He may be facing a tough reelection battle in the U.S., but in the heel of Italy, President Obama’s still a rock star. A friend of a friend who lives in Lecce, a picturesque city of baroque churches and crumbling stone dwellings in Puglia, told me that while in town I had to try a pasticciotto, a muffin-like treat that is peculiar to this region.
“We have one that’s named after Obama too,” she said. “Ask for a pasticciotto Oh-Bam-ah.”
“And people will know what I’m talking about?” I asked.
“Assolutamente,” she said, reassuring me that I’d have no trouble getting my Obama treat.
We rented an apartment in the city, and I spent the following week wandering Lecce’s atmospheric streets, periodically ducking in and out of pasticerrias and bars asking for Obama pasticciottos. Sure enough, everyone knew exactly what I was after, but no one had them in stock.
But while I didn’t find any Obama pasticciottos during my first week in Lecce, I saw lots of young people, mostly girls, wearing the Stars and Stripes. I spent time in Italy in 2005, 2006 and 2007, during the George W. Bush years, and don’t remember seeing our flag very much, other than outside of hotels.On a day trip to Otranto, we met a group of high school girls on a class trip from nearby Bari, and they wanted to know if we liked Taylor Swift, Robert Pattison and Obama, three of their favorites. For them, Obama wasn’t just a politician; he was a pop icon.
It seems as though the U.S. is back in fashion in Italy, at least among young people, but I don’t know how much of that is attributable to President Obama. And to be fair, Homer Simpson is probably just as popular if not more so.
On our fifth night in town, we stumbled across a place called the Obama Takeaway, a little fast food joint run by Indian immigrants, that features a likeness of Obama tucking into a sandwich (see accompanying photo) on its sign.
A young woman at the counter, who spoke English and introduced herself as Chiara DiPasquale, told us that they didn’t have Obama pasticciottos, but advised us that the most well known place to get them was in a small town called Campi Salentina, about twenty minutes outside of Lecce. Chiara thought that a few places in Lecce also sold them but wasn’t sure.
On our penultimate night in town, we walked by the Obama Takeaway again, and Chiara was standing out front, taking a break. I told her that we never found the Obama pasticciottos and she immediately promised to help.
“I think I know someone who can get you the Obamas,” she said furtively, as though we were discussing buying some crack. “But how many do you want?”
“As many as I can get my hands on,” I said, sounding a bit like an addict looking to score.
Chiara took my business card and said she’d email me. I assumed I’d never hear from her again, but a few hours later, I received her message.
“I found someone who will drive me out to Campi Salentina tomorrow to get the pasticciottos, how many should we pick up for you?”
We have no car in Italy and are at the mercy of the local public transport, which is woefully inadequate, so I told her that I wanted to make the pilgrimage out to the Obama pasticciotto place with them.
The following afternoon I met up with Chiara and her friend and fellow student at the Salento University, Marco Scigliutzo, who was driving a Skoda. After stopping for directions once in the small town, we pulled up in front of an ordinary looking shop that had a large American flag flying on the balcony overhead.
We walked inside and I was immediately struck by a likeness of a smiling Barrack Obama, waving his right hand while holding up a pasticciotto in the left. We’d come to the right place, but all I could see were rows of ordinary, vanilla colored pasticciotto.
But my fear that they were out of Obamas was quickly put to rest, as the counter person asked us how many Obamas we wanted. Could we see the product first, I thought, once again feeling a bit like a guy about to score a kilo of heroin.
Angelo Bisconti, the owner of the place, called Cheri, since 1994, came out with a tray of the little beauties and told us his story. He was inspired by Obama during the primary in 2008 and thought he was going to “change the world.” So he experimented with a special Obama pasticciotto in his honor. At first, he tried to make it with some vanilla and some chocolate, in honor of Obama’s multiracial background, but that didn’t work, so he went with a lava cake approach – chocolate on the outside and on the inside.
Bisconti said that he’d received a letter from the American consulate in Naples thanking him for making these wonderful treats and also mentioned that he went to the U.S. to promote his brand. He also sells bottles of Obama dessert wine with the President’s likeness for €10 a bottle. The Obamas have 457 calories and cost the equivalent of 65 cents. Bisconti claims that he sells about 1,000 of them per day.
The Obama pasticciotto didn’t disappoint. It tasted like a muffin on the exterior but then when we bit into them a bit further, an explosion of hot molten chocolate scorched our mouths. It tasted so good that my brain refused to process how hot the chocolate was, so I just kept chewing into it.
But once the whole thing was safely stuffed into my mouth, I suddenly realized that my gullet was on fire. I had to hop around a bit and get some water to cool off. But I was already addicted. These little beauties are awfully good.
Bisconti admitted that he wasn’t sure if Obama had a sweet tooth or not but said he was confident that the President would love the pasticciottos if he had a chance to try them. He said he sent the President a letter about them, but has yet to receive a response.
Bisconti said that other shops have tried to copy his recipe, but have failed. He claims to have the copyright to make Obama pasticciotto and could sue others who try to infringe on it. On the way back to Lecce, I wondered how someone could get a copyright to use a famous person’s likeness to sell gooey muffins.
“Couldn’t Obama sue him?” I asked Marco and Chiara.
“I think Obama has more important things to do than worry about a guy selling pasticciottos in Italy,” Marco said.