Salem Bakery Provides Sweet Retreat

As Salem bakery-owner Malita Fiore will testify, the life of a pastry chef is no piece of cake.  At 2 AM while most people are tucked snugly beneath the sheets, Fiore is already in the kitchen wrestling with endless layers of croissant dough. She has endured painful blisters while shaping sculptures out of boiling hot sugar. And she’ll be the first to admit that she’s spent much of her adult life working in restaurant kitchens where stressed-out cooks hurdle curse words as sharp as kitchen knives. Still, she carries on – and blissfully so. How does she do it?

“It’s in my DNA,” the energetic thirty-something smiles.  “My father is Sicilian and he’s very intense and passionate about food.  We used to make pasta from scratch so there was a natural transition for me into restaurants where they were like “Oh my God, we must get the ravioli done!”

After ten years working as a restaurant pastry chef, these days Fiore is channeling her creative energy into Malita Fiore:  a French-style patisserie that opened shop in downtown Salem in September.  The bakery boasts everything from individually sized hazelnut mousse tortes and eclairs to towering custom-designed wedding cakes whose life-like sugar roses seem to have sprung from a bride’s delicate bouquet.

On a recent morning, the smell of apple tarts drifts from behind a glass pastry case where brightly colored French macaroons beckon like pastel candies. Fiore is dressed in a white chef’s coat, her dark hair pulled up in a no-fuss ponytail. She leaves the warmth of the kitchen and settles down at a café table to share her story. A Salem-native, fresh out of Northeastern, in her early twenties Fiore was determined to become a lawyer.  Her younger sister Athena helped to change her path.  In 2002, Athena, who was in high school at the time, enlisted her big sister’s help working on a school fundraiser.  Malita’s job?  To cook and serve food to three hundred people. At first, Fiore, who was working in an office at the time, was terrified. But she succeeded in creating a menu and serving the large group, and afterwards realized she liked cooking “a lot better than sitting behind a computer screen.”

“It was the most exhausting and rewarding thing I ever did,” she says.

Weeks later, high school menu in hand, Fiore walked into (now defunct) Strega restaurant in Salem and asked for a job in the kitchen. The executive chef Arnold Rossman took a liking to her and decided to bring her on. Rossman, who now works as general manager for restaurateur Keith McNally in New York City, recalls, “Malita had never worked in a kitchen before, but she was a natural; very intuitive and very eager. She also knew how to work on a timeline. She was organized and focused.”

Long afternoons of intense training followed with Fiore often putting in extra unpaid time. The restaurant owner, impressed with her passion, paid for classes with French pastry chef Delphin Gomes (who later went on to work at The Cambridge Culinary Institute).  Then, just three months after she’d started working there, Rossman left Strega for New York City and Fiore was promoted to head pastry chef. Eager to expand her knowledge, she signed up for six more months of classes with Gomes. “Delphin opened up this whole new world to me of sophisticated French pastry,” she recalls. “I discovered these French competitions where pastry chefs created whole cities out of sugar.” After two years at Strega, Fiore left for an opportunity at Chillingsworth, an upscale restaurant on Cape Cod. Here she got a chance to embrace her playful side. “The goal was to surprise and entertain the customer.  I would make these fancy deserts like towers with caramel spires that had acid in them that made them bounce like Slinkies.”

Later, time spent working in Tokyo at the Imperial Palace Hotel, helped to inform both her palette and her recipes.  “I tasted all these new things and I had all these experiences I bring to the American cake.”

Recent custom-designed wedding cake flavors have included orange cardamom with candied rose petal buttercream and green tea with wild cherry buttercream.

Finally four months ago, after years dreaming of owning her own business, Fiore opened up shop at 83 Washington Street in Salem. Like her father, whose tastes run from raising chickens to listening to Vivaldi, Fiore seems to effortlessly balance her sophisticated taste for French pastries with a girl-next-door’s sensibility.  Although the bakery with its elegant white tables can seem a bit frou-frou at first glance, it has already attracted a fair share of regulars content to hunker down with a cappuccino and a book.  Fiore’s sister Athena, dressed in a black and white ruffled apron, is a cheerful presence behind the counter, alternately helping her sister with baking and assisting customers.  And the girls’ father, it seems, has also left his mark, both on the menu, and in spirit.  On the pastry case, above a wide array of American cupcakes and French pastries, sits a jar of fresh cannoli shells, ready to be filled with sweet ricotta. “These are here because my father was belligerent about it,” Fiore smiles. “He was like ‘you must have cannoli.’”

Mr. Fiore, it seems, stops in a few times a day to check in on his two daughters. “He’s very gregarious,” Fiore says.  “Invariably one of the customers says ‘I’m here because of your father.’”

“Salem Bakery Provides Sweet Retreat” originally appeared in the Boston Globe, December 2013

Shy Guy Gelato

“Shy Guy Gelato: A Taste of Italy in Burlington’s South End”  first appeared at

My love affair with gelato began almost two decades ago. I was 23, backpacking alone in Italy, and got lost trying to find my way back to my hotel in Venice. After an hour circling the labyrinthine streets, I spotted a sign for a gelateria at the end of an alleyway. Ducking out of the sun, I tasted my first-ever gelato — a creamy, fresh cantaloupe I can still recall years later.

Taking bites of the cold, replenishing treat, I continued to round one dizzying street corner after another, eventually finding my way back to my room. Sadly, when I tried to find the gelateria the next day, it had mysteriously disappeared among the bridges and canals. However, its name, Gelateria Nico, is forever memorialized on the inside cover of my Lonely Planet guidebook, scrawled next to the words “Buonissimo! Best gelato in Venezia.”

In Italy, gelato is not merely a dessert. It’s part of a cultural ritual, like going to Sunday Mass or eating fish on Christmas Eve. Going out for a gelato with family or friends provides an excuse to saunter around the piazza and enjoy the last moments of the day together.

Though I appreciate a maple creemee as much as the next gal, my Italian American taste buds often get restless for more. When this happens, I take a stroll through Burlington’s South End to Shy Guy Gelato, which sits at the bustling five-way intersection of Howard and St. Paul streets and South Winooski Avenue.

Housed in a bright-blue storefront, the shop is small and cheery, with one table inside and three on the patio out front. Owner Paul Sansone, 38, got his start as a cook at age 17 and worked for years in local restaurants, as well as out west. At 30, eager to explore his Italian roots, the Jericho native sold all his belongings and spent a year cooking in Italy, first in his great-grandfather’s region of Abruzzi and later in a restaurant in Parma.

Sansone still recalls his first bite of gelato in Rome.

“A light bulb went on,” he said. “It was hazelnut, and it was amazing. It’s still my favorite flavor.”

Sansone honed his gelato-making skills with help from his southern Italian coworkers, then returned to Burlington and took a cook position in a local Italian restaurant. But after several months, frustrated by meager wages, he decided it was time to branch out on his own. He teamed up with Tim Elliott, co-owner of Zabby & Elf’s Stone Soup, and the two began experimenting with gelato making, selling their creations out of Elliott’s St. Paul Street home.

After a year, Sansone says, the lines were out the door, so he and Elliott decided to take the plunge. They raised money through crowdsourcing, took out a loan and moved into the South End location in July 2016.

The neighborhood has been a good home for the gelateria. On a recent Saturday evening, the street corner was hopping. I stepped inside to be greeted by Sansone himself. He’d been up since 5 a.m., when he dropped off Shy Guy’s gelato cart on the Church Street Marketplace.

Sansone and assistant gelato maker Becca Pilgrim make six new flavors each day by hand. Over the past two years, they’ve invented more than 100, including lavender-Earl Grey, horchata, and Vietnamese coffee. When ordering gelato, there’s an art to choosing flavors that complement each other, and Italians often select three at a time.

Sansone advises mixing soft, creamy flavors with bright, fruity ones. Following this advice, I chose white malted milk ball and fuchsia-colored beet. Yes, beet. “I want to wear this, it’s so pretty,” I joked at the register.

I settled down at a patio table, donned a straw hat and pulled out a book. I took a bite of the beet. It was surprisingly rich, the earthiness of a summer garden balanced with just the right amount of sweetness. I followed it with the malted milk ball and drifted into paradiso. Dark chocolate slivers provided the perfect finishing crunch.

The door opened, and two pretty twentysomething women emerged: a brunette, dressed in green shorts and juggling a camera along with a cup of gelato; and a blonde wearing sunglasses, platform sandals and a short, form-fitting pink-and-white dress. The color in her dress echoed that of the gelato in her cone, making it a fashion accessory. As they passed, I leaned over and asked, “Did you order that because it matches your outfit?”

“Actually, yes,” she said with a smile. “My friend is a photographer, and she wants to take some photos.”

The women sauntered away down St. Paul Street, looking like they belonged on the streets of Rome.

Moments later, a family with four towheaded boys settled down at the table next to me. Soon I was chatting with the woman, who turned out to be a scientist and writer from Bangor, Maine. “We’re in town visiting, and we’ve come here two days in a row,” she confessed. “I’ve had gelato at the best gelateria in Rome, and this beats it. Really.”

Beside her sat one of her sons, about age 10, with long, shaggy bangs and freckles. A dollop of chocolate gelato clung to his bottom lip, and his shorts were streaked with brown stains from where he had wiped his fingers.

“My dad thought my shorts were dirty, but I told him it was just chocolate from yesterday,” the boy said. “I got chocolate again today because it’s my favorite flavor. It helps me stay up late at night.”

One of her younger sons swallowed a bite of lime gelato, pulled aside his lip and pointed to a space at the back of his mouth.

“A tooth is growing there,” he said, beaming. “It’s growing right now!”

“Do you think gelato is better than ice cream?” I asked him.

“What?” he answered, confused. “This is ice cream.”

I decided not to bother telling him the difference. Simply put, gelato has less air than ice cream because it’s churned, not whipped, which makes it much denser. It’s also served about 15 degrees warmer than ice cream, which helps to bring out the flavors. The fact that gelato is made with more milk than cream and without egg yolks makes it generally lower in calories than ice cream.

A motorcycle snarled past us, followed by a car with the windows rolled down. Inside, teenage girls were singing to Journey at the top of their lungs.

Sansone walked out, plopped into the seat beside me and surveyed the busy intersection.

“It would be nice,” I said, “if there were a big piazza here.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Or some grass. Last summer they closed off the street for a day and put orange cones out to slow down traffic. It was so nice.

“One day,” Sansone added, “I’d like to expand and sell food, too. In Italy, I worked with these great old ladies who made homemade pasta. I’d love to do that.”

A man walking down Howard Street came toward us.

“That’s a retired professor who comes in here every night to buy two pints of gelato,” Sansone explained. “The people in this neighborhood are so great. Before I had this place, I was kind of a hermit. Now I know everybody.”