I-ATE Term of The Week: Crostata

I-ATE Food Term of the Week_ Crostata

The crostata: a typical Italian dessert

The crostata is a baked tart similar to a fruit-filled pie, composed of a base of short pastry, called pasta frolla, topped with a lattice crust, that is filled with jam, cream, fresh fruit or ricotta cheese. Because of its particular shape, it has been described as «a triumph of shells filled with jams, preserves and creams». It is traditionally consumed at breakfast, but it may be eaten at any time of the day, served as a dessert; moreover, this cake is usually homemade and baked in characteristic round moulds with knurled sides.

Its name derives from the Latin crustata, which means crust; the French term croustade, as well asthe English custard,derived from it.This word appeared in the earliest Italian dictionaries, included in the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, and its earliest mentions can be found in old cookbooks, such as Libro de Arte Coquinaria («Book of the Art of Cooking») by Martino da Como, published in 1465, and in Cuoco Napolitano («Neapolitan Cook»), published in the late 15th century, containing a recipe titled Crostata de Caso, Pane, etc, that is «cheese crostata », «bread crostata», etc.  

In the past, as a matter of fact, it was a meat or fish dish, baked in the oven in the form of a cake. In fact, in a well-known collection of Tuscan short stories, dating back to the last twenty years of the 13th century, the Novellino, written by an anonymous author, there is a reference to an «eel crostata» that a woman placed in a cupboard, but a mouse crawled in, so she cunningly thought of having her cat catch him and closed it inside. It happened, though, that when she opened the cupboard, the mouse jumped out running away, while the cat remained motionless, unable to move with its swollen belly, having eaten the whole hash! A savoury pie is still the focus of another literary work in which the two protagonists, a courtier and a parson, put on the table for their dinner a cat tart and a mice tart respectively, out of spite.

Actually, we have to wait until the year 1000 AD to find in Venice the first sweet recipe, with cane sugar that finally came from the Middle East, even if it seems that the cake has also Neapolitan origins, since many attribute this tasty dish to a nun from the convent of San Gregorio Armeno, in Naples: the strips of short pastry on the top remind the grates through which cloistered nuns attended religious services. Notwithstanding its humble beginnings, this dessert was a success and was even served to the royal Bourbons afterwards.

The crostata is very common not only in Italy but in many other countries, too, the recipes being quite similar and, most importantly, having in common the main ingredient, namely the shortcrust pastry. Some famous variants include the Austrian Linzer torte, the Spanish tart and the South American Pasta Frola de Dulce de Membrillo; the French Galette, too, could be somehow comparable to the crostata, even though the top is not covered with a lattice crust but with a series of concentric curved lines.

Although nowadays confectioners are constantly striving to experiment with different and original cakes, the crostata remains a classic of Italian pastry, much loved by children and adults alike, and the increasing number of variations proves, along with its high versatility, that this recipe is simply everlasting. Some well-known variations include peach, apricot, cherry or berries filling, and recently also Nutella.

Then, it is not surprising that an initiative was taken to create the National Crostata Day, which takes place every year on 9th September, in order to celebrate this delicacy.

Before concluding, it is worth mentioning the great French writer famous for his «search of lost time», Marcel Proust, because, in one of his works, he recalled the snacks he used to eat during picnics. Unlike his friends who preferred sandwiches, he used to eat only cakes and apricot crostate, and these latter, according to the author, had the peculiarity of being «chatty»: they talked about fresh fruit!


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Written by Lucia Golino.
Lucia is a PhD student in “Euro(pean) Languages and Specialized Terminologies” at “Parthenope” University of Naples (Italy).