In southeast Italy, this pastry is king

Pasticciotto is the pride of Puglia. Try it at these four bakeries.

Pastry chef Davide Ascalone holds a warm pasticciotto inside his shop. (Matt Reichel)

LECCE, Italy — Warm, crumbly and traditionally filled with a silky, lemon-scented custard, pasticciotto is a shortcrust pastry from Puglia, the southern region of Italy that forms the heel of the boot-shaped country. The regionally adored treat may fly under the radar compared to cornetto or cannoli, but it’s a snack worth seeking out while you explore whitewashed coastal villages perched on turquoise Mediterranean waters.

With its abundance of fertile farmland, Puglia is known for producing burrata and olive oil. Compared to Puglia’s masserias — fortified farmhouses that serve Michelin-rated cuisine — pasticciotti are a more affordable culinary attraction. The oval-shaped tart looks like a miniature loaf of cornbread or a sizable financier. It can be eaten any time of day: lovely with a morning espresso or as a portable snack for strolling the piazzas in towns full of ornate architecture.

Although pasticciotti are reminiscent of Portuguese pasteis de nata or Hong Kong egg tarts, they have a distinct origin story. The pastry traces back to the town of Galatina and a baker named Nicola Ascalone. According to Davide Ascalone, who now helms the family bakery, the first pasticciotto was developed “by accident” in 1745, with leftover shortcrust scraps, dough and cream. The elder Ascalone did not make a pretty pastry, but he thought the flavor was extraordinary, as did many noblemen in the town.

This little dessert has since transformed into one of Puglia’s most adored sweets. It has also found its way into cafes and pasticcerias across Italy’s largest cities and migrated to Italian American bakeries in communities such as Utica, N.Y., where it’s called a “pustie.”

Here in Lecce, options are especially abundant. Here are four of the most popular bakeries:

Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone

The Ascalone pastry shop opened in 1740 in Galatina, just 30 minutes away from Lecce. The bakery is reminiscent of an old-time cafe, with black-and-white checkered flooring, chandeliers, dark mahogany walls and front-window displays filled with various pastries. The bakery has operated across 10 generations over 282 years. Andrea Ascalone was the first pastry chef, and his son, Nicola, created pasticciotti.

The Ascalone pasticciotto has a smooth crust, is more cakelike and is filled with a delectable cream. “The real pasticciotto has a shortcrust pastry and is filled only with custard. At most, locals will only add a light layer of black cherry jam,” said Davide Ascalone, who started learning the pastry craft through his father and grandfather when he was 13. A pasticciotto is most often eaten at breakfast, but locals, especially in Galatina, will eat it under any circumstances. The pastry is a source of hometown pride.

The popularity of the pastry led the Ascalones to try new flavors with fillings from pistachio cream to ricotta. But Davide emphasizes the original custard cream is a must-try for any visitor. The shop consistently serves warm pastries, even as the store gets ready to close at 1:30 p.m.

Price: 1.50 euros (about $1.58)

Address: Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 17, Galatina


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Natale Pasticceria

The original Natale Pasticceria was founded in San Cesario di Lecce, just outside the town of Lecce, in 1978. A more modern outpost, Pasticceria Natale, opened in 1999 just off Lecce’s main square. It is a beautifully decorated store with walls of confections, white, high ceilings and a bright display for a line of customers streaming out the door.

While the original location focuses on pasticciotti and bread, the newer location also offers gelato and pastries ranging from cannoli to macarons and mousse cakes. Pasticciotti remains a flagship dessert and occupies the top shelf.

While the Natale family experiments with different flavors, they worry pasticciotti could lose its quality and traditional characteristics with popularity and large-scale production. “It is important, in our opinion, to keep traditions unchanged,” said Gabriele Natale, whose parents founded the bakery.

Price: 1.80 euros (about $1.89)

Address: Natale Pasticceria, Via Viottorio Emanuele III, 1, San Cesario di Lecce; Pasticceria Natale, Via Salvatore Trinchese, 7, Lecce


Martinucci Laboratory

This bakery group with 23 locations across Puglia and Rome has been experimenting with pasticciotti for years, developing flavor combinations such as ricotta and pistachio or black cherry and chocolate crème with fruit and nuts sprinkled on top. The crust is not as thick as usual, so each bite produces a rich portion of custard. It’s the only shop where some pasticciotti are more muffin-shaped (vs. oval).

Martinucci’s pastry crusts use cereal and oat flours, and it offers a vegan pasticciotti. The laboratory was founded in 1950 by Rocco Martinucci and Annunziata Panese, who came from families of gelato makers and pastry chefs. They made pasticciotti because it was part of the tradition in Salento, a subregion of Puglia. Even though the company has many locations, all stores are managed directly through the family, and they do not consider themselves a chain.

Constant demand over the years has given rise to creating a department completely dedicated to pasticciotti. According to a spokesperson, Martinucci Laboratory makes up to 10,000 pasticciotti per day across all stores during the peak summer season.

Price: 1.80 euro; the vegetable pasticciotto is 1.50 euro

Address: 23 locations across Puglia and Rome


Pasticceria Luca Capilungo

Pastry chef Luca Capilungo’s pasticciotto is especially crumbly, crunchy and golden because he favors a long bake. He remains a traditionalist, forming his shortcrust with lard and flavoring his custard cream with lemon zest just like his grandmothers and mother did. “I believe it is essential to keep the traditional recipe intact,” he said.

Capilungo built his pastry shop in 1991 in a small room of 100 square meters, or about 1,076 square feet. He was 23 years old, and friends and family thought he was crazy for wanting to open a pastry shop in a suburb of Lecce, far away from the city center. Even though the shop is a 25-minute walk from the main piazza, the bakery is popular in its surrounding neighborhoods. There are lines of customers huddled around the counter, putting in large orders for everything from cakes to pasticciotti.

“Pasticciotti is part of the Lecce culinary tradition. It’s the first thing they teach you to do when you start becoming a pastry chef,” Capilungo said. He made his first one at 14 under the tutelage of master pastry chef Franco Franchini.

Price: 1.50 euro

Address: Via Bari, 7, Lecce