pulsating with catchy, energetic music. Nardone, a slim brunette with a nose ring and dark rimmed glasses, was standing on top of a milk crate. She appeared to be cheering on Melissa Keevil, a baker, who was rolling out dough. The women, both in unofficial uniforms of cotton tees, snug jeans, white aprons and do rags, were pumped.
Over the music, I ask Nardone what we're listening to. "It's the Rapture," she answers. "It's becoming our working music. Regula liked Lite FM and the oldies station." Regula is Regula Onstad, former owner of Regula's Cakes ("Eats & Drinks," 6/23/04), with whom Nardone once shared this space. In November, Onstad retired, and Nardone acquired her lease and equipment. Save for the missing model wedding cakes and other decorative baking paraphernalia, the place-clean and white with gleaming machinery-looks essentially the same.
At the moment, Keevil is preparing the bakery's newest addition: three types of biscotti (pine-nut almond, chocolate hazelnut and chocolate espresso), one cookie (candied orange almond) and the wine flats. Not quite crackers and not quite cookies, these wheat-thin-sized squares contain herbs, spices and dried fruit-fig rosemary, cherry peppercorn and currant fennel-in combinations that are both savory and sweet. The flats, inspired by ciambelle, large, donut-shaped Italian biscuits for dipping into white wine, all contain chardonnay. Growing up, Nardone, the daughter of a Jewish-American mother and Rome-born father, spent every other summer in Italy.
Perhaps because they are her invention, the wine flats tend to defy classification. "At Caputo's in Brooklyn," recounts Nardone, "a customer came in, was standing in line to buy a bag, opened it up and started eating them like chips." (At $7.75/bag, those are some fancy chips-Nardone's products also sell at Gourmet Garage, Vintage New York, Sahadi's and DiPaolo's).
In another interpretive moment, a woman who had ordered several bags for a party called in a panic. After discovering the wine flats were not salty, she was no longer certain she could use them for her intended purpose. "I told her it would work fine," says Nardone. "I feel like people need to let go of their cracker theories and explore something that's different."
One gets the distinct feeling that Nardone is enjoying herself. Always with a bright smile and never appearing rushed, her work takes on the look of an elective activity. The way she describes her professional life up until now-"it's all been good timing"-begins to explain her apparent ease. After working in publishing for more than 10 years starting at age 17-including stints at Amex Publications and the Source, a gig that landed her in New York's hiphop scene and a cameo appearance serving champagne to Biggie and Puff Daddy in the video for "Juicy"-Nardone gradually transitioned to food. First as an editorial assistant at Food + Wine, then as special projects editor for Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian and last as director of development for Sullivan Street Bakery. Then she struck out on her own.
Nardone, also mother of a seven-year-old son, Isaiah, ended up at home, writing a proposal for a food memoir based on her summers in Italy. "I tested and developed my recipes at home," says Nardone. "I started making biscotti to snack on, friends were coming over for tea, people really loved them. I thought if I could just do this on a small scale it could be fun. I threw out an email to see if I could find commercial space and within a month I was here."
Each of Nardone's products is made by hand and on such a small scale that its taste and appearance bear telltale marks. Wine flats, rolled and cut by hand, are all slightly different shapes. She bakes her biscotti twice (the literal meaning of "biscotti" is twice-baked), a step that, according to Nardone, is skipped by many commercial bakeries. Instead, they add ammonium bicarbonate, a food-grade chemical that has a drying effect. Nardone also slices her biscotti by hand and candies her own orange rind for the almond orange cookies. Although the business is in its nascent stages, the focus on craft and excellent natural ingredients speaks both of Nardone's idealism and her burgeoning connoisseurship.
Nardone opens the oven and touches a warm log of biscotti.
"My mother always thought I liked my Italian side more than my Jewish side," says Nardone, "but I made chicken soup last night. It doesn't transfer into baking, but maybe one day it will."