When you walk into the new La Toscanella Bakery & Paninoteca in South Lake Union, it's impossible not to make a straight line for the glowing pastry case. Its golden light beams like a sunbreak through a stormy sky, shining down upon dozens of different cakes, pies, tarts, éclairs, cannoli, and cookies.
Your eye won't be able to settle—maybe you'll first notice the bright white chocolate rossa, which is a short, plump tower of fluffy white chocolate mousse filled and topped with fresh raspberries. But just as you start to comprehend it—how did it get so virginally pristine?—you'll see the variety of striking fruit tarts, the individually sized flourless chocolate cakes with pretty scalloped edges, and the chubby golden slices of rice pie. Rice pie! It's a traditional Italian dessert laced with hazelnuts and spices and bound together by thick, starchy custard.
There's an orange, creamy pumpkin cheesecake and another cheesecake covered in glistening caramel with puffy almond cookies pressed into its sides. "WHAT IS IT?" your brain will ask, quickly answering itself, "I DO NOT CARE, PUT IT IN MY MOUTH." There are plates and plates of cookies—chocolate- covered cookies, sandwich cookies with raspberry or apricot filling, cookies that look like big fat ravioli covered with sugar.
"Can I get you anything out of the pastry case?" the kind woman behind the counter asked, as my eyes jumped from one treat to the next.
"Everything. One of everything," I mumbled, jokingly, of course, but not really joking at all.
"We also have pasta," she said, pointing to the menus that hung above her head, somehow knowing that I needed some sustenance with my sugar. They usually have premade sandwiches and salads, too, she said, served on homemade focaccia, but an especially busy lunch run had wiped them out.
The specifics of La Toscanella's menu change on a daily basis, but it always includes a variety of frittatas (served in cute cast-iron skillets all day), handmade pasta dishes (agnolotti, lasagna, penne, and more), and salads that, frankly, sound boring compared to everything else.
They also have gnocchi, supposedly, but they've been out of it both times I've attempted to order it. Thankfully, the four-cheese penne pasta made me forget all about those MIA potato dumplings. The top of the boat of penne was covered with a crispy, dark brown layer of shredded Parmesan that had sat under the broiler for the perfect number of seconds. The creamy sauce bubbled up around the edges of the dish, with a bit of Gorgonzola giving it a deep, earthy flavor that other cheese sauces (which usually utilize milder cheeses) lack. I would've devoured it in five minutes flat if it weren't so tongue-ruiningly hot, but getting the pasta served to you straight from the oven means you have to eat it slowly, as it cools, forcing you to really appreciate each bite.
The cannelloni, also served bubbling hot in a boat-shaped dish, was filled with a mixture of roasted chicken and ricotta, baked in a tomato-béchamel sauce. My meat-eating date declared the sauce good enough to bathe in, and it looked so rich and delicious that I almost—almost!—shunned nearly two decades of vegetarianism just to have a taste.
As tummy-warming and filling as the pasta is, though, after your meal, that pastry case will still be waiting for you. And you'll be waiting for it. If you have any room left in your stomach at all, get something to enjoy while sipping on a Frizz Coffee served over ice with a splash of vanilla syrup and cream. But if you're full, grab something to go. Anything. There isn't a bummer in the bunch.
The recipes come from the northern region of Italy—a region that the cafe's owner says isn't represented much in Seattle, but that's about all he would say. When I called to find out more about him and his food ("How did you learn to make such miraculous desserts?"), he declined to answer, wanting us to focus just on the shop. He appears to be Italian—this past spring, the blog for local Gioia Wines said, "Finally my talented friend Enrico Ambrosetti is opening his new bakery" (I hope that I am not forever banned for printing his name).
The soft shell of the ricotta pie, which is topped with roasted pine nuts and a sprinkling of powered sugar, holds a mixture of sweetened ricotta, chunks of chocolate, and bits of orange zest big enough to bite into. So many times, orange zest sadly disappears into a dessert, leaving a barely-there flavor and wasting an opportunity for added texture. This is not the case at La Toscanella.
The mousse part of the white chocolate rossa was incredibly light and delicate—like licking a sweetened cloud. But since it's winter, the raspberries were not at all juicy and a bit too tart. Sad. In the summer, when local berries are everywhere, it will undoubtedly be perfect.
The pineapple tart was my favorite (the unique rice pie being a close second). I will eat pineapple on or in anything. Here, rings of pineapple sit on a thick chilled custard, and they're covered with a sticky orange marmalade glaze. The mixture combines with the juice from the fruit, making for delightful little pockets of sweet, sugary goo. Perfect.
Now if I could just get my hands on some of that gnocchi...