The cake was supposedly a birthday centerpiece for three henchmen visiting the island and employed by Alfonso Capone, known as “Al Capone,” the legendary Chicago crime boss.
Today, my culinary discovery takes me to Naples, searching for the origin of the famous Torta Caprese. Popular in the region of Campania, lately a favorite among consumers who prefer dairy-free sweets, the Caprese exemplifies the simplicity of great baking with limited but high-quality ingredients.
I decided to go to the Pasticceria Bellavia, a suggestion offered by a chef friend, but when in Naples, the pasticcerie are endless, and every one of them rivals each other for the “Best Caprese throne.” In the “Sun Gulf City,” there are no average pastry shops. The Neapolitans are masters in the art of confections and savory, and from Rum Babas to Sfogliatelle, to Roccoco, choosing can become an obsession.
I am taking the exit off the Tangenziale Napoli Arenella, a sharp right toward Via Gigante, and on the first intersection, I am on Piazza Muzii. One of the four Bellavia locations is here on storefront number 27-28.
It’s romantic to remember how in 1925, Antonio Bellavia moved from Palermo to Naples, bringing the aroma, the colors, and the flavors to a land where taste becomes a cultural expression and religious devotion. Very soon, Antonio began delighting the most discriminating palates with his cassata, cannoli, and other specialties, turning the pastry shop of Porto d’Alba, an essential destination for the Neapolitan elite gourmands, writers, and connoisseurs of the Epoque.
Later on, with the help of his sons Vincenzo and Giuseppe, he expanded the business, opening a new outlet in Vomero and another in Rione Alto in the Naples hills overlooking the bay. Meanwhile, he closed the original shop at Porto d’Alba. In 1991, a split in the third generation of the family separated the two shops, first commercially, then in production. Vincenzo Bellavia took over the Rione Alto branch with his wife Maria Pia and their children.
In 1993 the couple christened a new shop in Arenella, which was highly successful from the outset, joined by Lucio, Germano, and Ursula. They collaborated in harmony and developed a unique formula based on tradition, quality, and innovation, still masterfully displayed today every time you enter a Bellavia pastry shop. The insoluble marriage of Sicilian and Neapolitan traditions has become a sweet ritual in the Campania region.
The artistic collaboration among the family members reflects in the creative creations offered daily under the strict supervision of Lucio. He selects the finest local ingredients, as well as seeking the country’s top producers. Germano’s vision, and the feminine touch from Ursula, provide the seamless structure in maintaining the passion handed down by Maria Pia and Vincenzo years earlier.
The origins and history of the delicious Caprese cake
Cooks and bakers share a touch of madness, typical of artists that create unique delicacies with constant and obsessive discipline. In the Spring of 1920, a Neapolitan baker involuntarily created a confectionery masterpiece. His name was Carmine di Fiore. One day, he was alone in his small bakeshop on the island of Capri, surrounded by his tools and ingredients, among them almonds. The cake was supposedly a birthday centerpiece for three henchmen visiting the island and employed by Alfonso Capone, known as “Al Capone,” the legendary Chicago crime boss.
The baking day was going well, until out of pure distraction, he made a mistake that would undoubtedly have cost him dearly his reputation as a renowned chef. He entirely omitted the necessary flour to complete the initial batter for the recipe and used almond flour instead. Carmine baked the cake without realizing the honest omission. Still, with amazement, the cake turned out a real delicacy: soft in the center and crunchy outside with a mixture of chocolate and rich almond flavor.
We will never know if the recipe was an unexpected mistake or not; we do know, however, that the three shady characters were very satisfied and asked for the recipe. Carmine continued to prepare the Caprese years after, and its success reached the whole Amalfi coast and the Sorrento’s peninsula. The peculiarity of this dessert is the total absence of flour and yeast, made with finely ground almonds and melted dark chocolate. Still, it rises due to the addition of whisked egg yolks and meringue (egg whites)—pure science.
However, there are many variations developed from this original mistake.
Today, in addition to the classic recipe, if you travel to Capri, Amalfi, and throughout the Sorrento coastline, you will find several variations, such as with white chocolate and pistachios, bitter cocoa, chocolate, and baking powder, or the new addition with limoncello and almonds and without chocolate. Some modern recipes may include flour, but the classic Caprese remains gluten-free, using the stiff whisking of the eggs as the leavening agent.
[Image Attribution via Vesuviolive}
Torta Caprese (8-10 servings)
1 -1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips, use 75% cocoa butter
Two sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
Five large eggs, separated
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 -1/2 cups almond flour
One teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Place the bittersweet chocolate and the butter in a bowl that fits comfortably on the top of a double boiler set over a pan of simmering water.
Allow the chocolate to melt until smooth and creamy. Cool the chocolate and butter mixture slightly until warm to the touch.
With a pastry brush, coat evenly the inside of a 9-inch springform pan with butter.
Place the egg whites in a cold medium bowl with a pinch of salt.
Place the yolks in a slightly larger bowl with the granulated sugar, and whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form, about 2 minutes, either by hand or a handheld mixer.
Then beat the egg yolks on medium speed until light, pale and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, stir the chocolate mixture, almond flour, and vanilla into the yolks. In 2 batches, fold the whipped whites into the chocolate base. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake until puffed and begin to crack on top.
Your Caprese will be ready in about 40 minutes, but temperatures vary according to the oven’s calibration. Proceed to cool the cake on a wire rack.
Once the cake has cooled slightly, run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan and release the cake.
Remove the outside ring and dust the top with confectioners’ sugar.
Thanks for reading. Eat safe! Ciao Chef W
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