The smell of freshly brewed coffee lingers in the air, the sound of espresso cups and miniature spoons clink as they are placed on a table covered with a red chequered table cloth. The brick walls are decorated with pictures of children and grandchildren and the couches are covered with plastic and lace doillies.
A beaming Italian woman approaches and places a tray full of melt -in- your- mouth, home-made biscuits on the table, a testament to hard work, sacrifice, love and family.
Meet our guest chef, Gracia D’Adamo, renowned for making some of the best, most authentic and yummiest Italian biscuits around town.
Mrs D’Adamo came to Australia in 1957, when she was 22. From Vasto in Southern Italy, she arrived at Fremantle Port after a 24 day journey aboard the Oceania.
She arrived as a single woman, waving a white handkerchief from the ship’s window, but little did she know she would be engaged in two weeks.
Her future husband Dominic was on the port watching the ship arrive. The moment his eyes met those of Gracia – a complete stranger – he proclaimed: “I am going to marry her”.
When Mr D’Adamo first tried his new wife’s biscuits, he knew they were something special – and so did everyone else who tasted them.
Soon her biscuits were in hot demand and she found herself “making biscuits all the time”. Mrs D’Adamo would spend her days working as a hospital cleaner, then come home and whip up these little delights into the night.
She was baking for birthdays, weddings, christenings, and everything in between. Demand for the cookies, and other culinary treats became so great, that in 1960, the D’Adamos opened Vastese Catering.
They were catering for up to three weddings per weekend and her biscuits were a crowd favourite.
Mr D’Adamo then decided to invest in a lunch bar called Vastese Cake Shop in 1967, which would serve as a platform to showcase his wife’s cooking talents.
“I learned to cook when I was a young girl,” Mrs D’Adamo tells The Starfish. “And when I was about 17, I taught myself how to make the biscuits that would one day make me a living!”
She would sneak into the kitchens of family friends and eavesdrop while they were cooking, then she would race home and write down what she could remember and improvise for the parts she forgot.
Her current recipe collection is a curious collection of hand written pieces of paper of all shapes and forms; envelopes, receipts, phone books and even on pages of her daughter’s old school books.
Though the Vastese Cake Shop was a roaring success in 1985, Mr and Mrs D’Adamo closed it to focus solely on their catering business. They continued catering until Mr D’Adamo passed away in 1992.
Heartbroken, Gracia continued to bake: after all, her customers continued to demand her lasagnes, cannelloni and other Italian treats.
Finally, after being diagnosed with macular degeneration of the eye in 2002, Gracia decided to hang up her apron at last.
Fast-forward ten years, to 2012 and the sweet, almond smell of these soft, chewy biscuits pervades her house once more. Mrs D’Adamo decided to bake for a crowd when her granddaughter got married in June.
No longer able to read the measurements herself, Gracia still managed to cook nearly two thousand biscuits for the wedding, with the help of her best friend Margarita Falcone (pictured with Grazia, seated, above).
Ms Falcone had the eyes and Mrs D’Adamo had the hands that kneaded, shaped and created twelve different types of biscuits – Amareti, Biscotti, Pastanera also known as ‘Chocolate Gingerbread’ and other mouth watering delights.
The women baked for one week from seven in the morning to ten in the evening. They went through 15 kilos of flour, 12 kilos of almonds, 10 kilos of sugar and 9 dozens of eggs, while adding special ingredients like cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon, vanilla essence and of course a little bit of love to enhance the flavour.
I can honestly say she creates the best sweets I have ever tried.
However, I may be biased – because she is my grandmother, and my new husband and I were the recipients of her newly baked, delicious, symbols of love.
Nonna, thank you from the bottom of my heart!
You can find Gracia’s wonderful recipe for Amaretti Biscuits here in our Yum section. Check it out! And if you haven’t already subscribed to The Starfish, perhaps it’s time – just supply your email address for a regular edition of The Starfish, laden with recipes, reviews, news and views, in your inbox.