503 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, USA
I was visiting San Francisco for a conference, and outside of conference hours I spent some time exploring the city. The North Beach area is famous for its Italian heritage and modern day Italian restaurants. Mixed in with the pizza and pasta places are a few little pastry shops. One is the famous Stella Pastry & Cafe, which I’ve visited before and is so good that I wanted to return for dessert after a dinner nearby. But alas, for the week that I was in town, Stella’s was closed for renovations!
But this being North Beach, fortunately I didn’t have to go far to discover another Italian pastry shop. I was walking down Columbus Avenue when my eyes were drawn to the sugar-laden windows of Mara’s Italian Pastry. This hole-in-the-wall was a tiny cafe with only three small tables inside, and a counter loaded up with biscotti and other baked goodies. The real treat was in the front window, however, which contained succulent looking fruit danishes, poppy seed cakes, slices, rolls, and countless other delicacies. There were also a couple of trays of square dish pizzas, cut into slices, for anyone silly enough to come in here and want something savoury.
Going inside with Mrs Snot Block & Roll, we were greeted by an Italian matron, who I presumed must be Mara herself. I opted for a ricotta cannoli, while Mrs SB&R chose an apricot danish. And so we went on our way back to our hotel, munching these delicious Italian sweets along the way. But the story does not end there. Four days later, I had a free day after the conference before we flew back. We decided to go back to Mara’s for a morning coffee and pastry to fortify ourselves for a day of sightseeing. This time the shop was staffed by an ageing Italian gentleman, who we guessed must be Mara’s husband. He took a coffee order and prepared it expertly at an imported Italian espresso machine. And then I noticed something in the cake display counter. It was labelled “Napolitana”, but it was in essence a vanilla slice. And so, excitedly, I bought one.
It was served on a plate, with a fork, and was impressive in both its size and construction. There were three thick layers of soft, biscuity pastry which showed some layering to the eye. However, it was not really flaky in any crisp sense. It had a sort of gingerbread softness to it, which was not soggy at all from contact with the custard, but pleasantly spongy and dry. As I tackled this monstrous slice with a fork (I wasn’t brave enough to try to pick it up as it looked too big and soft), some soft flakes detached, so I suppose you could call the pastry flaky, but it was a moist flakiness rather than a crunchy one.
In between the pastry were two layers of very organic looking banana yellow custard. On top of the whole construction was a thin layer of piped butter cream with a few chocolate flakes to finish it off. The custard was pleasantly thick and richly vanilla flavoured, complementing the soft pastry nicely. The butter cream was an unconventional touch from an Australian perspective, which usually demands a wafer thin layer of vanilla or passionfruit icing. I was a bit hesitant about it at first, thinking it might be too creamy or sweet, but it was fairly restrained and added a nice subtle sweetness to the overall mouth taste when combined with the pastry and custard layers.
This was very good. Next time I’m in town, I’ll definitely be coming back to Mara’s.
“Napolitana” vanilla slice: 8/10