Christmases in Italy
When Nicola Olivieri was growing up in Northeastern Italy between Venice and Verona, he would spend a lot of time in his family’s baking lab. One Christmas — a busy season for his family’s business and Nicola’s favorite holiday — his grandmother, Miranda, told him to try a piece of a dessert called panettone. Nicola, just a small boy at the time, took a small bite, and Christmases in Italy would never be the same without it.
Nicola Olivieri is a sixth-generation pastry chef and co-owner of Olivieri 1882, a nearly 140-year-old pasticceria nestled in Italy’s Arzignano region in Vicenza. This holiday season, the award-winning pastry chef follows a long line of bakers in his family with a 130-year-old recipe for the holiday dessert that has been handed down from generation to generation. While the Olivieri family has been long respected for their dessert and holiday cakes, panettone has been a stand-out delicacy for Italians throughout the country, and tourists from around the world who’ve made the bakery a must-stop during visits to the Western European nation.
“We’re really proud of the products we create here,” Olivieri told me over video chat from his warehouse in Italy. “We love sharing this with Italian people, and with the world.”
Though Olivieri’s panettone is traditionally available in Northern Italy, his company has crafted a very generous initiative to account for the travel changes that arose from the global pandemic lockdown. Through the end of the year, Olivieri 1882 is bringing its panettone artigianale stateside. For $70, Americans enduring lockdown can enjoy the holiday staple just 48 hours from placing their order. It’s a gesture, travel-enthusiast Olivieri hopes will bring some joy to a country that’s experienced painful outcomes from the ongoing pandemic.
“It’s been such a difficult year, there’s just been so much agony,” said Olivieri. “We wanted the American people to be able to celebrate the occasion and have the possibility to eat really fresh panettone for Christmas.”
Panettone is a cake-like bread that was created during the 1500s in Italy. To this day, the cherished dessert is often one of the more expensive holiday cakes, in part because it takes multiple days to make panettone. Olivieri’s panettone is a four-day production process, two of which are spent on fermentation, which is why his bread is especially soft. During the almost weeklong process, the bread is worked by hand — its fluffy, soft consistency stems from the exclusive use of mother yeast which is refreshed daily, hand-worked and looked after by Olivieri’s pastry chefs, and yields a decadent, airy dessert enjoyed by many in the region.
“We use the finest ingredients here because we value making the best bread for the holiday season,” said Olivieri.
The origin story of buttery, flaky, and delightful panettone varies, but most Italian historians agree that it originated in Milan, with roots likely emanating from the Roman Empire. When it was created, the essential eggs and butter were quite expensive in Italy, marking the dessert specifically for special occasions, including Christmas. It’s often served with sweet wine, and in some regions of Italy, mascarpone cream. Motta founder and Italian entrepreneur Angelo Motta changed the identity of panettone in 1919 by creating its tall domed shape by making the dough rise three times for almost 20 hours before cooking. This revolutionary process is how the dessert gained its light texture, and the dome-shaped dessert is also meant to be shared by a family, making it a quintessential Italian delight. By the end of World War II, what was considered a “luxury cake,” could now be afforded by many Italians, and the sweet, rich bread became almost solely associated with Christmas and holidays. It’s estimated that baking and manufacturing companies produce 117 million panettone and pandoro cakes every Christmas, or 579 million euros worth of holiday bread.
“It’s a tradition here,” said Olivieri. “Panettone initially represented staying together at Christmas time, which is why it’s so popular.”
Italians have immigrated to the United States since the late 1800s (more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924), so their influence on American cuisine is palpable. In addition to the commonly known pasta, pizza, and desserts that have become mainstays in American dining, panettone has been available in American shops during the holidays for years. During the holidays, Italian dessert enthusiasts can find the bread at local Italian shops or markets, and sometimes at grocery stores. Olivieri’s panettone, however, offers a uniquely irresistible holiday taste. Raw ingredients like Australian 5 crown sultanas, Tahiti Bourbon vanilla beans, Italian wheat flours, raw cane sugar, Belgian centrifuged butter, Italian acacia honey, and candied oranges made in-house create a dessert that, when warmed ever so slightly, the sweet, rich bread transports eaters to an Italian Christmas of one’s dreams. His panettone is so popular in Italy, that it was awarded by prestigious names like Gambero Rosso and Dissapore.
“It’s so important here in Italy, so we’re really proud to have that kind of recognition.”
Italian culture is known for its commitment to family, and Christmastime is one of the essential family gathering occasions where a bread like panettone is enjoyed. An estimated 9 million tourists traveled to Italy during the 2018 holiday season, many of whom stopped by the boot-shaped country to attend mass services (nearly 80 percent of Italy’s population is Christian), see the Venetian lights, ski in the picturesque Italian slopes, or enjoy the globally known Italian cuisines and desserts. Panettone is an essential dessert that many visitors indulge in during the holiday season, and due to COVID, wouldn’t be able to enjoy the dessert against an Italian backdrop without Olivieri’s new initiative.
“Panettone really represents our traditions, and the traditions we value during Christmastime,” said Olivieri.
Photos: Stuntman Public Relations
Olivieri family business
For Oliveri, providing sweetness to everyday life is simply a part of the Olivieri family business. The bakery began in 1882 by Louis, a family ancestor. Though the shop originally sold bread to locals, they quickly expanded to desserts and became one of the most respected pasticceria in Italy. Nicola’s father, Oliviero, took over the shop after his father passed away in 1980, and they modernized by adding a cafe, which has now won awards throughout Italy. A young Nicola grew up watching his grandma bake the dessert, among other pastries and treats. Because he grew up in the kitchen, Olivieri didn’t pursue the traditional path of a pastry chef. Rather than going to pastry school, he went to university to give other careers a shot, even though he knew that his future would ultimately lead to becoming a pastry chef. Once he was ready to reenter the baking lab, his father made him wait a bit longer. Instead of coming back home to bake, his father told him to go abroad to learn English before returning to the family company. Nicola traveled to Australia, where he connected with a family similar to his own and learned about pastry cooking in Australia and decided he was ready to return to Italy.
“It’s something amazing to bake everyday, and to make pastries like this for people,” Oliveri says. “I grew up in the lab, so this kind of work is normal for me.”
The business now sells ice cream, and has a space for chocolate, coffee, and pizza. This year, Olivieri has opened a new, 1,200-square warehouse in a historic factory in his town. It’s here where the panettone comes alive, and Olivieri’s team shares photos and videos to offer locked down fans a look into the dessert-making process. “Small pastries, cakes, other desserts, we do it all here,” says Olivieri of the warehouse.
Photos: Stuntman Public Relations
With the holidays approaching and a new world reshaping how baking and delivery is done, Oliverie 1882 is focused on perfecting desserts like pandoro, an icing-dusted golden cake with an 8-pointed star shaped dome to resemble the Italian Alps during Christmas (Olivieris won a Great Taste Award), and colombe, an cake of of butter, eggs, soft wheat flour, covered with a sugar glaze, enriched with almonds, hazelnuts and pine nuts, which is served during Easter. Nearest to Olivieri’s heart, however, is the treasured panettone, a dessert that he believes is demonstrative of Italian culinary creativity, penchant for sweetness, and commitment to the traditions that bring people together around the table.
“People might have had to cancel trips to Italy this year,” he said. “So it’s this idea that like, well, we can try to bring Italy to you. It’s an interesting and important time to do something like this, because people need something nice in their lives right now, and panettone is one of the nice things they can really enjoy at the moment.”
As Olivieri continues to prepare desserts for Americans eager to step into Italy through their home kitchens, he’s already teaching his son about panettone. The five-year-old ironically often asks for the bread during the summertime, but regardless of the time of year, Olivieri is just happy to continue the family baking heritage.
“This is our life for us. It’s our tradition.”