A number of years ago, when I was still living in Vancouver, Italian baked goods began to be a part of my holiday season rituals. I would go buy my fresh pasta at First Ravioli Store (1900 Commercial Dr.), I’d get a latte or a con panna at Continental Coffee (1800 Commercial Dr.), and then I’d go pick up some Crotonese (the dry kind, not the semi-soft version) or some other nice Italian cheese at La Grotta (1791 Commercial). Every year, as the holidays approached, there was a young woman at La Grotta who would bake homemade pignoli. They are still the best I’ve ever had—crisp on the outside, and studded with numerous pine nuts, unbelievably chewy on the inside. I think that’s where it all began.
Anyway, around the same time, I started going to Florida again for the holidays every once in a while. Our family had been going to south Broward County since the late ‘60s, and during the ‘70s we were there regularly for Christmas, but by the late ‘90s we really hadn’t spent much time in Florida in years and years. The first time we went back to Dania, my sister and I were driving around Hollywood nearby when we stumbled across a couple of Italian delis that have since become mainstays of our Florida experience: Gino’s Market and Mimi’s Ravioli (5729 and 5714 Johnson St., respectively). There’s nothing like going to Gino’s on Christmas Eve. The crowds are out of this world, and the waits for the deli counter can be absurd, but everything works out and people end up talking to complete strangers about what they’ve got on the menu for the next few days, trading recipes, sharing jokes. One year I remember Gino was giving the crowd the hard-sell on pannetone. “It ain’t Christmas without a pannetone!” “How you gonna face the kids without a pannetone?” And so on… Gino’s also had pretty good pignoli, and we always picked up a box to take home, but that was when I started picking up a pannetone for Christmas, too.
I never had panforte until I came back to Montreal a few years ago. I was invited for a dinner party one time at a colleague’s house, and for dessert she served up thin slices of panforte with ice cream. There were a couple of panforte aficionados at the table that night, and I heard all about panforte’s lore as we ate. While pannetone comes from Milan originally, panforte hails from Siena. The recipe for panforte dates back to the High Middle Ages, and all attempts have been made to keep modern-day panforte true to its roots. The classic way to serve panforte is with a glass of dessert wine, preferably a Vin Santo. Panforte isn’t easy to find here in Montreal, but you get it at some of the city’s better Italian specialty stores. It costs a pretty penny, though, and it tends to be a bit dry because of the journey. A couple of years ago our friend Kazi came back from a family trip to Italy with a lovely artisanal panforte for us and it was something special. It was so beautifully packaged we found it a bit difficult to crack it open, but we were glad when we finally did. Panforte is essentially a type of fruitcake, but this one had a subtlety and sophistication rarely found in a fruitcake.
This year, however, we caught wind that one of our local Italian delicatessens, La Forchetta (234 Laurier E.), makes their own panforte for the holidays. We couldn’t believe the news and we ran out to get one. OK, here’s the story… First off, whereas imported panforte retails for around $15-25 here in Montreal, La Forchetta was selling theirs for a very reasonable price of about $10. So far, so good. Secondly, while it didn’t have the packaging that our artisanal version had, La Forchetta’s panforte was still very fetchingly wrapped (as you can see above). Most importantly, though: this was an excellent panforte, both moister and more chocolatey than any panforte I’d ever had previously. It didn’t last long, but it lasted long enough to leave a deep impression. I can see panforte joining pignoli and pannetone to form a holiday holy trinity.