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Panettone is having A Moment. The Italian sweet bread has increased in popularity every holiday season, and this year, a San Francisco-baked version even landed on Oprah Winfrey’s list of “Favorite Things for 2018.”
So we decided a blind tasting was in order. We put that version, called From Roy, up against some venerable Italian brands, another Bay Area-baked cake and some wild new flavors (well, wild as far as panettone goes).
But we didn’t ask just panettone fanatics to join. We enlisted all manner of sweet-tooth colleagues, from the office foodies with snarky opinions to cubicle-mates who’d never heard of panettone, much less tasted it.
Here are their views, along with pricing and “where to buy” information, with an expanded list of stores at the bottom. Opinions were all over the place — on one grading sheet, the comment “too orangey” was followed by one that said “not enough orange” — so we were able to determine only a first-place dessert, along with some “highly ranked” ones, some “they loved it or they hated it” versions and a couple of also-rans. (As one colleague said, “This is what happens when the Food Department invites the hoi polloi to a tasting.”)
Still, this should give you guidance about which panettone to buy for the hostesses, grandmas and name-droppers on your gift list.
TOPS WITH OUR TASTING TEAM:
Manresa Bread’s Triple Chocolate and Candied Orange Panettone: Scoring the most first-place votes was this trendy, baked-in-Los Gatos panettone made by Avery Ruzicka, head baker for Manresa Bread, which supplies bread to the Michelin-starred Manresa restaurant and its three bakeries. Let’s face it: You can’t go wrong with chocolate (it’s Valrhona), even if tasters weren’t sure if this needed more candied orange or less. The dough is not as light as a traditional panettone, but tasters adored the super-crunchy, sugar crystal-flecked dome on this one.
Price: $45 at the new Manresa Bread Cafe in downtown Campbell. Also available at the Los Gatos and Los Altos bakeries and online at ManresaBread.com. (Call bakeries first for availability.)
ALSO RANKING HIGHLY:
From Roy’s Candied Orange Raisin Panettone: Coming in right behind the Manresa version was the San Francisco panettone baked by the company that caught Oprah’s attention. Her folks liked his Banana-Caramel Panettone, but we found his non-traditional Orange Raisin version at local stores and gave that a whirl. Tasters overall gave this one high marks. One called it “wonderfully zesty and bright,” and others loved the airy texture and citrus bits. One dinged this cake for being “boring and bland.”
Rustichella’s Panettone Classico: This is what most panettone fans would consider a solid traditional version, with a silky dough studded with candied citrus and raisins. Our tasters’ adjectives were mostly positive but ran the gamut: “light,” “melty,” “a bit thick,” “buttery,” “not too fruity” and “more fruity than the others.” One half-Sicilian-American on staff described this luxurious dessert as “like King’s Hawaiian bread with raisins,” so we are stripping him of his Italian card.
Price: $38.99 at La Villa delicatessen in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood
THEY LOVED IT OR THEY HATED IT:
Filippi’s Caramelo Salato (salted caramel): You can’t blame this Italian company for reaching out to a younger generation with new flavors. Our panel members either loved or hated this polarizing panettone. Some called it “decadent and rich; candy meets panettone” and “indulgent” while others decried it as “very one note” or “meh” or said they missed the fruity bits. The snarky ones were in rare form. One said, “This is great, unless you wanted panettone.” Another wrote: “Some trends should not find their way to panettone.”
Price: $33.95 at the Rockridge Market Hall, Oakland
Chiostro’s Crema al Pistacchio: Oh, the visceral reactions! This pistachio one really divided the panel. First, there was the color: green coated in chocolate. “Visually? Kind of disgusting,” one taster said. And then the messy blotches of liquid pistachio. “Hard to get past the green goo. Not something you want to slurp up,” another said. However, others thought this was the “best choice” for those who don’t like fruit in their bread and one said, “I’m fine with the green goo and would eat this daily.” The bottom line: Pistachio lovers were adamant that there just wasn’t enough pistachio flavor.
Price: $24.99 at La Villa deli, San Jose
SCORING AT THE BOTTOM:
Bauducco Panettone with Raisins and Candied Citrus: This budget-priced panettone by an Italian family that immigrated to Brazil — and whose company still bakes there — came in for faint praise. One taster thought it had a “solid, classic taste” and another commented on the “good texture,” but others thought it was “average” and “unremarkable.” However, if you’re new to panettone and not sure you want to spend some bucks, this could be the brand to try.
Price: $5.95 at Big Lots in San Jose; you can find at Amazon and elsewhere for prices around $11.
Filippi’s Struca Amarena: OK, we threw a curve to our panel. This year, the Market Hall at Rockridge in Oakland is stocking loaves of an Italian sweet bread called struca, and it’s made with olive oil instead of butter. This one featured candied morello cherries. Our tasters missed the dome shape. “Not bad, but the shape is an insult to proud tradition,” said one who signed himself #TeamRome. Another liked the almonds; a couple liked the level of sweetness or the crust. But overall, tasters found this version “too dry” and the cherries “too fruitcakey.”
Price: $26.95 at the Rockridge Market Hall, Oakland
WHERE TO BUY:
You’ll find various brands and flavors of panettone at Bay Area grocery stores and specialty shops, including Berkeley Bowl, Bi-Rite, Draeger’s, Emerald Market, La Villa Deli, Lunardi’s, Market Hall Foods, Rockridge Market Hall, Williams-Sonoma, Zanotto’s.
Panettone: The good, the bad and the pricey