Interview with Nicola Fiasconaro

Since 1953, some of the best sweets and desserts in Sicily’s traditional cuisine have been made in the medieval town of Castelbuono, in the province of Palermo. Every day, the aromas flowing from Bar Fiasconaro waft into the main square, piazza Margherita; Fiasconaro’s creams, torrone, marmalades, straw wines, cannoli and cassatine are popular around the world, and so is the company’s panettone (usually a specialty of northern Italy). Everything here is “made in Sicily”, with the best ingredients of this ancient land.

We met with Nicola Fiasconaro, award-winning pastry chef and ambassador in the world of the island’s sweet excellence. We talked about the past, the present and the future of his craft.

Your father Mario founded Fiasconaro sixty years ago. Can you tell us more about him?

My father and my grandfather started out together. They opened their first little bar on a side street. After a few years they moved to the main square, Piazza Margherita, where our stores and our small workshop are today. Dad made cream puffs, profiteroles and almond paste. And granite (a semi-frozen dessert), made with mandarins, clementines, lemons, mulberries, and cherries, and with ice from the Madonie mountains, harvested and carried with horses. My father was also a pioneer in the field of banquets and catering. Clients sought him out from all around Castelbuono – from Cefalù to Piano Battaglia – for weddings, christenings and first communions. He delivered five-layer cakes, rose, mulberry, and citrus fruit liqueurs, almonds sweets… Later, when business picked up, he would make pasta’ncasciata (pressed, oven-baked pasta), or pasta with sardines…

What about you and your brothers?

Well… we never wanted to go to school. We were quite lazy. My two brothers, Fausto and Martino, worked at the bar making coffee, while I played with chocolate, jam and puff pastry.

And that is when you fell in love with pastry making…

That’s right. Looking at my father working with flour and baking powder, and seeing him make such wonderful desserts, sparked my passion for his job – which I still consider the best job in the world.

When did you start to think that it could be your job as well?

Very early actually… Probably when I went to Messina to visit my father’s brother, Don Fedele, pastor of Saint Julian parish. In front of the church, the old Doddis patisserie that is still there had already opened. I started as an apprentice there, unpaid of course. I was used to my family’s small workshop, so I was impressed by this much larger space, organized into specific departments for cannoli, pignolata, frutta martorana and so on. There were forty pastry chefs working there! I would say that is probably when I realized what I wanted to do, as well as where I got my first real training in the field.

How did your career continue?

I went from one pastry shop to another, working for my father’s colleagues in Messina, Palermo, and a bit all over Sicily. Then I wanted to know what was going on in Naples, Rome, and also in northern Italy, in Turin, Milan…

Speaking of which, your company also makes panettone, a typical Milanese sweet bread…

Yes, but our version is strictly “born in Sicily”. I fell in love with panettone by chance. I was in Chioggia Sottomarina, near Venice, to attend a course at the “Boscolo-Etoile” Academy of Culinary Arts. In the classroom next to mine, Teresio Busnelli was revealing the magic of the natural fermentation of a ball of yeast starter… I went home and told my father that we had to make this sweet bread too, but with Sicilian raw materials: oranges, almonds, pistachios, Marsala-flavored raisins… that was in the late 1980s. Since then, Castelbuono has been exporting the “made in Sicily” panettone all around the world.

And not just that, of course…

Sicily’s cultural heritage derives from the millenary history of a land that was taken over, for better or for worse, by so many different people; it comes from a real “melting pot” of cultures: there have been Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish… and everyone left their mark in the local language, architecture, and cuisine. I want this typicality to be preserved…

What do you mean?

We need to join forces in our island to adopt a systematic approach. We must raise awareness about our culinary heritage in the world, working in synergy. But first we must establish strict criteria for our activity. The Distretto del dolce tipico siciliano (“District of typical Sicilian sweets”) was founded recently; as its coordinator, I think it can be the first step to protect our food traditions and regulate the production of our typical dishes. For example, the real cassata, real frutta martorana, real cannoli, or real almond paste must meet certain criteria and follow certain procedures; the first rule should be to use locally-sourced ingredients. Using Californian almonds to make mediocre cakes that are then passed off as Sicilian delicacies is dishonest, not inventive. I want my region’s specialties to have the same type of protection that pandoro and panettone now enjoy, by determining precise requirements for their production. We are collaborating with various academic institutions – such as the Department of Agriculture and food production science of Catania’s university – to standardize certain processes, to guarantee their safety and value.

What are your priorities?

On top of what I’ve just said, there is so much to do. For instance, there are no scientific academies of culinary arts in Sicily. I’ve been wanting to start one for years. There is an abandoned hotel in the hills around Castelbuono that could be used to hold classes. Our company is already networking with important American schools and with famous gourmets like Heinz Beck, Davide Oldani, and Filippo La Mantia. Also, Sicily lacks a strong processing industry for the field of pastry making, and therefore is dependent from Northern Italy for most semifinished products: we need to establish a Sicilian supply chain. And finally: there are no sector-specific fairs. Up until about fifteen years ago, there was a fair dedicated to ice cream and desserts held in Messina, and the Fiera del Mediterraneo in Palermo. Now there is nothing, and we are forced to “emigrate”, attending Cibus in Parma, Sigep in Rimini, or the many events held abroad.

So what is your view of the future?

Look, I’m an optimist no matter what. I hope that the institutions will help us, and I trust in the forward thinking of some politicians who really want to change this region: it’s time to leave Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” behind. The future belongs to the people of the young generation, and we are investing in them. There is a team of young people in Castelbuono that we want to train so they can be skilled managers: we are hiring consultants to teach them how to manage a growing company. And I continue to learn as well, because you should never stop learning.

You have met many famous people. In March, you offered Pope Francesco a Sicilian colomba pasquale (a typical Easter cake); a few weeks ago, in Milan, you gave Bruce Springsteen a perfect replica of his famous Fender Telecaster, made with Modica IGP chocolate…

I definitely surprised Springsteen. When he saw the chocolate guitar he couldn’t believe his eyes. And a few hours later he was jumping on stage like a thirty year old and singing in front of thousands of people… The pope is an extraordinary man, and meeting him was a touching experience for me. We have a nice tradition of offering our sweets to the Holy See, as well as to the Sicilian curia. We consider it a great privilege.

You’ve recently met the emir of Qatar…

He came to visit our workshop in Castelbuono, and immediately asked us to open one in his country. He even made me Italian ambassador for food to Qatar. I will soon go on my first “official visit”…

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December 14, 2013

Interview with Nicola Fiasconaro

Castelbuono (Pa)
Piazza Margherita 10
+39 0921 677132 +39 0921 676800