Note: Pasticceria Natalina is closed for business as of May 2011.
The opening of Pasticceria Natalina on Valentine’s Day 2007 generated raves in the press, and soon after drove foodies to Andersonville to confirm whether all the hype was true. It was. And it still is. And it is a find. The elegant dolci here are divine.
This simple, chartreuse pastry shop is the creation of Natalie and Nick Zarzour. She’s of Sicilian descent and he’s Lebanese. The two met in college, where she studied political science and he engineering, and they married in November of 2002. One day while driving, Natalie bit into a mediocre piece of pastry and realized how fed up she was with the poor quality and industrialization of a lot baking in the United States. She knew she could do better. She was fortunate to have grown up with immigrant grandparents and family members who involved Natalie from an early age in learning how to cook and bake in the Sicilian ways.
A small inheritance from her Palermo-born maternal grandparents at around the same time triggered the turning point for Natalie and Nick to call it quits with their pursuits. The two decided to put their energy into opening a shop featuring distinctive Sicilian specialties. “I was only 23. It was totally a gift. I figured it must be the right thing to do then,” recalls Natalie. “I think they’d be happy with what I did with it.”
Half the space is devoted to an open kitchen where Natalie and a few other pastry chefs make every aspect of every piece of pastry by hand, from scratch, while Nick runs the business end of things. For her pastries, Natalie marries authentic Sicilian tastes with classical French techniques by drawing on her family’s Sicilian roots, as well as trips to Italy, her own creativity, and an apprenticeship at a French pastry shop in Zahle, Lebanon, where Nick is from. Her unyielding mantra: focus on flavor, texture, and the visual. “If those three things aren’t on the plate,” says Natalie, “it’s not a pastry I want to serve.” She is simply impassioned with doing things the right way. Her ingredients “for anything that gives flavor”—such as Sicilian ricotta (made from sheep’s milk), preserved fruits, nuts, honey, flavoring liqueurs, and decorating sugars—are imported from Italy. Fresh fruits are seasonal and organic.
Once inside, you are immediately drawn to the dozen or so beautifully adorned confections on display. After my first visit, I realized it would be impossible to ever pick one. So I always opt to take home an assortment. On one June afternoon, I started with a rectangular Mille Foglie alle Fragole, an exquisite layered creation of puff pastry, vanilla sponge cake, Sicilian pastry cream punctuated by two thin tiers of strawberry compote filling. My first bite elicited an intense crispy crunch, followed by sublime creaminess and intense strawberry flavor.
While it’s hard to imagine anything more satisfying, a pale green, dome-shaped cassatine comes close. Traditionally an Easter cake, it can now be found year round in Italy and now here. This diminutive pastry belies its medley of complex flavors. Beneath the outer marzipan shell, a floral liqueur-soaked sponge cake (pan di spagna) coddles luxurious imported ricotta cream, bits of dark chocolate, all topped with a powdered sugar glaze and piece of candied orange. Both creations demonstrate Natalie’s ability to marry flakiness and creaminess is nothing short of miraculous.
I know of no other bakery in Chicago where you can find sfogliatelle, an unbelievably involved pastry to make. It technically originates from Naples, and is the Italian word for “leaves” or “pages.” It resembles a seashell made of wrapped layers of thin pastry that is baked with a lemon-zest ricotta filling and dusted with powdered sugar. Customers come from all over the city for these alone. Baked to golden perfection with burnished edges, Natalie’s sfogliatelle gives new meaning to the word flakiness. They are best eaten fresh and a must-try.
The “homier” pastries, such as the cookies, reflect Natalie’s Sicilian influence the most. Among these are fig-filled cuccidatti; crunchy sesame reginette; delicate anise and lemon crescent cornettini; and zaletti butter cookies with polenta, rum, and raisins. The almond butter Baci di dama with dark chocolate filling is a perfect cookie for dunking in coffee. Other simpler offerings are crunchy sesame, almond, honey bars (cubbaita) and various biscotti.
What is considered “authentic” can be a debate in any cuisine. Natalie, who delves into the history of Italian food—which is influenced by centuries of war, conquests, trade, introduction of foods by different cultures—takes customers back in time with her creations. “I take each pastry for what it is. I try to get to know it in its different stages of history. And then I try to make the most artistically pleasing version of that pastry.” This approach is a welcome preservation of Sicilian sweets, which even in Italy is becoming a lost art form, according to Natalie.
5406 North Clark Street
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays
Wednesday – Friday, 12:00 noon – 10:00 pm
Saturday, 12:00 noon – 10:00 pm
Sunday, 12:00 noon – 8:00 pm
Note: hours change seasonally
Parking: Street, metered