By Adam Erace
The whiskey-soaked, raisin-studded, more Italian characters than you can shake a stick at, real deal story of Panettone.
Once upon a time, there was a noble Milanese falcon trainer named Ughetto, who fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of the town baker. It pained Ughetto to see his crush working so hard at the struggling bakery, so he posed as a peasant and offered to work there for free so she didn’t have to. He got the idea to boost business at the bakery by enriching its breads with butter and sugar and eggs—luxuries in 15th-century Milan, even for a nobleman. So Ughetto sold some of his birds to buy the ingredients, blended them into a cake-like bread studded with raisins and candied citrus, saved the bakery, and took Adalgisa’s hand in marriage.
This is the origin story of panettone, the famous fruitcake that went on to conquer Christmas in Italy and later, America. Except… ‘ughett’ means ‘raisin’ in the Milanese dialect, which is just a little too convenient, isn’t it? Perhaps then another tale is true, that of Toni, a scullery cook in the Duke of Milan’s court. When Toni’s boss burned the cake intended for Il Duce’s holiday feast, Toni took the sourdough starter he was saving for his own Christmas dinner, kneaded it into a rich confection, and saved the day. The Duke named the bread pan de Toni, which eventually became panettone.
Truth is, the history of panettone is unknown, and which myth you hear depends on whose Italian grandmother you ask. I never thought to ask either of mine, even though panettones were never not in their South Philadelphia row homes around the holidays. Panettones would huddle in china cabinets and under Christmas trees, serving as back-ups and emergency gifts for a third cousin or random neighbor. The cakes looked like presents with their ribbon handles, exotic names, and colorful boxes: candy-apple-red Baloccos, toothpaste-blue Melegattis, Peruginas embossed with reflective gold lettering—if things were getting really baller. One panettone would always be sitting out on the table, too, opened and half sliced, something for company to pick at. It usually tasted like cardboard and Pledge, not so different from its less extravagant but equally spurned cousin, fruitcake.