I was researching a story on build-your-own pizza joints in the bustling college town of West Chester, PA., stuffed from cheese and dough but desperately needing a coffee fix. After typing “espresso west chester” into my phone, sure enough, a gelato joint beckoned from just around the corner, pouring local favorite La Colombe. (It was bitterly cold and I wasn’t hungry, but that doesn’t mean the idea of gelato wasn’t also tempting.)
While waiting for my coffee, I perused the other sweets on offer at Gemelli, a self-described “dessert cafe”. And though the regular suspects were all there – cannoli, panna cotta, biscotti, etc. – what dominated my attention was the Torta Tenerina. A thin chocolate cake dusted with powdered sugar, it was noted as being a specialty of Vincenzo’s hometown (the baker, I presumed). After slugging my espresso, I procured a piece to go, taking care to keep its mascarpone drizzle cool until I could enjoy it later.
Truth be told, with regards to birthday-style cakes, I’m not a fan. Too sweet. Too airy. But Torta Tenerina isn’t like that at all. Perhaps closer to a brownie — if one had to find a comparison — the texture is unique. Literally “tender cake,” it somehow manages to taste rich and chocolatey while remaining soft and light.
I soon returned to Gemelli, this time with an appointment to get to know its owner, Vincenzo Tettamanti. Born and raised in Ferrara — a city of about 130K that lies an hour north of Bologna – he moved to the states in 2009 to be with his future wife, an American. Though initially a digital marketer (as he was in Italy), his daydreams lured him towards the gap between traditional Italian fare and Italian-American food, alongside a growing realization that he possessed both the knowledge and passion for building a more authentic experience in the Philly ‘burbs. “Around here, Italian dining is chicken parm, Alfredo pasta, Caesar salad,” he says, noting foods from disparate areas. “In Italy, it doesn’t work like that. Every region has its specialties.”
“I wasn’t ready for a full restaurant,” he continues. “Instead, I wanted to build a place that’s like something I’d find at home, where people come to hang out, have coffee, talk with friends. Walk into any piazza in Italy, there’ll be cafes with chairs out, serving gelato and pastries. That’s what we’re going for.”
That said, Tettamanti’s philosophy is expansive enough to apply broadly. “In America, pizza and ice cream are junk food,” he says. “In Italy, that’s not the case. For pizza, as an example, there’s fresh mozzarella, dough that’s been rising all day so it is light and airy, and tomato sauce. That’s it. It’s a good meal.
What we make here, it’s the same thing. These are the ingredients: chocolate, sugar, butter. I don’t have bags of other stuff. Everything’s from scratch. Sure, there is sugar, maybe some mascarpone, but we prepare each item with fresh, whole ingredients, so they are not as bad for you. And I’m not just making that up because I sell it. It’s the Italian way.”
The gelato certainly is delicious. Tettamanti’s training and focus on quality above novelty shine through with every flavor. Even as one who tends to stick to the cioccolato, I can’t help but be tempted by the freshness of local goat cheese & raspberry or ricotta & fig varieties, for example.
But let’s get back to the Torta Tenerina. It too is simple, with just a few ingredients. “I mean, it’s a chocolate torte,” Tettamanti jokes. “But it is also traditional and specific to Ferrara, and – especially because many Americans are used to the food of Southern Italy – it’s nice to showcase my region.”
The cake’s initial incarnation (under the name Torta Montenegrina) celebrated Elena Petrović, Princess of Montenegro, shortly after her fin-de-siècle wedding to Italian king Vittorio Emanuele III. While many of the queen’s new subjects referred to her as the “sweet wife with the tender heart,” the Ferrarese one-upped everyone else by producing a dessert to match. Languidly soft with a melty interior, some still call it Torta Tacolenta — “sticky cake” in the Ferrarese dialect — due to its proclivity to cling to lucky tasters’ palates.
My initial attempt at replicating Tettamanti’s technique was not particularly successful. Delicious, yes, but also dry and crumbly. I then made a few modifications to a common online recipe to get a moister, more flavorful version. In place of mascarpone cream, I served it alongside salted caramel gelato.
Mike’s Modified Tender Cake (Gluten-Free, if desired)
- 200 grams dark chocolate (~70%)
- 65 g unsalted butter
- 40 g extra virgin olive oil
- 100 g sugar
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1 T white flour (or 1-2T almond flour)
- 1 T cocoa powder
- Sprinkle coarse sea salt on top (optional, before baking)
- Sprinkle of powdered sugar (optional, after baking)
Preheat oven to 300F
Melt chocolate and butter together, over very low heat or a double-boiler. Take off heat and mix in EVOO.
Beat egg yolks with sugar, then mix that with the chocolate.
Tettamanti adds almond flour next, keeping it gluten free. (Wheat flour is traditionally used, but as there’s only a small amount, it’s easy to substitute. You can also use some cocoa powder to amp up the chocolate flavor.)
After whipping the egg whites to stiff peaks, fold them gently into the batter to maintain the fluffy structure. (This is the most difficult and crucial step.)
Put into a springform pan and bake for 25 minutes, and it’s done.
A sprinkle of powdered sugar adds visual appeal but isn’t necessary.
For more info on Vincenzo and his dessert cafe, visit http://www.gemelligelato.com/