Set in the Gulf of Salerno on the Tyrrhenian Sea is the small, yet historically powerful, town of Amalfi. The town was once one of the four Maritime Republics along with Venice, Genoa and Pisa. It has a long story and rich history of Dukes that ruled, sea traders that brought the first eggplant and spices to its port, and the Arabs who introduced papermaking.
Written and Photographed By Lauren Birmingham Piscitelli
Amalfi’s origins date back to the fourth century B.C. It started as a trading post. Invaders, pirates and seafarers, along with the Greek and Latin followed. Nicknamed the Ducato di Amalfi it was an independent state from around 839 to 1131 A.D. with its borders starting at Lettere and Cetara and stretching to Positano and Capri. Wars and stories continued from Sicardo of Benevento to the Lombards, Byzantines and Normans. The Normans conquered in 1131, and Amalfi lost its independence.
Carlo Nazzaro, the Italian writer, once penned, “Amalfi nome forte e gentile, che solcasti i mari che nuovi mari conquistasti alla feder e alla patria.” His poetic words translate into something like this, the name Amalfi, strong and gentile, who has crossed the sea and won new seas in travels for the faith and for the nation. These words are etched on a marble plaque that hangs over the entrance to the city, dating back to 1010.
In the Middle Ages, circa 839 to the late 11th century, Amalfi had developed a strong merchant trade with the Orient and became an economic powerhouse. Its merchants dominated the Mediterranean. Its residents produced timber that was cut from the verdant trees on its back mountains and then sold it to the Arabs. Lumber production soared and its economy grew. The local wood was shipped to the Orient and Africa, and the Amalfitans in turn traded it for minted gold coins called dinars, spices and Arabic silks. The area quickly absorbed the flavor of the Orient, including the exotic spices that quickly made their way into the style of cooking. For example, meat was prepared with pistachio, raisins and pine nuts with escarole, and almond paste in pastry making.
The Amalfitans were excellent ship builders and natural mariners. They were the first to use the Chinese compass and Egyptian astrolabe. They were also the authors of the 12th century Tavole Amalfitane, Amalfitan Laws or Maritime Laws. Their elaborate Maritime war vessels, called sagene, were designed after the Arabian ships. They sailed the Mediterranean and settled throughout Alessandria, Egypt, Greece, India, and Africa. Legend says Flavio Gioia invented the compass in Amalfi, but most disagree saying he never existed. However, a statue of Gioia stands tall at the entrance of town.
Amalfi’s beauty has never faded throughout time, and to date it continues to attract visitors from around the world for its history, landmarks and food. Although small in size, the town has a lot to offer. There is the Piazza Duomo, the most famous address and home to Saint Andrew’s Church, the Cathedral of Amalfi which dates back to the 11th century, the Cloister of Paradise, a Moorish-style open-air courtyard, the Basilica of the Crucifix, home to the museum and Crypt of Sant’ Andrea, the town’s Patron saint, and the Pansa Café.
Although not as old as the Cathedral, the Pansa Café is a food lover’s dream. Nestled at the foot of the stairs that lead to the Piazza Duomo, its elegant outdoor tables always draped in white linen spill across the piazza. Waiters arrive at your service dressed in long bistro aprons and carry everything on a silver platter; even if it is just a napkin. Fresh flowers garnish the tables, and when your steamy cup of cappuccino arrives accompanied with a heavenly slice of Ricotta e Pera, you almost have to pinch yourself. Not only do I have both a café and sweet slice, but I am sitting with fifth generation owner, Nicola Pansa. We are at the world famous Pansa Café in the Piazza. And it is delicious.
When I asked him what his favorite dessert is, he responds, “ci sono tanti dolci,” there are many,…” my preference is Sfogliatella Santa Rosa, and Scorza di limone. The scorze also presents the story of our pasticceria, pastry cafe. And the lemon is the essence of what the family Pansa represents in Amalfi.”
“If you can imagine, all the lemons we use in our kitchen come from our garden. Our lemon trees have been cultivated throughout the years in our lemonaia, lemon garden, with love. The fruits arrive in our kitchen, and go straight into the hands of our pastry chefs, who turn them into delicate desserts. Then it’s our job to sell them to the customers and visitors.”
“C’e’ tanto lavoro ma tanto amore! Sono profondamente orgoglioso.” His words translate to, ‘there’s a lot of work but a lot of love…and I am deeply proud of it.’ He talks with his hands and points to the window that is showcasing handmade chocolates, almond biscotti, Sfogliatella Santa Rosa, candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate, and sponge cake decked with fresh whipped cream and wild strawberries, and the smell of deep dense Italian coffee fills the piazza.
“The Pansa Café dates back to 1830. Andrea Pansa was my great, great, great grandfather and founding father of the business. His name is engraved on a marble plaque in the Piazza. In 2010, our family celebrated 180 years of doing business. We hope to celebrate the next milestone in 2030, even though it is a far date away. It is a date that we are all looking forward to because after the all the years that my family has sacrificed, we plan to have a grand celebration. Our family’s dream is to pass this business onto our sons and celebrate two hundred years in business and six generations of tradition. Five generations later, my brother Andrea and I, are here managing, and we hope our newborn sons will keep the family tradition alive,” Nicola explains.
He tells the story of how it all started, “Nostra pasticceria ha cominciato come una spezieria, antica drogheria, confettificio,” our pastry shop started as a spice shop, an old-fashioned drug store and candy shop. People came here to buy a little bit of everything: flour, sugar, fruits & vegetables, and have a café too. There was always a little table in the corner with pastry on it for customers. My great, great, great grandfather followed the trade trends of Amalfi’s grande commercianti, savy merchants, expanded and began to sell baking products to the pastry makers. Around 1970, my father, Gabriele Pansa, had an idea to transform the market into a café selling exclusively high quality traditional pastries.”
Today, when you ask any local who has the best pastry on the Amalfi Coast and desserts, their answer is always Pansa. In 2001, the café was awarded the Prestigious Bar Register accolade making it a historical landmark by the Italian Cultural Association as the oldest and most respected producer of confectionery pastry on the Amalfi Coast.
Even prior to Pansa’s worldwide recognition, the intellectual set were frequenting Pansa in the mid 1800s. Buongustai, food lovers of all things sweet and delicious, included Henry Longfellow, American poet and educator; Henrik Ibsen, Norwegian playwright, Richard Wagner, German composer and conductor; and Salvatore Quasimodo; Italian author and poet. They were regulars and found an intellectual spirit.
Nicola goes on, “Each generation has brought new ideas to Pansa, however the tradition remains. The family strives to keep the old tradition alive, using high quality products and well-trained bakers and pastry chefs. The final product has made its pastries, desserts, chocolates and liqueurs known all over the world.”
When I ask him how many pastry chefs there are making all those gorgeous desserts, he responds, “There are a total of nine passionate executive pastry chefs in the kitchen. They work together under the strict supervision of my brother, Andrea. He is in charge and manages the kitchen and ordering of the products. I am at the front of the storefront and manage the staff and greet the guests.”
Nicola tells me about the famous cakes that have been made for famous people over the years, including former President of the Reppublica, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who later the family named a pastiera after.
Nicola reminds me that the pastiera is another one of his favorites along with the Sfogliatella Santa Rosa.
The Sfogliatella San Rosa dates back to the 16th century and was first created at the Santa Rosa Monastery by the nuns. Like many pastries and liqueurs that were created by the nuns, this one is no exception. The clam like shape is made with lots of layers, then filled with cream and dark cherries, and baked golden. The nuns first prepared it in anticipation of the Abbot’s visit. There was a special celebration for the religious ceremony, and the locals loved the pastry so much they made monetary donations for a piece of the coveted Sfogliatella San Rosa.
“La Santa Rosa e’ di origine monastica, come tutti i dolci della tradizione Napolitana, la sfogliatelle e la pastiera sono legati ai monaci,” Nicola tells the story of Italian pastry and its connection to the religious orders. The nuns had lots of time to make the labor intense pastry, and in turn the donations they received for the pastries helped to raise money for the upkeep of the monastery.
“La Santa Rosa is one of my favorite desserts, not only because it has a beautiful story, but also because it is a delicious, gastronomic delight. My other favorites are Delizia Al Limone, synonymous with the scents of our territory; Code di Aragosta, translating to lobster tails and filled with cream; Crostata con Crema E Amarena, and of course, the dry biscotti, Amalfitano al Limone, a cookie with a butter and lemon base, Biscotti Alle Mandorle… I am afraid to miss any one of them because there are so many. And let’s not forget the Marzapane, it’s a Sicilian tradition, not many make it in our region, but we do. The base of Marzapane is made with almond and sugar, in Italian it is called, pasta reale. The paste is shaped and painted with natural food coloring recreating mini fruits and vegetables. This dessert was first made for Christmas, but the tourists loved it, and now we make it all year long!
When I tell Nicola, that his barister makes the perfect café, he tells me that my question makes him very happy. And he goes on to explain the attention that goes into making the perfect cup! “Only those who know how to make a café, know the amount of work that goes into making that simple twenty second work of art.” His recipe for a good café: a good machine, fresh beans, high quality milk, and most important, the water. “Our water on the Amalfi Coast is of excellent quality, and that is the secret to our great tasting cafe. When you have a solid base of good quality products and passionate professionals, it is the recipe for success,” these are the words of Nicola Pansa.