Sighs are common when customers encounter the contents of the long glass cases at Dolce Sicilia, an Italian bakery in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. First they see the trays of cookies: soft amaretti pignoli, chewy chocolate-dipped Florentines, and raspberry-topped farfalletta.
Their eyes widen at real cannoli, tiramisu and especially the flaky sfogliatelle. Then they smell the aroma of yeasty ciabatta and the pastry-wrapped sausage calzone.
For those with a thing for genuine Italian baked goods, Dolce Sicilia is the promised land. Owner Francesco Spatola is used to it. He grins, too, as he surveys his handiwork and the customers’ reaction to it.
“I love what I do. When it’s good, it’s such a fulfilling thing. I really love doing the breads,” said the baker.
Tucked in a Wheat Ridge strip mall, the tiny, modestly decorated shop opened in 2005 with a handful of tables and has developed a brisk takeout business. Morning regulars come in for a latte and biscotti for dunking, or an egg sandwich with Italian sausage and mozzarella.
For lunch, Spatola dishes slice after slice of square and round pizza as well as meatball panini, sausage cannoli (a popular if inauthentic specialty) and the flaky-crusted calzone filled with sausage, onions, mushrooms, green peppers and provolone. A big seller: the stellar lasagna his mom makes, filled with ground meats, cheeses and classic house marinara.
Afternoon customers stop for bread or cookies to take home. One of the shop’s rarest specialties is pignolata, a large, cloud-like dessert made from eggy cream-puff dough that’s glazed, half with dark chocolate and half with lemon icing.
Dolce Sicilia means “sweet Sicily,” referring to the island south of Italy’s “boot” and Spatola’s birthplace. He grew up in the city of Messina but spent a lot of time in the port of Marsala, famous for its sweet cooking wine. “Everybody in my family cooked all kinds of stuff and lots of desserts. I always loved the biscotti,” he said with the slight Italian accent he retains
“My uncles, most of my family, owned bakeries and restaurants,” said Spatola, who learned how to bake working in those shops. He first visited Denver in 1990. “My uncle owned Gaspare’s Bakery and also Vincenza’s Bakery before he sold it. I worked for him and really liked Denver, so I stayed. It was a little tough working for the family – there’s all the expectations.”
Spatola took a different route to owning a food business. “I worked in the bakery department at Costco for 11 years,” he said. “I learned a lot on the managerial side, but there was no room for creativity.”
After marrying, Spatola became a U.S. citizen eight years ago. “I’m a dual citizen of Italy and America. I have a 12-year-old son. His name is Rosario, but he says, ‘Call me Ross, Dad.'” (Spatola shares custody of his son with his ex-wife, who lives nearby.)
Keeping the glass cases filled isn’t easy. Spatola makes 12 to 15 kinds of dough every week. “I get up at about 3 a.m., take a shower, get in here about 4 and start baking, doing pastries,” he said. “I’m here all day except when I run errands.”
His mother, Michelina, and his brother, Michael, work in the shop, and other relatives sometimes help out. Spatola goes home at 6 p.m. to have dinner with his son and comes back at 8 p.m. to make bread dough for the next day so it rises slowly all night. “That’s the secret to the flavor.”
Once Dolce Sicilia is established, Spatola has more plans. “My goal is to do a bigger Sicilian restaurant and bakery.” Asked what Sicilian dishes that restaurant might feature, he first talks in rapid-fire Italian with his mother and a cousin to make sure he has the details right. His restaurant would serve a lot of seafood, including dishes made with bacala (dried cod). There’d also be pasta a la Norma with fried eggplant and ricotta salata, the dried form of that cheese, and pasta becca ficu with sardines and figs.
He notes that he’s making sweets that date back hundreds, even thousands, of years and reflect the many immigrants to (and occupiers of) Sicily, including Phoenicians, Romans, Normans, Arabs and Greeks.
“I still have a lot of relatives in Sicily,” Spatola said. “I try to visit every two years, but it’s hard now with the business.”
His long hours are slowly paying off as more devotees discover his wondrous wares. But he hasn’t been able to find an apprentice willing to learn the craft so he could cut back his hours.
“I’m very particular,” he said. “I want things to be done right.” THE LAST WORD: Sfogliatelle (say it sfo-lyah-TEL-e; on The Sopranos, it’s shfooyadell) is a flaky butter pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and sometimes candied fruit and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
If You Go
Dolce Sicilia Italian Bakery 3210 Wadsworth Blvd. Wheat Ridge, Colorado 80033 303-233-3755 dolcesiciliabakery.com
Price range: $1-$12
This piece was originally published in the Rocky Mountain News.
John Lehndorff is the former dining critic and travel writer at the Rocky Mountain News and food editor at the Daily Camera. He is a Boulder-based writer whose columns and features appear in Yellow Scene Magazine and Edible Front Range magazine. He pens a food trend blog at: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com. For more information: johnlehndorff.com.