Friday, November 13, 2009

Baker's Dozen #1: Danielle diVecchio

Dear Mouse,

I did it! Our first interview! I feel soo journalistic. Two nights ago at this Union Squarea bistro, I got to take down 1) a bowl of (excellent, minimalist) french onion soup and 2) a series of scholarly notes on a yellow pad while wearing my Sexy Librarian glasses and sitting across the table from one Danielle diVecchio, NYC-based actress AND owner of "Biscotti diVecchio".

First I'll just say that I know Danielle from our work together on the play LILA CANTE, in which she played the hardass-who-just-wants-to-be-loved record exec and during which she fed me and our castmates bags of the hard-but-still-can-be-chewed-best biscotti I've ever had. Fact. And THEN she was all, "Oh, I made these." Danielle is a prime example of a MouseBouche personality -- a working artist who knows her way around a kitchen -- which is why I was excited to make her our first Baker's Dozen interview.

Here's the thing: I don't like biscotti. Let's start there. As anyone who's been to a Starbucks knows, biscotti are oblong, bland, vaguely anise cookies roughly the texture of a brick and impossible to eat without breaking your molars. Right? Well, often. And now I know why. As Danielle informed me, biscotti ("twice baked") are traditionally made with flour, sugar, eggs, and anise/almond flavor (liqueur or extract, never real almonds). That's it. No butter. No wonder no teeth. Apparently the original audience were Italian sailors, heading to sea for months and thinking only of the longevity of their snacks.

Well, like many of our favorite artists, Danielle has found success through a combination of adherence to tradition and respectful tweakage thereof. Her cookies are a sly blend of traditional biscotti and a simple "soft butter cookie" recipe she remembers learning at her (2nd-generation Italian) grandmother's side.

As I heard this story, Mouse, I smiled as it brought back memories of our own grandma's famous cooking and equally famous recipe caginess ("oh, you know... a little of this, a little of that...") Danielle recalled herself at 13 or 14, standing in the kitchen as her grandmother spread flour on the counter ("everything was on a counter, no bowls") and made a well for the eggs. There was no recipe ( "I don't know, did you see, Danielle? Did you see?") and the lessons were all hands-on ("Do it til it feels like this"). The rogue ingredient, communicated in a conspiratorial whisper, was a good dose of whiskey... which of course burned off in the cooking, leaving only the flavor.

Fast forward to 2001 where Danielle is living and acting in a shell-shocked NYC. A friend is organizing a 9/11 benefit at a local church and wants to give party favor bags to those attending. Danielle offers to bake, specifically pistachio chocolate chunk biscotti. Why biscotti? She shakes her head now - "I don't know!" - and points out that no one seemed to think of them as biscotti, just as good cookies. By now, Danielle had already put her own stamp on the family recipe; she laughs, thinking how her grandmother would be "horrified" by the inclusion of chocolate. Or cayenne pepper (but I get ahead of myself).

Business began in earnest in winter 2003, when an upcoming 'sure thing' acting job had fallen through (that never happens) and Danielle was, in a word, broke. A friend said "You'll think of something", and she did. The cookies! She drew up an order form on a Word document, got a free fax number, send 300 emails letting people know she'd be selling biscotti for the holidays, and left the house to calm down. An hour later she had her first 25 orders, and the rest is crunchy, unorthodox history.
Between Janis and Carmela!

As I slurped my soup and scratched down notes we of course got to talking about Our Life in Art. Reminiscing about her time on The Sopranos, Danielle was talking about the show's quality, a word that came up a lot in this conversation. The show was a huge success for a reason: much time, effort and thought went into making it. One episode would take three weeks. The writers had full creative control. Actors were hired more for talent than name. "And then, imitations {ie, with none of these practices} fail - and they wonder why!" We clinked our glasses and nodded in agreement on this, I think, fundamental point in the artistic life -- that creative AND business decisions made from the HEART are wise, that time and effort and attention result in quality, and that mass production and the bottom line can (CAN) be a project's downfall. Danielle has often been encouraged to market her biscotti, for example, to big box stores, lowering the price point to reach as many people as possible. She has resisted, holding out for "quality, integrity, and the passing on of tradition". It's just sensible, she says; it makes better cookies.

I had a vision of a bag of Biscotti diVecchio looking at me from the warehouse bins at CostCo and shuddered, picking up my soup spoon and applying it to my note pad.

Danielle is currently working in theatre/TV/film and the business is no longer a matter of survival but a labor of love (and secondary income). She still does most of the hands-on work, though she has hired one baker (found through the Artisan Baking Center). Her first and most pressing question: "Do you LIKE baking?" (He said yes.)

Ok, now the Important Stuff:

* Where can I get me some Biscotti diVecchio?
Note the THANKSGIVING SPECIAL if you order before 11/18/09!!
Also @ the specialty store DOMUS in Hell's Kitchen and on the Rum & Blackbird NYC Tasting Tours

* What kinda Biscotti di Vecchio?
Sweet flavors: Pistachio Chocolate Chunk, Cranberry Orange Zest, Toasted Almond, White Chocolate Macadamia Nut, and the very popular Cayenne Cherry Chocolate Chunk.
Savories: Sun Dried Tomato, Basil & Cheddar, Black Pepper Asiago Parmesan, Rosemary Thyme Walnut.
Upcoming: bags of finely ground crumbs ('which make a great alternative cheesecake crust') and bags of the leftover 'ends' ('which are great crumbled over ice cream').

* The Mouse Asks - Where should we eat in your neighborhood?
In Hell's Kitchen, Danielle likes Cara Mia for Italian; Pam Real for Thai and El Centro for Mexican.

* The Mouse Asks - What flavor biscotti is best for stress eating?
Cayenne Cherry Chocolate Chunk. (Duh.)

After her most recent Biscotti diVecchio email blast, Danielle received a call from a well-known casting agent who she happened to know personally. "Well hello", she said, "So you're calling to order some biscotti?" A small pause on the other end, then: "Well, yes ... But also, there's this play..."

That's what we're talking about.

The Boo

I'll leave you with this truly creative recipe for panzanelle (italian bread salad) which uses savory Biscotti diVecchio as the base. !!! Buon Appetito.


Anonymous said...

.....and I can't even say that you haven't tasted my biscotti because I know you have! Oh well, I guess my cookies can't always be the best...
:-( so sad for arnie. haha

MBS said...

"First I'll just say that I know Danielle from our work together on the play LILA CANTE, in which she played the hardass-who-just-wants-to-be-loved record exec and during which she fed me and our castmates bags of the hard-but-still-can-be-chewed-best biscotti I've ever had."

I agree with everything EXCEPT the "just-wants-to-be-loved" part - NINA doesn't want to be loved, she wants to be respected and acknowledged.

Damn fine biscottis though.


The Playwright.

Anonymous said...

Anyone know mandel brote? My mom use to make this magniicent cousin to biscotti. And if anyone has a recipe for same I'd love to compare ingredients. Placing my orders for many of these marvelous sounding varieties. Great writing from to ladies btw. A pleasure. Always get more than chat. Sometimes even poetry always lively keepemcomin'

annie said...