The handsome red and orange Lazzaroni Amaretti di Saronno tin is perhaps the most recognizable packaging of any foodstuff in Italy and from the first time I saw one on the shelves of a specialty market I was fascinated. It was bold. It was handsome. It caught my eye. Since then I have used the distinctive bittersweet flavored cookies for countless recipes including the crust of a ricotta cheesecake I made even before I opened my Italian market; crushed and sprinkled over my favorite peach ice cream served at my North Shore home during a summer dinner party; and even as an unexpected finish to a risotto dish we served at my downtown Chicago Convito in the 80s. And like almost everyone who has bought these cookies, I have also re-used the tin to hold any number of items from dried pasta to office supplies. So imagine my delight when I was actually introduced to Dottore Luigi Lazzaroni – the reigning patriarch of the Lazzaroni family – himself.
It was January 1985. I was having dinner with my dear friend Roberta Lai at Conoviano, a chic Milanese restaurant owned by Eugenio Medalgiani. I had previously met Eugenio at his restaurant supply house, but tonight was different. Coming over to our table after we finished our meal, Signore Medalgiani inquired about how the gelato dishes I purchased from him were working out at my new Chicago Convito. He also asked if he could introduce us to a friend of his who had joined him for dinner that evening. “You might carry his products,” he said.
A tall, elegant, aristocratic gentleman made his way to our table, pulled up a chair to join us and introduced himself as Luigi Lazzaroni. “THE Luigi Lazzaroni?” I inquired. I was thrilled to meet someone with the famous Lazzaroni name, a name of biscotti fame that dates back to the late eighteen hundreds. “Of course I carry Lazzaroni products”, I exclaimed. “I have been using them for years – even before I opened my Italian market.”
After getting past what I’m sure was my profuse “gushing”, we had a very lively conversation about a whole variety of things – Eugenio’s desire to elevate Italian cuisine (he is the head of the cook’s association in Italy), my new Italian market and restaurant in Chicago and Luigi’s famous company. I had a million questions about his products. When it was time to say goodbye, Luigi insisted that Roberta and I visit his factory in Saronno the following week after I returned from a scheduled trip to Liguria. We happily accepted the invitation promising to phone one another to make final arrangements.
Little did I know that this purely accidental meeting would be the beginning of a friendship that would last until Luigi’s death in 2012 as well as a close and enduring connection to the extended Lazzaroni family- a connection that survives to this day.
The next morning Paolo Volpara – my business partner – and I left for San Remo, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Liguria. Our trip, however, was cut short by the horrific and now famous 1985 snowstorm that paralyzed many parts of Italy. Horrendous driving conditions added hours to our journey back to Milan. [my blog Liguria II: “Expect the Unexpected” tells the story in detail] Streets became impassable. Airports and train stations were closed. Milan surrendered. So naturally I assumed my visit to Saronno would be canceled, but since our hotel phones no longer worked I couldn’t know for sure. Amazingly, at the appointed hour, Sig. Lazzaroni’s driver appeared at the front desk of my hotel and the game was on! With snow chains fitted to the tires of his vehicle, he drove Roberta and I through the deserted streets of Milan, slipping, sliding and bumping our way to meet Luigi Lazzaroni in Saronno some 28 scary kilometers away.
Breathing a sign of relief, we happily arrived safely in Saronno and met Luigi in his award-filled office. Before we began our factory tour, Luigi insisted on learning more about my business. Compared to his company, which was established in 1888 our five-year old business seemed embarrassingly insignificant, but nonetheless I outlined the details of Convito’s 1980 founding and brought him up to the present with both our Wilmette business and the 1984 opening of a new and larger Convito market and restaurant in Chicago. He was gracious and complimentary, both a true gentleman and a smart businessman.
Luigi’s factory tour began with a journey through a labyrinth of huge vats of butter, oil, eggs and flour. The ingredients in each tub were automatically piped into central locations to be mixed then baked into various kinds of biscotti. White-jacketed men and women diligently supervised the highways of steadily moving assembly lines all covered with sheets of pastry that were eventually cut or formed into different shapes and fed into large ovens that would bake them to perfection. The smell was heavenly. Luigi tasted a biscotti every now and then and encouraged us to do the same. What a thrill – we were literally eating a Lazzaroni biscotti hot off the assembly line. The final destination was the packing area where each type of biscotti was wrapped and boxed in handsome cardboard boxes or in the famous, classy Lazzaroni tins.
Saving the best for last, Luigi led us to another area of the factory, which made what he referred to as a “proper” Amaretti, the most famous of the Lazzaroni products. I was surprised to learn these flagship biscotti are made with only three ingredients – sugar, apricot kernels and egg whites. The aroma of the freshly baked Amaretti filled the air with an almond-like scent. After completely cooled, the Amaretti were wrapped in pairs in the iconic lightweight green, blue or red patterned paper.
Luigi related the – now legendary – story about the “lighting of the wrappers” – a tradition, which dates back to before he was born. No one is certain of its origin but after an Amaretti is consumed, the wrapper is twisted into a long cylinder, placed on a plate and the top is lit. The wrapper will burn down to the end and then whoosh the skeleton of the paper will gently waft into the air with no trace of the paper left. The tradition dictates that as the paper is lit, a wish must be made and the higher the paper floats into the air, the more likely the wish will come true. I have always loved the ritual and never missed a chance to help nudge my wishes along their path to fruition.
Our tour concluded with a stop in the impressive (and huge) computerized storage area, after which we adjourned for lunch to the Lazzagrill, a Lazzaroni market and café, a short drive away. I had been to this market before with Paolo on our way back from a trip to Switzerland and had purchased many beautiful Lazzaroni tins, but this time being here in the company of one of the owners felt somewhat surreal.
Luigi’s son Mario and his brother Paolo had joined us for lunch, appearing handsome and aristocratic as seemed to be the case with the whole Lazzaroni family. I always felt like I was in the company of Italian aristocracy when I was invited to a Lazzaroni table!
We enjoyed a simple pasta lunch and discussed the Lazzaroni business. There had been a recent split – biscotti and liqueur. The biscuit branch (the D. Lazzaroni & Co.) was sold to an American multinational firm and Paolo kept the liqueur arm of the company “Paolo Lazzaroni & Figli”.
At this point I was very familiar with the biscotti side of the Lazzaroni empire, but less so of their liquor business. Over lunch the Lazzaoni’s explained the process by which the Amaretto liqueur is made. The secret formula was created in 1851. I was amazed to learn that the recipe calls for an infusion of their famous Amaretti di Saronno biscotti. “So Lazzaroni Amaretto is the only ‘liquid cookie’ that has ever existed,” Paolo pointed out. Of course, we had to sample the Amaretto after learning all that interesting information so Paolo ordered ice cream for dessert, which arrived with the liqueur drizzled on top and sprinkled with crushed Amaretti. It was delicious!
It is a refreshing and simple dessert. I also love to add sautéed Amaretto soaked peaches when the fruit is in season.
Sautéed Amaretto Peaches
Serve over 6 dishes of ice cream
2 peaches, halved then pitted, then sliced into thick wedges
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup Amaretto liqueur
½ cup brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the Amaretto and the brown sugar. Cook and stir until the sugar has melted and the mixture comes to a boil.
Place the peach wedges in a baking dish and baste with the sauce. Bake for 5 minutes. Peaches should be somewhat soft. Cool then slice and put onto the ice cream.
Drizzle with Amaretto liqueur and sprinkle with crumbled Amaretti biscotti.
Luigi invited us back to his “house”, a 15thCentury monastery, for a coffee. We walked through a charming courtyard to Luigi’s half of the monastery (Paolo and his family shared the other half.) A warm fire greeted us burning on one side of a huge fireplace in a room with high ceilings and wooden beans, old creaking wooden floors and rustic antiques and collections everywhere. It was magnificent yet strangely not at all pretentious – definitely a home. After coffee by the fire served in delicate demitasse cups, we said our goodbyes and walked to the train with Mario to go back to Milan. Mario was going to be in Chicago in one week working at the A.C. Nielson Company so I invited him to stay with me for a few days and promised to introduce him to some of my Convito employees who were of a similar age.
Soon thereafter I left Italy so inspired that all I could think about was how to possibly show my appreciation to this kind and generous man for the incredibly perfect day he provided for Roberta and I. After I got home, it wasn’t long before I decided on the appropriate gift – one of the watercolors my sister had painted for our first Convito – Karen Brussat Butler’s painting of three whimsical onlookers admiring the Amaretti di Saronno tin, which was in the center of the painting. As difficult as it was to part with the painting, I carefully wrapped it and shipped it to Saronno. Luigi telexed me immediately to tell me that Karen’s painting was now hanging on a wall in his den and that he could not have been more thrilled.
After my exceptional day in Saronno with memories of Amaretti still on my mind, I was inspired to make something using these tasty “cookies”. I chose a risotto dish using crumbled Amaretti as a finishing touch. The recipe was based on a risotto I had at a Milanese restaurant – an autumn risotto with butternut squash and sage. I thought the sweet nutty taste of the butternut squash topped with crumbled Amaretti was a lovely combination. It was – and is!
Risotto with Butternut Squash, Sage & Amaretti
1-pound butternut squash
4 sage leaves
1-cup chicken broth
Salt & freshly ground pepper
Peel the squash. Dice it into ½ inch cubes. Place the cubed squash, 4 sage leaves, the chicken broth, salt and pepper into a heavy bottom pot. Cook over medium heat until tender but not too soft – approximately 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
5 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
1-tablespoon olive oil
9 sage leaves – 3 chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
½ cup dry white wine
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt & freshly ground pepper
6 to 8 Amaretti biscotti crumbled
In a saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a steady simmer. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. Add the chopped sage and sauté cook for 1 minute. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until soft. Add the rice and stir until coated. Add the wine and stir until absorbed. Begin adding the simmer broth ½ cup at a time. Continue stir-cooking always making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan and yet not adding too much broth at a time. This process should be done over medium heat. (approximate cooking time is 30 minutes)
At the same time gently fry the remaining 6 sage leaves in a little olive oil until crisp. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.
About 20 minutes into the process, add the butternut squash and stir into the rice. Continue adding broth. The rice is done when it is firm but tender. You may need more broth or if you run out, use hot water.
When you estimate the dish is a few minutes away from being done, turn off the heat. Add the Parmesan, stirring in to the rice. You may want to add another tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve on individual plates or bowls topped with the crumbled Amaretti and a fried sage leaf.
I returned to Saronno many times over the years, including two more factory tours. It is always interesting and each visit reveals something new – a detail or nuance I had not noticed during my prior visit. The history and culture enveloped within their compound will always fascinate and amaze me and I feel very lucky to count the Lazzaroni family as friends.
Early on in this friendship I recognized that both Luigi and I had many things in common besides our love of his family’s biscotti. It was apparent in visiting his home that we both had inherited the “collector” gene. For both of us, art represented one of those collections – art in all periods and styles. My own particular love of art began in college with my very first acquisition of a watercolor painted by my sister Karen. Eventually – and when I could afford it – I began to collect all periods; everything from 19thcentury British landscapes, to abstract modern oils and of course many more of my sister’s watercolors. It appeared that Luigi’s taste in art was as eclectic as mine. His home reflected that diversity and his interest in art and artists was quite deep. He even opened a three-room art gallery for an artist friend, which he installed in a street side section of the monastery.
After enjoying and admiring the whimsical watercolor of the Amaretti tin that I had sent him, Luigi was most anxious to meet the artist who created it, so in 1988 when my sister Karen and I were in Milan for the last leg of our Italian journey, he decided to hold a party in her honor at his home in Saronno. Karen remembers the night as quite an “international affair” with the guests standing around in intimate circles all engaged in animated conversation about a wide variety of topics; current events, travel, fashion and especially art. At least three languages were spoken – mostly Italian but also a smattering of French interspersed with English translations for Karen and I. The guests included Luigi’s lovely daughter Gwenda, his handsome younger son Giulio, his beautiful wife Pucci, restaurateur Eugenio Medalgiani, a woman affiliated with the House of Krizia, a most sophisticated woman from Venice and a funny businessman who provided many a laugh that evening – to name just a few. We were entranced!
It was that evening I also discovered that Luigi’s friends called him Gigi not Luigi. Although he invited me to do the same – which I did occasionally – I mostly reverted back to his more formal name Luigi, the name I had come to know him by from our first meeting.
Luigi gave Karen a tour of his home commenting on the art and pointing out the many paintings of biscotti that he had commissioned from various artist friends over the years. We then settled in for a delicious 5-course meal including two pastas, a fish course, Beef Wellington and gelato. After returning to the U.S. Karen decided to add a painting to Luigi’s collection of biscotti art naming her contribution “The Six Stages of Growing Biscuits”. The idea came from “The Six Stages of Wine Tasting”, a series she had painted for our wine list (blog – Lombardia IV “An Education in Wine Tasting”). Again Luigi was thrilled to receive Karen’s playful interpretation of how biscotti are made.
Collecting for Luigi – and for me as a matter of fact, extended beyond collecting art. It was quite clear from my first visit that Luigi was an extraordinary and dedicated collector of many things. You couldn’t enter his home without noticing that fact. During a 1989 trip to Italy with my friend, the late (great!) Leslee Reis (award winning Evanston chef/restaurateur) we were invited to stay the night at Luigi’s home. Leslee was somewhat of a collector herself so, of course, she was most anxious to meet Luigi and view the collections she had heard so much about. She was also fascinated with the whole psychology of collecting.
Arriving in Saronno after a two-week journey through Friuli and Veneto, we were ushered into his living room by the housekeeper to await Luigi’s arrival. His collections were everywhere – a basket of marble, crystal and china eggs, a cupboard filled with antique toy trucks, a shelf overflowing with duck decoys, an array of dressing table mirrors in the upstairs room I was to stay in – not to mention his amazing collection of antique cars – real ones stored in a large garage in the monastery complex. Luigi finally arrived “gracefully sweeping into the room”, as Leslee would later describe him in her travel journal, “like the claimant to the throne of Norway”.
After warm greetings, introductions and a brief catching up, Leslee began to ask a barrage of questions about the amazing collections displayed all around the room. She was especially interested in an assortment of old corkscrews lying on an antique oak table. “What was your reason for collecting these?” she asked. “History,” Luigi answered. “Some date back to the beginning of bottling wine. They tell a story! All collections tell some kind of story,”
“Nancy and I are also collectors”, Leslee stated. “Although not on this scale! Does that mean we all have obsessive personalities – that something is missing deep down inside?” she asked laughingly. After a long “collector’s mentality” conversation we all concluded that at least for the three of us, much of our reason for collecting was wrapped up in the actual “hunt”, the thrill of discovery. And as for me, my reasons are mostly tied up in the exercise of “savoring memories” – reminders of past good times. I still love to review each piece in every collection I have and recollect the place where I discovered it and the people I had been with during that discovery. It’s a combination of nostalgia and celebration.
Before we left for dinner that night to the nearby town of Como situated on Lake Como, Luigi wanted to show us the gardens of the monastery. They were enchanting – complete with several fountains, a swimming pool, an assortment of statues and even an aviary with quail and thrush twittering about.
The next morning the occupants of that aviary awakened us with a lovely chorus of mixed bird tweets reminding us that it was time to get up and get on the road. We met for a quick coffee – and biscuits, of course – served with a delicious local honey and blackberry preserves and an equally quick tour of the newly restored church of the monastery – a project the Lazzaroni family had helped to fund.
Once again upon my return to the U.S. the Amaretti biscuit and Amaretto liqueur served as an inspiration for some new recipes. This time is was Leslee’s turn. She decided to give Convito her rice tart recipe made with Amaretto liqueur.
Caramelized Rice Torte
After being welcomed in Luigi’s home so often over the years I was always thrilled when I could welcome him to Chicago. Both sons, Mario and Giulio visited my Glencoe home – Mario in the eighties and Giulio in the nineties. After I moved to Chicago, Luigi visited several times – once with his son Guilio using my Chicago townhouse as his headquarters when I was away on a trip to the east coast.
During one of his visits we dined at my French bistro Betise and discovered that our ”art connection” went even deeper than we realized. Much of the ambience of my restaurants comes from the art I have purchased. Many were my sister’s watercolors, some were by other artists I had commissioned and some were whimsical mixed media photographs from my son-in-law, Rob Warner. Luigi was especially interested in the drawings and painting from a contest I had sponsored at the local high school. He too had sponsored art contests and commissioned artists to do paintings for him – recently paintings of half moons (mezzaluna) for the newly opened restaurant Mezzaluna, which was housed in his Albergo della Rotonda in Saronno opened in 1992.
My very last visit with Luigi was in 1999 when friends and family stayed with me at his lake home near Lago Maggiore in the small village of Oriano Ticino. The house and the location were perfect and a great starting point for travels to visit winemaker friends in both Piemonte and the Veneto. Luigi and his wife Pucci came over our first night in residence to give us the lay of the land – nearby restaurant recommendations, top sights and activities in the area and the name of a close by village – Seste Calende – which they highly recommended for a morning coffee and the ideal way to begin the day.
Our host could not have been more helpful during our stay – he and Pucci treated us to dinner at a local restaurant the first night then later in the week took us on a motorboat ride on gorgeous Lago Maggiore (see blog Lake District II Lago Maggiore – One Grand Package”) to the Borromeo islands secretly arranging to have tea with his friends, the actual residents of the palace – the Borromeo royalty. It was quite magical – and regal – to say the least!
Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in the Alps situated between Switzerland and Italy (Piemonte and Aosta Valley) was the location of my last adventure with Luigi. He wanted to share this stunning area of Italy with us – an area which brought back so many memories of his childhood – mostly times with his mother during what he referred as his “coming of age” camping trip. He picked us up in Oriano and escorted our group of eight from Lombardia to Piemonte to the very base of this huge ice-covered massif. Most of the group decided to take the chair lift up the mountain with Luigi while those of us with a slight case of vertigo (especially me), remained behind enjoying the view and the crisp mountain air while comfortably sipping on a cappuccino – both feet firmly planted on the ground.
We ended our journey with a stop at one of Luigi’s favorite cafés to have what he described as the “best cup of chocolate” in the world. It was heavenly but we all agreed that it was more like chocolate pudding than hot cocoa. The spoon could almost stand up in the cup all on it’s own! However, it was a warm and very sweet note on which to end our trip up the mountain as well as our visit with Luigi – though I did not know it then, this would be the very last time I would ever see him.
When I read the news in 2012 that Luigi had died, I was not only distressed personally but also saddened that the world had lost such a creative and inspirational spirit. His intelligence and generosity had enriched my life in so many ways and even though I had not seen him in many years we corresponded frequently. We also kept abreast of the latest Lazaronni family news during our annual trip to the Fancy Food Show in New York City stopping at the Lazzaroni booth to chat with Luigi’s brother Paolo.
It was during these shows that we first met Paolo’s son Luca –yet another striking Lazzaroni. Luca is the other half of Paolo Lazzaroni & Figli – 7th and 8th generation members of the family who run the company. Although the liqueur business still operates under the Lazzaroni trademark, the biscuit, panettone and bakery division operates with the Chiostro di Saronno trademark, which now includes many of the products from the original company as well as many new items. Candace and I were especially interested in their new line of panettones which are an incredibly popular holiday item at Convito. Everything from the original Milanese recipe to Sambuca and Coffee to Limoncello and many different fruit combinations like Pear and Chocolate and Fig and Chocolate all come packaged in the classic handsome Lazzaroni style.
Luca and Candace began corresponding through email about the best way for Convito to order all these wonderful new products, but it wasn’t until they met in person when the details (and perhaps a next generation friendship) truly began. Luca visited us at Convito during one of his business trips to Chicago and it was on then when the Lazzaroni panettones became officially entrenched as Convito’s flagship holiday product.
We continue to see Paolo and Luca from time to time; once for dinner in the Village in New York after a long day at the Fancy Food show and again with my whole family on the way to our rented villa on Lake Garda when Paolo and Luca treated us all to a lovely breakfast at their Saronno home. (blog Veneto III “Food, Family and Traditions”)
I continue to be inspired by this little cookie. Both the Amaretti cookie and the Amaretto liqueur are delicious all on their own but they make great additions to many different dishes – both sweet and savory. Following is a recent recipe created for our café menu – bacon wrapped pork tenderloin using the Lazzaroni Amaretto liqueur.
Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Honey & Amaretto
10 slices bacon
1 pork tenderloin (1 pound) trimmed
salt & pepper
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons Amaretto
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Lay the bacon next to one another on a flat surface slightly overlapping each piece. If 10 bacon slices are not long enough to wrap the pork, use more.
Season the pork with salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in an ovenproof skillet over high heat.
Sear the pork on all sides until nicely browned.
Place the pork on the bacon slices and wrap around the pork finishing with the seam side down.
Transfer back into the skillets.
Brush honey all over then drizzle with the Amaretto
Roast for 20 to 25 minutes basting several times with the pan juices
Remove from oven and baste again.
Let rest for 5 minutes then slices into 8 slices and serve 2 slices per person.
Note: This pork tenderloin delicious served with the risotto with butternut squash (above) or the peach and almond risotto (below).
Risotto with Peach & Almonds
Make risotto recipe above without the squash and sage but instead use the below 3 ingredients:
Flesh of 3 yellow, ripe peaches, cut into cubes (approximately 3 ½ cups)
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup blanched slivered almonds
Add the peaches, basil and almonds at the end of the risotto cooking time – approximately 10 minutes before it is done. You don’t want the peaches to disintegrate and lose their flavor by adding them too soon.
It is impossible for me to sell or taste a Lazzaroni product without thinking back to that cold January evening when I first met Luigi . It was truly the beginning of so many things – a rewarding business connection, a friendship that brought other Lazzaroni family and friends into my life and many years of great adventures, interesting conversations and – always – those cookies which burrowed their way into my creative psyche, always begging to be used in yet another sweet (or savory!) dish.
As times goes on my appreciation of the Lazzaroni business has only deepened. Beyond just their award-winning products, I have come to understand the value of this family’s kindness and generosity – qualities that are absolutely critical to the longevity of both a friendship, as well as a business. That extraordinary friendship has added a dimension to my Italian travels and to my life that I would not have experienced had Luigi not sat down at my dining table all those many years ago. I am indebted to the Lazaronni’s for this friendship, for their products, and for the model of graciousness and kindness which I have aspired to emulate in my own stores and restaurants here in the United States.