Talking desserts with Donna Damiano
1. Tell us about Amaretti Desserts.
We’re a bakery opened by my husband and I in June of 2013. We worked together in high school at my parent’s restaurant so we had an idea what it takes to be in the business. Now that our kids have grown we decided it was time to open our own place. Our idea for Amaretti Desserts came from our desire to have a place to go after dinner for dessert or to stop by to pick up something for an event or guest at our house.
We offer several types of cakes along with cheesecakes, pies, and pastries such as eclairs and cannolis. We have traditional cookies, like peanut butter and chocolate chip, but one of our biggest sellers is our Italian cookies that are sold by the pound. Along with many Southern influenced desserts such as Key Lime Pie and Red Velvet Cake we also feature many desserts that would be considered Italian, but with a style that fits Jacksonville.
What makes Amaretti Desserts special is our commitment to make everything from scratch with fresh ingredients, right here in the bakery.
2. How would you describe Italian style desserts to someone not familiar with them?
Coming from an Italian family, I’d have to describe Italian style desserts as some of the desserts that I grew up with. They aren't exactly like the bakery desserts that people are used to from Italian bakeries in the Northern states. They have that taste that makes you think you are having dessert with an Italian family. A few of the classic Italian desserts we offer are Tiramisu, Eclairs, Cream Puffs, Cannolis, New York style Cheesecake, and our Italian and Amaretti Cookies. We also make an Italian Rum Cake, Italian Wedding Cake, Napoleons, and a few other items for special orders. For the holidays I’ll also make Ricotta Pie, Ricotta Cheesecake, and Pizzelles, which are Italian wafer cookies.
3. What’s an Italian Cookie?
An Italian Cookie is basically a small butter based cookie, baked in many different ways. We have plain and chocolate versions, some with sprinkles, some with jam, and some dipped in chocolate. My personal favorite is our finger-style cookie, sandwiched with raspberry jam, and dipped in chocolate. Yum!
4. Where does the name, Amaretti Desserts, come from?
Our name comes from an almond based Italian cookie that can always be found in our case. I love almost anything made with some type of almond in it, so the "Amaretti" cookie seemed to be a good fit.
5. Is Amaretti Desserts a take-out bakery or is it eat-in?
A big part of our business is take out but we also have seating for about 20 people. We often have guests here eating breakfast or enjoying dessert after having a meal at one of the nearby restaurants.
6. What sorts of things do you offer for breakfast?
Breakfast is one of my favorite meals of the day to eat and bake, so of course I had to incorporate it into my menu! We offer Cinnamon Rolls, Pecan Sticky Buns, Croissants, Muffins, Danish, Crumb Cake, Coffeecake and more. I only make a set number of these items a day, so this is something you may not see if you come in for dessert in the evenings.
7. Can you walk us through a favorite or a signature item?
One of our most popular items is a Red Velvet Oreo Cheesecake. This cake was the result of a request from my daughter for something on a trip home from college right before we opened. She asked me for cheesecake but also wanted Red Velvet Cake, plus she was in the mood for something with Oreos. She asked for it all in one request, so that’s how it was born. We put it in the case for our grand opening and it has been one of our most popular items ever since.
8. Can you tell us about some of your other desserts?
I don’t want to leave any out, and all are just as good as the next, but I can tell you about some of our most popular items.
Our Pecan Sticky Buns are made fresh every day and have a caramel pecan sticky topping on them.
Our Coconut Cake is a Southern staple, and is made from coconut milk, butter and coconut. The frosting is what might be considered a 7-minute frosting, which is a cooked meringue frosting with coconut flavor that’s smothered in shredded coconut.
Another Southern staple is our Red Velvet Cake. I have been making this cake since before it became famous in Steel Magnolias. This is a cake with it's own unique flavor consisting of a hint of chocolate, red food color and buttermilk. We frost it with a cream cheese frosting.
Our Tiramisu is made the true Italian way with a base of mascarpone cheese for the filling, espresso dipped lady fingers, and a touch of cocoa.
Our White Chocolate Bread Pudding was born when we first opened and I did not have the heart to throw away my leftover sticky buns, which became the "bread" for the pudding. To the bread we add a custard and lots of white chocolate chunks and pecans. We serve it with a homemade white chocolate sauce.
Our cheesecakes are made with lots of love and patience. All start with their own flavor of crust, then a base mixture of cream cheese, sugar, eggs, and sour cream. We try to have fun with the cheesecake flavors. One of the new ones we just put out is a Mint Chocolate Chip and it seems to be well received. I think cheesecake is a staple in any bakery.
We can't forget those cookies! We go through more cookies than anything. You can buy the Italian ones by the pound and we offer individual large size traditional cookies. All are made fresh right back in the kitchen.
These are just a few of our staples. You’ll need to drop by because we try to add new things all the time.
9. Are there any items that have surprised you by their popularity?
We have really been surprised by how much people love our Bread Pudding and Tiramisu. People get upset if we sell out! Many people are now calling ahead to make sure we have some available.
10. Do you offer gluten free items?
Yes, our namesake Amaretti Cookie and our Chocolate Covered Coconut Macaroon both happen to be gluten free and we are working to add a few more gluten free items as well. Gluten free seems to be the most common food allergy we are asked to accommodate. We also get requests from people who have allergies to nuts and eggs as well.
11. Can you tell us about your catering?
We have catered a few events already and are working to grow that aspect of our business. We don't do custom wedding cakes but we have provided desserts for a few weddings and events already.
12. Can you tell us a little more about your baking background?
I actually started with the culinary program at the St. Augustine Technical Institute. After completing that program I enrolled in the Culinary Institute in New York. I stayed in New York for a couple of years after graduating to work in some restaurants that allowed me to focus on making desserts and baked goods. New York is great but St. Augustine and Jacksonville are home and where my family is, so I returned and worked at Epping Forest Yacht Club and San Jose Country Club as a pastry chef. They were both great learning experiences and helped me refine my skills and get a feel for what people in NE Florida have a taste for. As I mentioned earlier, we are an Italian style bakery for Jacksonville. A person from NY won’t find everything they remember from the bakery near the place they grew up, but they will find some of those things. They will also find things they may not have seen in their local bakery growing up, such as Key Lime Pie, Kentucky Derby Pie, Pecan Pie, or Peanut Butter and Coconut Cake. If you want something from both a Northern and Southern kitchen you should order a slice of Red Velvet Oreo Cheesecake - you get the best of both on one plate!
13. What’s the biggest difference between baking in New York and Jacksonville?
In the South, the sweeter the dessert the better!
I only baked in upstate New York so I never had a chance to bake anyplace in New York City where dessert trends seem to start.
One of the main things about baking down South as opposed to baking in the North is the humidity! Our meringue may droop a little quicker and our chocolate may not always set up the way we want it. We have to deal with these challenges a lot more down here.
I do find that people from up North are more accustomed to having a local bakery with fresh made items on every block whereas in the South having a neighborhood bakery is not as common. I would have to say that in New York fresh bread is an important staple in the local bakery as well. I decided not to go that route here in order to concentrate on desserts and coffee.
One thing I notice that’s the same with all people, no matter where they are from, is that everyone appreciates a good local bakery they can call their own.