Danilo Nannini
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Danilo Nannini

If you enjoy a taste of panforte margherita this holiday, you should thank two people. The first is Queen Margherita (1851–1926), wife of King Umberto I of Savoy, who was so popular that, in June 1889, in celebration of her visit to Naples, Raffaele Esposito, a cook at

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Thu 12 Dec 2013 1:00 AM

If you enjoy a taste of panforte margherita this holiday, you should thank two people. The first is Queen Margherita (1851–1926), wife of King Umberto I of Savoy, who was so popular that, in June 1889, in celebration of her visit to Naples, Raffaele Esposito, a cook at the Brandi pizzeria, created pizza margherita for her, covering it with red tomatoes, white mozzarella and green basil, the colours of the Italian flag. Pizza was not the only dish the queen inspired. Ten years earlier, when the royal couple visited Siena to watch the August palio, a new version of the city’s traditional Christmas cake was created for her: panforte margherita.

 

Originating in the thirteenth century, panforte (‘strong bread’) was a dark, flat, solid cake that only the rich could afford because of the expensive spices it contained. Since 1675, panforte has incorporated 17 ingredients (reflecting Siena’s 17 contrade), such as dried fruits, aromatic spices and nuts. In the royal visitors’ honour, a softer, sweeter mixture with citrus peel, cinnamon and vanilla was invented, and this new ‘white’ cake was sprinkled with powdered sugar instead of the customary black pepper. Yet it is largely because of a twentieth-century entrepreneur, Danilo Nannini, that Queen Margherita’s panforte appears on many yuletide tables not only throughout Italy but around the world. A few steps from piazza del Campo in via Banchi di sopra, Bar Nannini Conca d’Oro is one of Siena’s historic pastry shops, famous for its panforte margherita and for another Christmas delight: the refined, diamond-shaped, marzipan cookies called ricciarelli. Since 1911, when the founder of the business, Guido Nannini, opened the first of what would be five bars and pastry shops owned by his descendants, the Nannini name has been associated with quality confections. By the late 1940s, Nannini was producing traditional Sienese cakes, pastries, cookies and confections, using the best ingredients in its artisan-made products, which were all individually packaged by hand.

 

Credit for ‘internationalising’ the family’s operations, however, goes to Guido Nannini’s son, Danilo Nannini. Born in Siena on August 1, 1921, the outgoing and energetic Danilo inherited his father’s resourcefulness and business perspicacity. In 1944, he and his older half-brother, Aldo Nannini, each took charge of separate parts of the enterprise. Danilo took over the management of the Conca d’Oro, already (and still) a fashionable hangout for locals and tourists alike. Despite hesitation on his father’s part, in 1948, Danilo began production of the panforti, ricciarelli and other specialities. These proved an immediate success with the public. In 1950, he acquired another bar in Siena’s historic centre. In 1957, he promoted the Nannini brand on the global stage by catering for a lavish reception for more than 1,500 jet-setting guests and the foreign press given by Unitalia, the body representing Italian films abroad, at the Cannes Film Festival.

 

After the death of Guido Nannini in 1963, the company was formally divided between his two sons. To remain competitive, Danilo recognised it was time to start an industrial bakery. In 1972, ‘Doctor’ Danilo, as he was known about town, bought the La Senese panforte factory; under this name, he began marketing more mass-produced, boxed panforti, targeting supermarkets. At the same time, he marketed the hand-wrapped Nannini panforti to exclusive venues, among them Balducci’s in New York and Harrods food hall in London. Moving production to bigger premises in Siena, he also began producing ‘fresh’ pastries on a large scale, supplying not only the family’s outlets but other bars and shops in and around Siena.

 

Describing himself as an autocratic man of the ‘old school,’ Danilo Nannini nonetheless excelled at public relations (except perhaps with his children, with whom his relations were sometimes strained). A force to be reckoned with in his hometown, he presided over the A.C. Siena football team for 18 years, the team he had played for in his youth, and was eight times prior of his contrada, the Civetta, although it never managed to win the coveted banner during his tenure. When, in July 1998, he was briefly placed under house arrest for fraudulent bankruptcy, disbelief was palpable on the city’s streets. As his lawyers explained, whilst an attempted joint venture with another Italian industrial baking giant had ended in liquidation, the arrest warrant referred to contracts signed three years before this had occurred.

 

On February 15, 2007, 86-year-old Danilo Nannini died. He is survived by his wife, Giovanna, and his children: Guido, also a successful pastry entrepreneur in his own right; Alessandro, a former Formula 1 race car driver to whom Danilo had already passed the helm of his business; and Gianna Nannini, the international rock star.

 

So, this Christmas, when you bite into that slice of panforte or savour a ricciarelli cookie, think of historic Siena, a much-loved queen and a visionary businessman.

 

Happy holidays, everyone!

 

 

More than just sweets

Since 2008, the nonprofit Danilo Nannini Foundation (www.fondazione-nannini.org) has provided support and assistance for pregnant women and premature infants through initiatives and research, and has helped the citizens of Siena access its health institutions.

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