Peter Rosciglione raises a hand and asks for a moment before making his way around the worn wooden workbench at which four generations of his family have stood, crafting the cookies, pastries and cakes that line the cases at Rosciglione Bakery. Rosciglione returns from a storage area with an oblong object that’s rough, irregular in shape and covered in a matted and gray patina.
It looks like a large geode plucked from a geologist’s shelf instead of the back room of a bakery in St. Charles, Mo. Opening its halves, Rosciglione reveals that it is a mold for creating Sicilian sugar sculptures – ornate, hand-painted figurines given as gifts during the holiday and Italian festival seasons. Like the copper kettle that is used daily to cook sugar or the stacks of one-of-a-kind cake pans – seasoned over a hundred years of use – these are the tools of his trade. However, they are also heirlooms, irreplaceable artifacts that tell the story of his family and its connection to the history of St. Louis.
In some ways, Peter Rosciglione is as much a curator as he is a baker, preserving traditions carried from Palermo, Sicily, across an ocean, through the gates of Ellis Island and to a large storefront on North 7th Street in the city of St. Louis at the turn of the last century. The family-owned markets surrounding the original Rosciglione Bakery constituted the first Italian community in St. Louis. While the area was eventually razed and replaced by the America’s Center Complex and the Edward Jones Dome, its role as the incubator for the Italian culture St. Louis became known for – including many of the foods and flavors – remains an important part of the city’s history.
The economic decline of the city of St. Louis and slow migration of its citizens to the boundaries of St. Louis County and beyond in the second half of the 20th century led many of these Italian-American businesses to move as well, relocating to the west and south of Downtown, to an area of South St. Louis known as The Hill. After seven decades in the city, Rosciglione Bakery headed north, to Dellwood, in 1969. Then in 1997, the bakery moved again, this time following its customers west to the rapidly growing community of St. Charles.
For a business to survive for more than a century, to continue to grow after changes of location and stewardship from one family member to another, is a rare thing; however, when it happens, it creates bonds between a business and its customers, who integrate the bakery’s goods into rituals and traditions that are hard to break. A post-meal glass of red wine becomes incomplete without biscotti for dipping, once, twice, before sending the biscuit into a waiting mouth, which nibbles away at the wine-moistened treat until a dry section is reached and the process is repeated. Amaretti, plucked from a grandparent’s omnipresent white box of treats and snuck from a wrinkled hand into the palm of a grandchild when a parent isn’t looking, a secret treat that links one generation to another. Biscuits and cookies. Arguably the simple things in life are readily available from the grocery store, yet they never seem as satisfying as when they come from places like Rosciglione Bakery.
While Rosciglione lines the cases of his shop with the cookies and treats that he grew up with, he is also keeping alive the food traditions passed down to him, holding close and preserving recipes for treasures like cassata, which Rosciglione Bakery introduced to St. Louis. Cassata, spelled cassatha on the bakery’s menu, is the signature dessert of Rosciglione’s ancestral home in Palermo, the capital of the autonomous region of Sicily. It is an area of the world most often associated with mainland Italy, yet it has been at the crossroads of culture dating back to the Phoenicians, integrating the cuisines and cultures of the Greeks, Romans and Arabs as power and influence transitioned around the Mediterranean Sea and passed through the small island over the span of two millennia.
“I was taught to make cassata – like all of our goods – at my father’s side,” says Rosciglione. “For the cassata, it was the same recipe that our family has been making since around 1900, the same cake that we brought to St. Louis. My father never said, ‘Write this down’. I learned from doing.”
Although cassata is synonymous with Palermo, the cake’s construction and flourishes added to the dish have been adapted over time. Cassata will vary from its home in Sicily to the bakeries in the Little Italy section of New York and Rosciglione’s here in St. Louis. As for his family’s take on the cassata, Rosciglione says: “We see a product like the cassata as part of a tradition – our tradition – and we pride ourselves on never changing it. We have a saying: ‘We are not just a bakery; we are a tradition.’”
Even with all the geographic differences and preferences, the basic elements remain; a pan with gently sloping sides is lined with alternating layers of cake and ricotta cheese. Once constructed, the cake is chilled before being inverted, released from its pan and adorned with icing and decoration. Variations on the cassata are many, but the most common include adding flavor and moisture to each layer of cake with syrups made from fruit juice or a liqueur infused with citrus, like arancello. The ricotta can be sweetened with the addition of sugar or have its already decadent flavor enriched further with chocolate chips folded into it. For a dramatic presentation, a cassata is often covered with marzipan (a confection derived from sugar and almonds, another signature ingredient of Sicilian sweet making) and topped with candied fruits, which can be added whole, sliced and cut into thin ribbons to form complex designs. Last, the sides of a cassata are often garnished with chopped nuts like pistachios and peanuts as a finishing touch.
Rosciglione prepares dozens of cassata cakes every week for customers in an array of flavors, colors and sizes, limited only by desire, tradition and means of the customer. However, even the simplest cassata, dressed in a thick layer of icing that cradles the cake like a fine wrapping paper, the kind you open slowly to preserve its beauty, is a triumph of flavors: decadently rich without being overly sweet. Alternating layers provide contrast, light and airy sponge cake offering a break from blissfully heavy swaths of ricotta. The flavor is reminiscent of cannoli, yet a slice eats like a cheesecake reserved for the most special of occasions, with the understanding that we choose what makes an occasion special. In the end, it is this that makes cakes like the cassata – not to mention the myriad cookies and treats – from Rosciglione Bakery as much a centerpiece for a birthday party, graduation or wedding as they are for our Sunday dinner tables, just as they have been for more than a hundred years. And thanks to traditions new and old, they will be for many years to come.
Rosciglione Bakery, Highway 94 at Port West, 2265 Bluestone, St. Charles, Mo., 636.947.6700, rosciglionebakery.com