How the iconic Italian dessert takes on new forms from top bakeries
By Chef Vincent Tropepe
The Italian Rainbow cookies are generally referred to a long list of aliases some of which are, Italian Flag Cookies, Napoleon cookies, seven layer cookies, seven layer cake, tri – color cookies and Venetian cookies to only name a few. No matter what you call it, it is a distinctive dessert best known for its colored appearance that looks somewhat like the Italian flag.
As a chef that is fluent in pastry I can not count how many times in referring to a flag cookie am I asked, “Chef it this a cookie or a cake?”In the many years of making this dessert, I am hoping to put this debate to rest once and for all. I have made the same exact recipe and made it into cookies, pastry slices and cakes, it all depends on how you cut it and what you want to make it to be. For examples, after making the layers and cutting into long narrow strips it is safe to say making it into a cookie is the product you want to make. If I assemble the layers and cut them into larger triangular shapes and then cover it in chocolate I can easily have individual slices of flag pastry. No matter the form, this flag dessert is staples in any Italian household especially come the holidays. Despite if it’s a cookie or a cake this dish has strong and widespread appeal in part due to its nostalgia factor.
Despite the nostalgia factor that seems to be a driving force behind this cookie, its hard to pinpoint the exact history or creator of it. Rainbow cookies were made popular in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, by Italian American bakeries in particular those found in New York City. The earliest cookie of this type was debuted at DeLilo’s Bakery and Café Ferrara. The cookie seems to be a product of cross culture assimilation. There is no counterpart to it in Italy.
It’s sometimes called seven layer cookies because of it’s seven layers: dark chocolate, green almond cake, jelly, white almond cake, jelly, red almond cake and dark chocolate. Each layer of the cake/cookie is made with butter, eggs, sugar, flour and it’s most prized ingredient almond paste.
The rainbow cookie is an Italian American staple that will never die. As a matter of fact, with the creativity of many talented bakers the rainbow cookie has also taken on new forms to make a hybrid product.
At Café Belle located at 280 Mulberry Street New York, New York 10012, which is operated by a family that has been in the bakery business for 70 years – The Scala family. Originated in Naples, Italy and the bakery empire started by Guiseppe Scala. The Scala is proud to use Guiseepe’s recipes to this very day. To add their twist to the flag cookie, they turned this classic into an ice cream sandwich replacing the while almond sponge with ice cream.
In the forgotten borough of Staten Island, Alfonso’s Pastry Shop located at 1899 Victory Blvd Staten Island, New York 10314 crossed the rainbow cookie with a donut to make a chocolate covered seven-layer doughnut. Since 1970, Alfonso wanted to learn to bake and perfected his craft while in Italy with regional chefs. When he came to America, his first job was baking at The Plaza Hotel. Since 1996, Alfonso’s Pastry Shop has been operated under Alfonso’s son, Anthony Campitiello who himself has become a talent baker and practices the same techniques as his father.
In neighboring New Jersey, A Little Cake located at 176 Kinderkamack Road Park Ridge, NJ 07656 gave new life to the rainbow cookie by transforming it into another American classic – the crumb cake. A Little Cake established in 1999 by Leo Sciancale and John Chayka and offers French, Italian and American desserts.
These three businesses should be credited and praised for their baking perspectives and the time, talent and techniques they had to develop to bring this Italian American classic into new delicious forms. As a chef and being a creative person myself, no matter where I go cooks, bakers, chefs want to show something off to me – which I appreciate, but often times in the midst of that creativity and execution the person misses the mark and unknowingly over shadows the true hallmark of what they originally wanted to put forth, but not here. These bakers and operaters struck a very important balance in their development and execution to a dessert that continues to be iconic and because of them will live in new forms that I know will not only make their patrons happy for their enjoyment, but furthers the craft of baking, but also the expression of the Italian culture through baking.