What’s Behind Panettone’s Rise from Holiday Outlier to Food-World Favorite
The towering Italian bread now inspires epic devotion.
The last decade hasn’t been easy for everyone, but it’s been good to panettone. The Italian Christmas bread is having an American renaissance, with celebrated bakers like Jim Lahey and Roy Shvartzapel selling sophisticated versions made with carefully sourced flours, cultured butters, and luscious fillings. They’re handcrafted homages to the traditional panettone that have been sold in Italy during December for centuries.
For many of us in the panettone-eating diaspora, these craft creations have very little in common with the rock-hard breads of Christmases past. The panettone of my youth was, in the words of Remezcla writer Andrea Gompf, “a dry, joyless mound passing for a fruit cake variant.” For as long as I can remember, my relatives and honorific aunts and uncles visited each other’s homes in December bearing shrink-wrapped, mass-produced panettone that few ever opened, let alone ate. Because they had shiny packages and were rarely served, as a child, I thought panettone were large Christmas tree ornaments, not food.
A bread is just a bread, except when it’s not. To me, panettone’s recent glow-up is microcosmic, mirroring demographic shifts and evolving culinary cultures. I wasn’t always sure what to make of the beautiful craft creations delighting diners at stylish restaurants and gourmet markets nationwide. It’s a curious feeling to watch something you’d regarded as personal terrain become public property, even (or especially) if you never really liked it all that much.
Whether you’re buying an industrial panettone at CVS, or an $85 delicacy from a Michelin-starred bakery, the recipe generally involves a wheat-based, yeasted dough ribboned with dried fruit and nuts. It bakes into a dome shape after undergoing multiple fermentations. “A panettone is the apotheosis of natural leavening,” writes Jim Lahey in The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, named after his NYC outpost whose painstakingly composed panettone has a cult following.
Lahey started making panettone in 1996, but the bread itself is ancient. According to some sources, the earliest mention of panettone is in a 1470s manuscript written by a teacher in the House of Sforza, one of Milan’s Renaissance-era ruling families. Recipes started to appear in Northern Italian cookbooks by 1853.
This regional delicacy got an industrial and ideological rebrand in the late 19th and 20th centuries, explains Ian MacAllen, author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. “Italians were trying to create a national identity, especially under the fascists in the 1920s and 30s, and part of that was creating the ideas of national dishes,” he tells Thrillist. Meanwhile, scores of mostly southern Italians had immigrated to the Americas. “Those early Italian immigrants spent a high proportionate amount of their income on food, specifically imported Italian food,” MacAllen adds. Savvy producers successfully marketed panettone to both Italians and expats who might not have ever heard of the bread otherwise.
As global markets grew, quality control became a problem. Whereas Italy’s panettone is governed by strict requirements—each must contain at least 20% candied fruit and 16% butter, and be made with eggs that are at least 4% yolk—breads shipped abroad are lawless. “Seven out of 10 Americans buying an ‘Italian-style’ panettone are getting a fake,” Alberto Bauli, president of an eponymous bakery in Verona, Italy, claimed at a 2007 press conference. The disappointing panettone of my childhood resulted from this unregulated, international hornet’s nest.
In recent years, however, panettone has come to inspire food-world euphoria. In 2017, a New York Times headline declared that “Panettone has become an obsession for American bakers,” citing quality iterations across the country. Four years later, Town & Country asked, “Are we living in a golden age of panettone?” Last week, Tammie Teclemariam, New York’s diner-at-large, chose panettone at an Italian-American bakery as the last installment of her yearlong restaurant column.
It took a baker’s dozen of economic and sociocultural adjustments to get us here. Over the last 20 years, maker culture emerged, celebrating hand-hewn products and the people who craft them. Americans’ culinary outlooks underwent a seismic shift, too. Many creators, marketers, and consumers repositioned food from basic human need to cultural pursuit and signifier, albeit one that requires a decent-sized disposable income. Specialty food became a $150 billion business, and millennials were intermittently celebrated or critiqued for spending so much at restaurants.
A bread is just a bread, except when it's not.
Attitudes toward Italian-American cuisine and communities have also come a long way. While early Italian immigrants were ridiculed by Americans of northern European descent for their love of garlic and “unpronounceable” dishes like lasagna and pizza, those dishes are now culinary canon, MacAllen writes in Red Sauce. The reasons why certain immigrant groups are legislated into “mainstream” (white) America while others are not is a meaningful topic for another essay. Here, I’ll just say that the pipeline for Italian-American foods to cross over was established long before bakers started selling $85 craft panettone in the mid-2010s.
It was in that era that my now-fiancé first came to celebrate Christmas Eve with my family. As a gift for my mother, who prepares no fewer than seven seafood dishes for the meal, he brought a panettone. Beautifully buoyant, and ribboned with candied orange peel and plump golden raisins, it bore only a passing resemblance to the unappealing breads of my childhood. My family eagerly shared slices of it during dessert, laying the groundwork for him to bring a succession of similarly elegant panettone in the years to come.
It can be tempting to glamorize the past, claiming our ancestors led simpler lives or had direct access to more authentic traditions. In actuality, foods and cultures evolve because people, their governments, and worldviews do, too. No matter how rock-hard our roots, we have to adapt. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, change comes wrapped in paper shiny enough to reflect all the people you love.