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It almost never snows in Naples. Yet in the last decade, the city has seen an invasion of snowflakes.

We’re not talking about an atmospheric phenomenon – rather, it is Pasticerria Poppella’s il fiocco di neve (“the snowflake”), a true gastronomic prodigy that has quickly become a “new classic” of Neapolitan pastry, as evidenced by the long lines at the bakery every day of the week.

Ciro Poppella is quite a character: not only an important figure in the Sanità neighborhood, where Poppella is located, he’s also an icon of Naples. The inventor of the snowflake, Ciro is a living example of how there are no limits to what you can achieve when you believe in a project, in a product, in an innovation, and you work hard to achieve it.

This is no easy task in a city that strictly follows gastronomic traditions, where the trio of babà, sfogliatella and pastiera form the basis of a centuries-old pastry tradition that has remained fixed and unchanged for years. But Ciro wasn’t intimidated. In the early 2000s, when faced with a declining business, he began making his snowflakes. Although it took some time before they caught on, these little cream-filled doughballs covered with powdered sugar are now one of the most widely eaten desserts in the city, imitated by many pastry shops, and Poppella has become synonymous with innovation and high quality.

Ciro’s idea was simple and revolutionary: to make something new, “a cake that would be good, simple and, at the same time, cheap,” he tells us. In his kitchen, he began experimenting with different recipes for white cream and pastry dough, ultimately perfecting a delicate, light filling that perfectly pairs with a soft brioche. The end result is a cream-filled cake that, despite its simplicity, has all of Naples salivating.

“The snowflake’s simplicity is the real key to its success.”

While his invention is decidedly modern, at least by Neapolitan standards, Ciro comes from a long line of bakers. Everything began in 1920, when Raffaele (“Papele” in Neapolitan) and Giuseppina (“Peppenella” in Neapolitan) built a bread oven in the Sanità quarter. The bakery began to be known as Poppella, a combination of Papele and Peppenella.

After the Second World War, their son Salvatore took over and began making the best taralli in the city. The bakery becomes a tarallificio, supplying all the kiosks along the Neapolitan waterfront with these ring-like snacks. Salvatore – himself an innovator – was also famous for his Poppella Dog, an artisanal sausage swaddled in traditional Neapolitan bread.

In the early 2000s, Salvatore’s son, Ciro Poppella (whose real name is Ciro Scognamiglio), opened a pasticceria in the Sanità quarter next to his father’s tarallificio. Due to economic instability and little foot traffic, business was slow when he invented the snowflake, and it wasn’t until he donated a large batch to a fundraiser that they garnered any attention. But once they did, the craving for these pastries has been insatiable – bakeries throughout Naples have copied his recipe and given it their own name.

“We had to expand the pastry shop,” says Ciro. “We were making snowflakes in the thousands. People were coming from every corner of the Campania region to Naples to taste the Poppella snowflake.” So in 2016, Ciro opened a new headquarters, although still in the Sanità neighborhood.

We meet Ciro in this relatively new space, an elegant shop with plenty of peaceful corners offering an escape from the colorful chaos of people, cars and rumbling motorbikes that dominates in Sanità. He welcomes us inside with a toothy smile.

When asked about the recipe for his snowflake, he sidesteps the question.

“I can only say that the cream is made with sheep’s milk ricotta and fresh milk,” he says. At our attempts to push for more information, he responds by doubling the number of teeth in his smile: “The snowflake’s simplicity is the real key to its success,” he adds.

Ciro’s customers don’t care how it’s made – they just want to keep eating more. “My favorite breakfast is now a coffee and a snowflake,” confirms Vincenza, a Sicilian woman sitting at a table in Poppella. “The sweetness of the flake creates a strong contrast with the bitter coffee.”

To meet this demand, Ciro opened a second store on Via Santa Brigida, in the tourist center of the city. He also began innovating his snowflakes, filling them with pistachio- and chocolate-flavored cream.

Ever the creative pastry chef, Ciro produces more than just snowflakes: he also experiments with nougat, creating many different kinds of sweets, and constructs huge, multi-story cakes.

“My favorite is the sweet ricotta and pear cake – it’s a miniature version of the large cake Ciro makes and is best eaten cold,” says Antonio, a regular at Poppella. “I also recommend trying the new cake Napulè [meaning “Naples is”], but be careful, because it is addictive,” he adds.

When he’s not in the kitchen, you’ll most often find Ciro at the cash desk. He welcomes you with his smile and will even sit with you if he has the time. He tells us that “the snowflakes must stay out of the fridge for five minutes before being served: the cream must lose the cold layer that protects it so that it’s offered to the palate while fresh but not frozen.”

That’s how the snowflake, just like fresh snow, melts in your mouth.

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Gianni Cipriano and Sara Smarrazzo

Published on March 13, 2019

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