Fragrances and Flavours Memories in The Hadmade Pastries of Zagarella

Right beside Saint Peter’s, where the ancient furnaces baked and shaped the bricks for the building of the Basilica, one single broad street runs between the railway on one side and the slopes of the Gianicolo on the other. Some other short streets intersect it. Amidst lies the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie alle Fornaci. Once Saint Peter’s was achieved, the street flourished with buildings and workshops: the artisans had remained with their diverse expertise at the service of the borough inhabitants, In short, a small village, where they greeted each other with the title “Mastro…”

Mass tourism, mostly developed a few years ago, with its B&B, restaurants, coffee shops, souvenir stores has not violated a small, delicious, and most sweet corner.  In this place an artisan preserves the memory of that village atmosphere, through his skilled hands he cherishes the fragrances and flavors, especially the sweetest ones, those that immediately make your mouth water. And with yeasty pastries, bombs and wafers gently delight each morning start. 

His name is Liborio Zagarella, 80 years old, born in Mazzarino (CL), but Roman by choice. He gave his name to the venue, a patisserie with an adjoining workshop and a long open window facing the street, useful, at the present time, to serve customers safely. 

Mister Liborio, how was this borough when you first opened your business with your wife Lucia?

I took over this business in 1975, it already was a patisserie, but the previous owner worked in a more ‘industrial’ way. I changed the way of working in handmade production.

I’ll tell you a story. On the second day from the opening, a man came to the workshop and said: ‘I am the eggs supplier; how many do you want?’. I answered: ‘One!’. The day after he brought me only one plateau, around 30 eggs. But I wanted a crate of them, which means 360 eggs. The supplier stared at me and asked: ‘What do you want t do with them?’

At the very beginning we were alone, my wife Lucia and I. I had come to know her when I was 12 years old, while I was carrying a heavy bag of almonds. A true love, at first sight! I married her when I was 27. 

For some time our daughters have given us a hand, then our 4 kids have taken other life-paths.

This was a working-class neighborhood. It was inhabited by plenty of families and there were a lot of artisans with their workshops: the baker, the carpenter, the bicycle and tires repairmen, the barber, the glassmaker, the cobbler (his workshop was just in front of mine), the tinsmith (at that time there weren’t so many machinery and if you need to enamel a ‘ramina’ – copper cup – you needed a tinsmith). There was the upholsterer, the laundress, the seamstress. A clothes mender lived just next to us. There was also the butcher, the framer, just a few steps from here along the road.

It was really a small village.

Let’s talk about you: Have you ever been passionate about making pastries? Who taught you this art?

When I opened my patisserie, I hired a pastry chef. Two months after I got aware, he did not meet my needs, therefore I decided to do it by myself. For fifteen days I have been working at night and selling by day. Not satisfied with the results, I was going to hire another pastry chef, when, suddenly, a morning I came to the workshop and I couldn’t believe…I had made it! That day I have understood I was overworking the doughs. I learned not to overwork it anymore and the results were excellent. What a saving!

May I add a word? In my opinion, our Government should make the same: when a politician does not work in the role of minister, it’s better to keep a ‘technician’, fire the politician, and save money.

Now I’m teaching all my recipes to Giorgia, a truly clever apprentice, who has been working with me for three years. She is even better than me because she owns that composure, that patience, which I didn’t have at her age.

How does your day unfold?

I live just above the patisserie. My day begins at 5 am; at 5.30 am I bake the croissants that I left to rise the night before; at 6.15 am I open the doors… I have some customers who work in Orvieto and just at the opening they come and have breakfast; they also buy two croissants to eat at mid-morning. During this pandemic, we begin to prepare the closure at 4 pm, and at 6 pm we close. We used to close at 8 pm before all this…

In your workshop your pastries get along with seasons… they sweeten the holidays…

At each time of the year corresponds the suited pastry: in Lent, the ‘quaresimali’ from the Catania’s custom, at Easter the doves with candied fruits and almonds, in summer the ice cream, especially the rose-flavored ice cream. In fall the marrons glacés, and also the yeasty pastries with marrons glacés, at Christmas the panettone, the panforte, the pandoro, and the famous sweet ‘log’ from the Roman tradition.

Your recipes are not only the traditional ones, you keep on searching for new fragrances, new flavors.

Every month I used to propose a new ‘fantasy’, I changed recipe making experiments.

Little by little when I saw that a recipe was appreciated, I began experimenting a new one. Just as it happened with the dates’ ice cream or the ice cream with ricotta and chocolate, the fig ice cream made with the figs I grown in a little plot of land that I own in Rieti province.

Ice cream has remained in ‘your heart’, then?

I started making ice cream at the age of 15. I was working as a ‘cup-washer’ in an ice cream parlor. On San Giuseppe’s day, the parlor owner, suddenly needing an ice cream man, told me: ‘Do it!’. I have seen so many times the ice cream man blending all the ingredients: the eggs, the chocolate. It took me so long… there wasn’t machinery, at that time, the ice cream was really handmade, with a great bowl, the batch freezer, and a sort of huge wooden ladle… Finally, I made three flavors cream, chocolate, and hazelnut. My boss told me: ‘it took you so long… but it’s good!’.

To your rose-flavored ice cream, somebody has dedicated a poem…

A girl from the school nearby, the daughter of two clients of mine. In class, the teacher asked her to do an interview and she dedicated a poem to me.

I know that you used to make your customers smile not only thanks to your tidbits. At the end of the day, it was customary a convivial moment, cheered by jokes and funny stories.

When I opened my patisserie in the evenings’ people used to go for a walk, maybe with their dogs, and just hereby there was a private hunters’ club. They used to come here to relax and tell jokes and funny stories.

Then, in 2006, on the occasion of the Football World Cup…

The final game between Italy and France was broadcast on tv alive from Berlin. When the Italia team finally won the Cup, my wife and I cooked ten kilos of spaghetti with tomato sauce, pesto, and just butter. All our customers were invited to taste them… everybody, but two French tourists in a corner of the patisserie, excluded from that amazing ‘spaghettata’. For one only night, as you can see in the picture, the Patisserie Zagarella had turned into the Osteria Zagarella…

Now due to the pandemic, the shop windows are empty, but inside, over the counter the pans of freshly baked delicacies make your mouth water, would you unveil us one of your recipes?

It’s hard to choose just one, so many are my creations.

The Sicilian doughnut made with the puff pastry stuffed with September figs jam; the flogger, which is an oblong stuffed puff pastry, the black mulberry tarts, delicious with the mulberry fruits from my garden…

Then here is the case of my apple cake. I’ll tell you another story. A couple of clients were used to come only on Sundays’ and buy some pastries for the old mother. Once the lawyer came on Thursday. Astonished I asked him why that unusual visit. He was just back from Florence, where, out of the court, he went for lunch with his client at a restaurant. At a table next to theirs a customer, to whom had been offered an apple cake, had answered ‘I only eat Zagarella’s apple cake in Rome’.

That’s true, my apple cake has a secret ingredient, that I can’t reveal, but I will give you, in short, the recipe for an exquisite almond tart with pistachio cream.

It’s a recipe with no milk. You have to blend margarine with some eggs, flour, and ground almonds, half sweet and half bitter. Then you prepare a batter and put it into an oven mold. You fill it with a cream made of eggs and ground pistachios and add, on the top some chopped pistachios. Around twenty minutes in the oven at 220/230º C and… the tart is ready.

Via delle Fornaci 95
Tel. 06 634628