When chef Amy Brandwein decided to open Centrolina more than a year ago, she had nostalgia on her mind. That's because, she wanted her Italian restaurant and market to have a cookie that was reminiscent of her childhood. Ultimately, it led her to the Italian rainbow cookie, a distinctive dessert, best known for its tri-colored appearance that looks somewhat like the Italian flag.
"I grew up going to my local bakery in Arlington, Virginia, Brenners...The smells inside the store were always unbelievable," Brandwein says. "I have a love for traditional bakery cookies, and I thought it would be a festive and fun way to celebrate all things Italian at Centrolina," she says.
As it turns out, many people seem to want this cookie. Each time Centrolina makes a batch, they sell out that day, Brandwein says. She thinks people are drawn to this dessert out of fondness, or simply because it looks pretty.
Chef Mike Friedman of All Purpose has been drawn to the cookie since birth.
"We decided on [our restaurant’s] rainbow cake because it was a delicious treat that I ate as a kid," he says. "The rainbow cookies were synonymous with our local Italian bakery. My mom would get a box of them on occasion, and my brother and I would fight over those prized morsels."
Italian rainbow cookies are generally referred to by several different names — Italian flag cookies, Napoleon cookies, seven-layer cookies, seven-layer cake, tri-color cookies, or Venetian cookies. Ask for it at a D.C. bakery by any name, and it often can draw a few blank stares of confusion. Most bakeries simply do not carry rainbow cookies, but look harder and you'll find it at places like Fare Well, a vegan diner, which makes the cookie with raspberry and apricot jam.
There's also a debate over whether this dessert is cookie or cake. Friedman's version more closely resembles a slice of cake, and it's for good reason too. The dessert is made next door by the cake experts at Buttercream Bakeshop. Chef Tiffany MacIsaac and her crew have been supplying this dessert since All Purpose opened in May.
Regardless of whether it's cookie or cake, the dish has strong and wide appeal, Friedman says. "I've seen diners intrigued and excited when they taste it. If they've had the cookie before, it's a walk down memory lane for them, which is the exact emotion I love from my guests," he says.
While nostalgia seems to be the driving force behind this cookie, it can be pretty difficult pinpoint the exact history or creator. Rainbow cookies were made popular in the late 1800's and early 1900's by Italian-American bakeries, particularly those found in New York City (think: De Lillo's or Cafe Ferrara). The cookie seems to be a product of cross-cultural assimilation. There's no counterpart to it in Italy.
It's sometimes called seven-layer cookie because of the seven layers of ingredients: dark chocolate, green almond cake, jelly, white almond cake, jelly, red almond cake, and dark chocolate. "Each layer is made with almond paste, butter, eggs, sugar and flower, and the layers are set with dark chocolate," Brandwein says.
She doesn't necessarily recommend bakers try this recipe at home. It's not the easiest cookie in the world to make, and the dense, moist cake, must be kept cool or refrigerated. Difficult or not, the Italian rainbow cookie continues to be a top seller at Centrolina.
"It’s a very old school, Italian-American cookie, which has a homey, authentic appeal to so many people," Brandwein says "Whether you are Italian or not, it is fun to look at and delicious too. The almond taste is terrific with the dark chocolate. That’s why the cookie has been around for so long."
Where to find it now:
Fare Well (Atlas District)
All Purpose (Shaw)
G Sandwich (14th/U Street)
Have another favorite local destination for rainbow cookies? Share in the comments.