AMERICANS aren't the only ones who can't leave a recipe alone. "Modern pastries in Italy often bear no resemblance to traditional Italian sweets of the same names," says Nick Malgieri, former pastry chef for New York's Windows on the World restaurant and author of "Great Italian Desserts" (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95). Italian menus may remain the same, but most Italian chefs feel free to add and subtract ingredients in a recipe to suit personal taste, or to experiment under the influence of neighboring cuisines. "They've been doing it for years," he says in an interv i
ew in his New York apartment. Mr. Malgieri has met and cooked with dozens of bakers in Italy.
To be sure, many "classic" chefs "swear by certain recipes and will never change a crumb - that's fine," he says. "But often a baker will improve a traditional specialty and sometimes they create something wonderful of their own."
Malgieri, who is now head pastry instructor at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, is an expert in the history of Italian desserts. He is particularly knowledgeable about what is and is not "authentic."
"Some say an 'authentic' recipe must have originated in Italy devoid of foreign influence," he says. "That would eliminate many recipes that have been in the Italian cuisine for years, having been made into specialties for several generations by excellent bakeries or families." The Neopolitan krapfen, a kind of filled doughnut, is derived from German and Austrian fritters, for example. Then there are the Milanese fruit tarts in the French style, and the Sicilian version of Moroccan couscous, he says.
Malgieri grew up in the United States under the tutelage of his late maternal grandmother, Clotilde Lo Conte Mommanonna," as he affectionately called her - whose lifetime of preparing pastries and cakes encouraged him to dedicate his life to baking. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, he has also studied pastry in Switzerland, France, and Monaco.
ITALIANS love pastry, he says, from biscotti (cookies), to fried pastries like canolis, to mostaccioli, an ancient cake baked in leaves for weddings that was mentioned in the writings of ancient Rome. Then there are medieval specialties like panforte, a spicy, distant cousin of fruitcake, and cassata, a concoction of sponge cake, cream, filling, and icing.
During the interview, Malgieri offers a plate of diamond-shaped cookies. "Here's a real Venetian biscuit, zaleti. It's as common in Venice as chocolate chip cookies are here," he says. [See recipe.]
These and other traditional pastries compete with foreign dishes that have "invaded" the Italian repertoire, such as strudel from the German-speaking areas of Italy, and gubana, a fruit-and-nut-filled pastry found near the Yugoslavian border.
Convenience sometimes fuels the internationalization of Italian cuisine. Tiramisu and tegole d'Aosta, two modern sweets, are examples. Tiramisu is popular in chic United States restaurants, as well as all over Italy.
Tiramisu is one of the traditional desserts of Treviso, [Italy]. Today people are using savoiardi, Italian ladyfingers, instead of making the sponge cake from scratch. About all that needs doing is mixing a few egg yolks and sugar into marscapone [a rich cream cheese], layering the filling, and shaking some cocoa powder over the top."
Tegole d'Aosta (Aosta tiles) are thin, crisp, almond-and-hazelnut wafers, a specialty of Aosta, Italy's French-speaking enclave. Once considered French, Aosta tiles are now a thoroughly established member of the Italian pastry collection.
There are also some "comfort foods" among Italy's biscotti and crispy fried pastries. Dolci al cucchaio are desserts eaten with a spoon, such as baked peaches, Sicilian ricotta cheesecake, coffee custard, and the exotic pistachio couscous from the Santo Spirito Monastery in Sicily. (Couscous is a refined grain that originated in North Africa; it is similar to rice in appearance.)
Malgieri tells the story of his search for the famous pistachio couscous (cuscus di pictacchi) and his visits to the monastery in Agrigento. There, nuns make the delicacy using a secret recipe. The story goes that an early noble abbess had an Arab servant who first cooked the couscous, and it has remained a delicacy since the end of the 13th century.
The couscous is deep green, "with a rich flavor combining pistachio and bitter almond garnished with candied cherries and tangerines, sprinkled generously with grated chocolate and confectioner's sugar," Malgieri says.
'SUORA BENEDETTA, the actual maker of the dessert, graciously answered all my questions," Malgieri says. "And she added that a bit of intelligence was all that was needed to reproduce it." He has a recipe for it in his book.
On one of his many frequent visits to Italy, Malgieri was invited to teach an impromptu class at the Club di Cucina in Bari, the cooking school of Paola Pettini and Rosalia Cippone. He chose chocolate chip cookies and apple pie for his demonstration, and the recipes were so well received by the 40 people in the class that the cookie recipe was bestowed with an Italian name: Biscotti con le Goccie di Ciocolato (Cookies With Chocolate Drops).
"All the ingredients were indisputably and authentically Italian," Malgieri says, and he wrote out the recipe using metric weights.
He says he couldn't help thinking that the recipe would enter the tradition of Barese baking and eventually stand beside cartedate, "a wonderful spiral pastry-and-honey dessert" and other specialties of the Apulian region.
"Perhaps," says Nick Malgieri, "it may one day even become 'authentic.