A sweet reportage across America
This is a report about a road trip from Chicago to New Orleans, about 2,000 kilometres covering eight states, that introduces us to a few testimonies, among the many that appear throughout the states, that joyfully demonstrate the Italian culture of dessert.
It represents the classic American tour, but this time our adventure wasn’t filled with trips to the typical souvenir shops, yet to sacred places, where the real Italian atmosphere can be felt and where the predominant fragrances aren’t BBQ sauce but pistachios and candied fruits.
Chicago is a very proud metropolis. Just think that its inhabitants have called it “The second,” a nickname that attests that within the United States, after the iconic New York City, there is only them: the Windy City, called this way thanks to the constant wind that blows from the immense Lake Michigan upon which the city lays, is the second largest American metropolis considering number of inhabitants.
It is the home town to the national NRA event, an event in which I participate to promote the culture of Italian desserts. After the fair, I started my trip by moving slightly out of the city to Addison, just 35 kilometres from The Bean, the huge steel bean, which is considered to the symbolic heart of the city.
It is here that I met the descendants of Franco Denigris.
In 1981, Denigris opened a small “Italian Bakery,” a small store that cranks out cannoli, sfogliatelle (lobster tails) and cassata, rigidly ordered in Italian by his 100% American clients.
There is a lot of passion and modesty amongst the people behind the counter even in spite of its plaque that qualifies this shop on the “Chicago’s Best” list, a qualification created by WGN9 TV station to celebrate the most appealing offerings in the Chicago area.
It is impossible to resist purchasing one of the delicacies whose wafting fragrance seems to come from at least eight thousand kilometres away.
Therefore, I decided to fuel up before starting my trip towards the south.
There are about 500 kilometres between Chicago and Cincinnati and it goes through the states of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
Founded in 1788 with the name Losantiville, the city quickly acquired its current name thanks to the governor of the North West Territory, Arthur St. Clair, in honour of the Society of the Cincinnati. St. Clair was a member of the Society, whose name comes from the Roman consul Lucio Quinzio Cincinnato.
The city is home to the American Sign Museum which has about two thousand square metres that recount one hundred years of American History through signs.
The owners are very proud to own the biggest public museum dedicated to signs in the States!
The tour is a walk through the history of communication as told by signs. Some of them are perfectly preserved as if they have just been put on display, whereas others proudly show their altered state, proof of their experience in the world.
They are real pieces of history, such as a huge McDonald’s sign with the original slogan “speedee service system,” oil brand signs (some of which you can still see standing tall at gas stations along the “Mother Road”), the famous Route 66 sign, Papa Dino’s Pizza Restaurant and Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream, which promises 28 fantastic flavours and is perfectly preserved since its debut during the legendary 50s.
Here there aren’t any sweet treats to taste, but this small detour through these signs that tell stories (some of which have clear Italian origins) feeds the soul with enjoyable memories.
The Interstate 71 accompanied me for 160 kilometres through the state of Kentucky, until I arrived in the city that is hometown to Muhammad Ali.
At the time, his name was Cassius Clay, one of the most famous boxers in history giving him the nickname of “the Greatest.”
Here we are in Louisville, a charming city with about 600 thousand inhabitants, founded in 1778 and inspired by, as the name suggests, King Louis XVI of France.
Twenty kilometres from the city centre there is Prospect, a pleasant, small town of 10 thousand people.
In the centre of the town we find Gelato Gilberto, an interesting union of Italy and the States, as the payoff claims “Local ingredients, Italian training”.
They use local milk as a point of reference for the recipes and ingredients imported from Italy.
The owner, Justin Gilbert, is 100% American, but he definitely has an interesting story.
After an extremely formative professional experience at the famous pizza chain Papa John’s, he moved to Italy with his wife and two daughters to study how to prepare real artisanal Italian gelato.
During the two and half years, the entire family learned how to speak Italian and they travelled to over 20 cities in the boot searching for great recipes and flavour ideas. They then returned to the Louisville area to open this small Italian oasis.
Now that is true love for Italy!
Embarking again on my journey towards the Gulf of Mexico, I travelled from Kentucky to Tennessee, towards the country music capital (indeed, the County Music Hall of Fame and Museum calls this place home).
We are in Nashville, 300 kilometres south of Louisville. It is a city abundant with amusement and entertainment, giving it the name Nashvegas, counterbalancing
Las Vegas on the other side of the US. In the centre you can stroll along the Walk of Fame, where music stars are honoured with steel stars set in the sidewalk. It is like the one in Hollywood, except that instead of actors and actresses, here you can find the stars of Dolly Parton, Jimmy Hendrix, Kid Rock, Peter Frampton, Keith Urban and so on. Walking along Broadway, we ran into a store that sells candy and every other type of sweet temptation: Savannah’s Candy Kitchen.
The inviting window displays pulls you into the store and ensures that you won’t leave it until you have a nice little packet in hand, with the bow, calories, and all.
In the back of the shop, two gelato display cases strike my attention. Here there is a direct comparison between artisanal Italian-style gelato and the classic American ice cream. The flavour markers mark not only if the pan has hazelnut or chocolate, but they also indicate whether it is an ice cream or a gelato.
For all of those who ask themselves what the difference between these two different styles is, we can only say: make a note of this shop and enjoy the comparison in one of the most fun cities of the US!
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
After purchasing a pair of cowboy boots (another treasure of Nashville), I tackle the next 900 kilometres through the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, with final destination in New Orleans, a city born from the mixture of the French, African and American cultures. Close to the Gulf of Mexico, this small metropolis (there are 400 thousand inhabitants) lays peacefully along the banks of the Mississippi River.
It is mainly known for its non-stop night life, the vibrant music scene and a spicy cuisine. At 214 North Carrollton Avenue, I bump into a place called Angelo Brocato’s, where gelato, cassata, spumone, babà and numerous other treats are in the display case ready to welcome the dessert-seeking clients.
The founder of the shop, Angelo Brocato, opened it in New Orleans in 1905.
He came from Cefalù, Sicily after having done training as a gelato and pastry chef in Palermo. After his death in 1946, his descendants continued to enthusiastically offer the Italian artisanal culture, and today they are still happily in action.
It is a small shop but with a huge reputation: when it was closed following Hurricane Katrina, on an HBO TV show, the main characters claimed that they couldn’t eat a dessert in a restaurant because with Brocato’s being closed there was no way to find a great dessert.
In a later episode, the characters are filmed in the reopened Brocato’s in 2016. And here I am at the end of the trip.
A classic road trip along the arteries that pass through the States, where instead of hot dogs and tortillas, we wanted to give a voice to the Italian pastry and gelato tradition.
We triumph over this Italian pride that is celebrated not only during large international events, but also and most importantly among the people, entering a perfect accord with the spirit of the American suburbs.
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