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Salvatore De Riso: Italy’s Most Famous Pastry Chef Talks About His Creations

A founder of the Gusta Minori cultural festival on the Amalfi Coast, De Riso tells us about his ambitious plans for promoting the South’s “Made in Italy”

Salvatore De Riso. Photo: Courtesy of Sal De Riso.

Last week in the article, “Celebrating Christmas in August in Minori, a Gem of a Town on the Amalfi Coast,” I talked about the Gusta Minori festival, a cultural and oeno-gastronomical festival held annually for the past 25 years during the second half of August. As part of my visit, I interviewed award-winning local pastry chef Sal De Riso, now renowned globally, to learn more about his career and his delicious confections.

I’m in your hometown of Minori on the Amalfi Coast to cover the cultural festival, Gusta Minori, which you helped to start 25 years ago.  Who were the other movers and shakers behind Gusta Minori?

Sal’s Panettone Milanese. Photo: Courtesy of Sal De Riso.

 “Our native-son journalist, writer and poet Alfonso Bottone; the producer of ice cream, limoncello and babà Carlo Mansi; Antonio Di Bianco, now deceased, who owned ‘Giardiniello’, still voted Minori’s best restaurant; pastry chef Gabriele Gambardella; Pantaleone D’Auria, now deceased, who owned the still excellent restaurant ‘La Botte’; and Fortunato Apicella, now deceased, who owned Tony’s, the bar, once located right here where my bistro is now. We ran Gusta Minori for more than ten years. Like a neighborhood bazaar of local food products, it lasted three days. Along its route we offered free samples of our products including fresh pasta: our fusilli and ndunderi (local gnocchi), to our mainly local guests, around 4,000 people annually, who’d paid a small entrance fee. About 15 years ago Antonio Porpora and Andrea Reale, our very popular mayor– now in his fourth and so last term–took over and capably added cultural events: tours of local monuments, readings, art exhibits, music and theater. Now it’s administered by the Gusta Minori Corporation, headed by Porpora, with many political and touristic sponsors. At first it took place in June, not August. It was a promotional event for our new local food products. Today it lasts nearly two weeks and there are too many outsiders selling non-local products. Gusta Minori should promote only our local products. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be called Gusta Minori.”

Lemons- Minori’s most important product. Photo: Lucy Gordan.

This is a thorn in your side?

“Yes, unfortunately, some bars and restaurants on Gusta Minori’s program sell ‘delizia al limone’, that I’ve copyrighted, but instead of selling mine, they sell an industrial imitation made elsewhere. If they make ‘delizia al limone’ in-house in imitation of mine, I don’t mind as long as they don’t call it ‘Sal De Riso’s’”.

 Can you tell La Voce’s readers about your career?

“I was born on November 28, 1966 into a family of foodies. In 1908 my great aunt Carolina Florio had opened a bar/tobacconist, which served homemade granite di limone. It became our family business. However, I fell in love with this profession thanks to my mother Carmela who was a remarkable cook and pastry chef. So, in 1980 I enrolled in Salerno’s hotel management school.  During my school years and immediately afterwards I worked in prestigious hotels on the Amalfi Coast: the San Pietro, Palumbo, Caruso in Ravello, and MirAmalfi, as a chef. I especially liked making desserts.”

When did you decide to go into business for yourself?

“In 1987 I quit working in hotels and spent two years learning the trade from several pastry chefs in Paris, Brussels, and northern Italy. From my mentor Iginio Massari, I learned not only about flavor, but also aesthetics, how to make a visually mouth-watering cake. He also taught me how to welcome customers and run a business. Then in 1989 I came home and opened a tiny pastry shop because I could hook it up to my father’s bar. I made sweets to accompany his homemade ice creams and granite.

Delizia al limone. Photo: Courtesy of Sal De Riso.

My first cake was a profiterole al limone: a French/Northern Italian favorite with a southern Italian flavor. From then on, I was considered an innovator.  My goal at the time was to introduce new sweets to southern Italy.  Even if here in the south we have some delicious traditional sweets, I was the first to introduce mousses, cakes topped with fresh ‘exotic’ fruits, but always with deep respect for Campania’s local ingredients.  This area of Italy has a rich variety of top-quality ingredients:  hazelnuts from Giffoni, ricotta from Tramonti, white figs from the Cilento, apricots from Mount Vesuvius, amazing wines from Benevento and Avellino, to name just a few.  I’ve always made use of these marvelous products.  Let’s put it this way:  my innovations learned in the north bring out the best in the traditions of my home territory.”

What are the essential qualities for becoming a top pastry chef?

“Creativity, the exclusive use of genuine ingredients, curiosity, and a highly developed aesthetic taste.”

 Who are some other pastry chefs that you admire besides your mentor Iginio Massari?

“Leonardo di Carlo, Luigi Biasetto, and Ernst Knam, but top chef Don Alfonso Iaccarino and his wife Livia are my culinary mentors.  They’ve always been a reference point for me, a destination to aspire to. Don Alfonso is the most extraordinary example to follow that we have here in southern Italy, not only as a chef, but also for his modesty, humanity and warmth. He’s like a father to me.”

Besides Minori where do you sell your sweets?

“I have a shop in Rome at Via Santa Costanza 29-31 and as of last year, one in Milan’s Galleria. Elsewhere, we work through distributors, who sell our products to restaurants and gourmet shops. Outside Italy in Europe, we have customers in Germany, France, Great Britain, Luxembourg, Belgium and The Netherlands. Outside Europe we distribute our products in Hong Kong, Australia, Canada– mainly in Ontario and Quebec–and as of last year, in New York. Our distributors there are Domenico and Antonio Magliulo, the owners of ‘Buon’Italia’”.

Chelsea Market. Photo: Rebeca San Andres Velez.

Since I’m a native New Yorker, where can I enjoy, buy, or eat your products there?

“At the Chelsea Market, which the Magliulos own, and at their clients, the restaurants ‘Sandro’s’ and ‘San Matteo’ on Manhattan’s Upper Eastside and ‘Celeste’ on the Upper Westside as well as ‘Il Pizzaiolo’ in Pittsburgh.  The Magliulos tell me that within the next month or so they’ll be adding others. During the pandemic they’d had to stop importing my products due to the uncertainty in the hospitality industry.”

 What are your most recent sweets?

“’Torta Panarea’ (with pistachios from Bronte in Sicily), ‘Principe Siciliano’ (babà with pistachios), ‘Il Sentiero delle Formichelle’ dedicated to the women who carried the lemons from the groves above Minori down the steep hills to town (coffee and lemon of course) and most recently, ‘Caffè Fondente’ (coffee and chocolate). They’re all sold in cake-form or as single portions.”

Your bestsellers?

 “From among my 95 sweets or so, my classics ‘Delizia al limone’ and my pear and ricotta cake. but my newer cakes ‘Cinque Sensi’ (chocolate and hazelnuts) and ‘Panarea’ are in third and fourth place in sales.”

Sal De Riso’s “Lemon Bikini”. Photo: Courtesy of Sal De Riso.

On your website you have an on-line shop; except for the sweets, le torte da forno, that you send DHL only within Italy because they’re perishable, what can Americans purchase?

“My other sweets, several liqueurs, perfumes, and most recently, bikinis and scarves with a lemon theme because lemons are Minori’s most important product.”

Sal with his wife Anna and his chefs in Tramonti. Photo: Courtesy of Sal De Riso.

How many people work for you?

“In Minori 43 and in Tramonti 65; 45 of us in production; the other 20 are our office workers, accountants, PR, packagers and truck drivers. Here in Minori we make about ten sweets; all the others come from Tramonti.”

Of your sweets which is your personal favorite?

“My panettone Milanese as well as my classics: ‘Delizia al limone’ with its icing of white chocolate and limoncello, and my pear and ricotta cake.  I’ve won many contests in Milan competing against Milanese pastry chefs for my panettone Milanese. I make around 2,000 panettoni a day in Tramonti, not in Milan.”

 Why do you call it Milanese if you make it here?

“Because the first recipe for panettone was born in Milan. The authentic panettone Milanese is made with flour leavened with mother yeast, butter, eggs, Australian raisins, almonds from Bari or Avola in Sicily, homemade candied orange peel and candied lime peel from Calabria.  We must make it according to the recipe in Ministerial Decree of July 22, 2005, which clearly states the amounts of each of these ingredients and the recipe.”

You’ve won numerous awards and international honors; which has given you the greatest satisfaction?

“I became known all over Italy because I’m a regular guest on the television program hosted by Antonella Clerici, ‘La Prova del Cuoco’ so non-locals started to come to Minori to sample my creations. In 2019 I was voted ‘Il Re del Panettone’ (‘King of Panettone’ and ‘Best Italian Pastry Chef of the Year’.  Nevertheless, the highlights of my career were giving Saint John Paul II my Jubilee cake ‘Oro Puro’ made with chocolate and mandarin, and last year my panettone to Pope Francis for his birthday on December 17th.”

Some of the other products that De Riso promotes. Photo: Lucy Gordan.

You written many books?  

“Yes, Dolci in Famiglia (2011), Dolci del Sole (2012), Dolci facili, facili (2013) all published by Rizzoli, Siamo Tutti Pasticcioni: In Cucina con la Mamma for children, published by Italian Gourmet in 2013, and Sal de Riso, il Re delle Torte (2017), published by RAI TV’s publishing house ERI, and another, ‘Profumo di limone’ published in 2018 by Italian Gourmet for professional pastry chefs. Unfortunately, while they are available on the internet, it’s only in Italian.”

Torta di pere e ricotta. Photo: Courtesy of Sal De Riso.

 The number of aspiring pastry chefs is growing, where should they study?

“In Italy for certain at ALMA near Parma, founded by the great but now deceased Milanese Chef Gualtiero Marchesi, or at IN CIBUM in Salerno, the best school in southern Italy. At both the courses are often in English and open to non-Italians too. During the past few years, I keep receiving an ever-growing number of requests from young people wanting to do internships with me because they’ve seen me on TV. Others come to me recommended by hotel management schools.”

Your next projects?

“To turn Minori into another Porto Cervo.  I’d like to promote the Amalfi Coast and Minori only through our local traditions and products. Before that can happen we’ll need to solve our enormous parking problem by building an underground garage for about 400 cars. Minori must become a shopping center for “Made in Italy”: our already famous luxury goods and our local artisanry and foods. Another is to create sweets appropriate for diabetics. I’m working on this with a professor at the University of Pisa.”

 

 

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