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Bitter Almonds

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In the early 50s, Maria Grammatico and her sister were sent by their impoverished mother to the San Carlo, a cloistered orphanage in Erice, an ancient hill town on the western coast of Sicily. It was a Dickensian existence - beating sugar mixtures for six hours at a time, rising before dawn to prime the ovens, and surviving on an unrelenting diet of vegetable gruel. But it was here that Maria learned to make the beautifully handcrafted pastries that were sold to customers from behind a grille in the convent wall. At 22, Maria left the orphanage with no personal possessions, minimal schooling and no skills other than what she carried in her head and hands - the knowledge acquired during a childhood spent preparing delicacies for other people's celebrations. Today, she is the successful owner of her own pasticceria in Erice, her counters piled high with home-made biscotti, tarts, cakes and jams - torta divina, cassata siciliana, cotognata. This is her story, told by her friend and long-time customer as a tribute to Sicilian food and culture and a record of an historic and vanishing craft.
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Other books by Mary Taylor Simeti include "Sicilian Food", "On Persephone's Island" and "Travels With a Medieval Queen".

About the Author

Mary Taylor Simeti was born and brought up in New York City. In 1962 she went to Sicily, where she married and raised two children. Her books are the acclaimed SICILIAN FOOD (Grub Street '99), ON PERSEPHONE'S ISLAND (Bantam, '01), the forthcoming TRAVELS WITH A MEDIEVAL QUEEN (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, '02) and BITTER ALMONDS with Maria Grammatico. A respected food writer who occasionally contributes to the New York Times, Mary lives in Sicily with her husband Tonino. MARIA GRAMMATICO's famous pastry shop, the Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, can be found on via Vittorio Emanuele in Erice, Sicily.


Bitter almonds lend depth of flavor to the buttery cookie doughs prepared by nuns in the south of Italy. And the bittersweet recollections of Grammatico, a renowned pastry cook and shopkeeper in Erice, Sicily, lend depth to this slender volume of Italian recipes. As researched by Mary Taylor Simeti, author of several books on Sicily, the reminiscences of hardships endured during Grammatico's girlhood, spent as an orphan in a Sicilian cloister, give poignancy to the uncomplicated, sweet pastries that make up her life's work now. Americans accustomed to rich excesses and scads of chocolate in their desserts may not find much to excite them here. But those who savor fine pastry and Italian artistry in marzipan and baking will apreciate the enormous effort necessary to translate Grammatico's recipes for use in our kitchens. Recent voyagers to the south of Italy may find themselves feeling slightly homesick for the simpler meals-and simpler lifestyle-evoked by Grammatico. (Oct.)

Simeti is the author of the delightful Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food (LJ 8/89) and On Persephone's Island (LJ 3/15/86), also about Sicily. In the course of her research, she discovered Grammatico's pastry shop in Erice, where Grammatico continues to make the traditional pastries she learned as a girl in an orphanage run by nuns. At one time convents all over Sicily were known for their special pastries; now making the special marzipan creations and other cookies Grammatico sells is almost a lost art. Simeti presents Grammatico's own account, spirited and often moving, of her bleak life in an austere convent orphanage-although it was during the late 1950s, it reads more like something out of Dickens-followed by the recipes for all the pastries she offers at her thriving bakery, now known far beyond the town of Erice. A unique and special book.

"'The poignant story of a Sicilian astonishing account'" * The New York Times *

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