Walking into Pasticceria Natalina, the Andersonville Sicilian-style pastry shop owned by Natalie Zarzour, feels like stepping into a sensual Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Â The perfume of citrus and vanilla roils above a gleaming case stocked with flaky rafts of pastry, filled with custard and studded with glistening strawberries, and cassatines, mounds of sponge cake enrobed in sparkling marzipan.
Zarzour, who works as a team with her husband, Nick, cuts no corners; they import olive-oil-preserved artichokes from Sicily, fill cannoli to order and infuse vodka with vanilla for their liquor-soaked pastries. Â They’re not shy about instructing customers on how to eat their pastries. Â It’s not an egotistical move, but rather one to ensure that customers enjoy the pastry at the height of its flavor, instead of after it’s spent a few days in a refrigerator. Â Of course, once you take a bite of their handiwork, none of the sweets will make the trip home.
Q. What do you wish you could change or pickle and preserve about the Chicago restaurant/ food scene?
A. I would like to see the industry restore the position of chef to what it is in places like Japan and France, where a chef is an artist. Â We need to see less-glorified dishwashers and line cooks receiving titles with accreditation. Â As an industry, we need to raise the standard of what we expect to come out of our kitchens by not exploiting the people in them. Â Too many places out there are trying to get big jobs done by using and abusing people with very inadequate training because they want to save a dime.
Q. What would your last pastry be?
A. Ricotta cheesecake. Â And I don’t mean a slice — I want to eat the whole thing.
Q. Where do you like to eat before or after a shift?
A. Usually at home. Â We drink a lot of coffee before, during and after work. Â Before we get started in the morning, I’m usually still pretty sleepy, so breakfast consists of any number of things paired with very hot peppers and sauces. Â That’s what it takes to wake me up.
Q. What’s the can’t-miss pastry at Pasticceria Natalina?
A. The sfogliatelle when they’re just out of the oven. Â Stop by at opening time. Â This is a flaky, crisp shell filled with orange and cinnamon-scented ricotta that should optimally be enjoyed while still warm, when the fragrance of the warm butter is still right there under your nose.
Q. What should we know about Pasticceria Natalina that we probably don’t?
A. You can enjoy yourself without having to feel totally guilty over the indulgence. Â Our most popular almond cookie has no flour or butter in it. Â Made from my house-formula almond paste that is folded into egg white meringue and then baked, it is a dieter’s dream pastry.
Pasticceria Natalina; 5406 N. Clark St., Chicago (773) 989-0662