February 5 is the feast day of Saint Agatha, patron saint of Catania, Sicily. Now, that may not mean a hell of a lot to most people, but to many Italian-Americans (who, of course, are mostly Southern Italian) there is the exciting little memory of eating their first Saint Agatha’s nipple, the breast-shaped pastry that was created in the monastery kitchens of Palermo, made its way to Catania, and then landed in Italian pastry shops in New York and elsewhere where Italians wound up in this country. The nipples were very cute, and a little shocking to a kid.
Saint Agatha was born in Catania in the third century, and according to the various versions of her story, she rejected the advances of a Roman prefect, and he began to persecute her for her Christian faith. Among the many tortures she underwent was having her breasts cut off. She is usually depicted in art carrying them on a platter. Of course the disturbingly creative Sicilians turn many urges into things you can put in your mouth, especially if it gives them a chance to demonstrate their love-hate relationship with their religion. So there you have it.
I’ve spent the last week searching around Manhattan for pastry shops that still make Agatha’s signature pastry, which are frequently called minni di virgini (virgin breasts) or casatine (little casatas). They’re most often filled with sweet ricotta and then covered with bright green marzipan and slicked with a shiny coating of white icing and finished with a cherry nipple. I’ve eaten them in Palermo, and I’ve eaten them in Glen Cove, Long Island, and they’re just about the most toothachingly sweet pastry I’ve sunk my weak, filling-laden teeth into. But I loved them.
I made the rounds of all the classic Manhattan Italian shops, and I have to say, now I remember why I stopped going to most of those places.The pastries are mostly terrible and have been getting worse for years. Much of the stuff is now made with inferior ingredients, has a greasy mouth feel, is loaded with chemicals and dyes, and for whatever other reasons just tastes unnatural. I believe this is not just me being a snob; the pastries of my heritage really have gone downhill.
The only shop I could locate that still makes Agatha’s nipples in Manhattan is De Robertis, in the East Village. (I also called shops in Brooklyn and Queens. I didn’t get around to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx because I knew I wasn’t going to make it up there, but they could hold promise.) De Robertis is a beautiful little family-run place, opened in 1904 and left fairly unchanged except for the replacement of the old banquettes in the 1990s. I commend them for carrying on with tradition, but like all the other Italian pastry shops in town, they’ve let their ingredients become way too commercial to produce wonderful pastries. Their ricotta cheesecake now tastes like cream cheese and pastry cream instead of good ricotta, with no hint of the classic orange flower water flavoring that makes the real cake so alluring. Their cookies are full of low-grade chocolate and stale nuts. This didn’t happen overnight, but still, it’s sad to see those beautiful Southern Italian sweets take such a slide.
I sat in De Robertis’s white-and-gold-tiled back room eating my Saint Agatha’s nipple, with it’s day-glo green filling. Wow, is this thing sweet, and a lot more solid than I remember. It looked exactly the same as always, a petite, pretty little white breast with a puffy red nipple, but so dense. I wanted to suggest just a little upgrading of ingredients and a return to a bit of finesse, to make the nipple and all De Robertis’s other sweet things great again, but what would be the point? I was happy just to find one of these somewhere in the city.
Recently Saint Agatha has become the patron saint of breast cancer patients, and since several of my friends have had or are currently having problems in that department, I dedicate my successful search for Agatha’s signature pastry to them.
176 First Avenue (at 13th Street)
New York , N.Y.