Over 150 years ago, at Via dell’Appianato, today’s Via Ricasoli (the Risorgimento was in its early days, and Prato’s main streets and squares would have been named after Cavour, Garibaldi and Mazzini a few decades later), Antonio Mattei, a baker and pastry cook from Prato, opened his biscuit factory and store. Mattei was a craftsman of humble birth, but he played a leading role in the history of Italian cooking.
Pellegrino Artusi, a good friend of his (to whom Mattei had revealed the recipe of the Mantovana cake that he, in turn, had been given by two nuns on their way to Rome to thank him for his hospitality), mentions him twice in his famous book, The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well. When talking about the Paradiso cake:
“Having one day my poor friend Antonio Mattei from Prato (whom I will talk about again)eaten this dough in my house, he asked for the recipe and, being the ingenious fellow he is, he brought it to a higher level of perfection and excellence and immediately sold it in his shop. He then told me that this cake had met with such success that hardly any lunch was served without it around that countryside. And so, people willing to make their way in this world, leap at any opportunity to try their luck which, though it bestows its favours on a whim at times, never befriends slothful and lazy men”.
and about the Stiacciata, he wrote:
“The quantities of this stiacciata and of the Mantovana cake recipe were given to me by the that good man I have already had occasion to mention, Antonio Mattei from Prato. I say good, because he was a master of his trade and honest and hardworking as well. Alas, my dear friend, who always reminded me of Cisti, Master Giovanni Boccaccio’s baker, died in the year 1885, leaving a void in my heart. A person need not be imbued with science and letters to win public esteem; even a very humble art, accompanied by a kind heart and practiced with skill and decorum, can make us worthy of the respect and love of our fellow men“
Under rough manners and coarse features / Beautiful hearts and pure senses are often hidden / We fear men who are overly courteous / For they are like marble slabs: shiny, smooth, and hard.
Mattei’s children had never been much interested in their father’s business, but among the apprentices working with him in factory there was one of proved talent and passion, Ernesto Pandolfini, grandfather to Marcella, Elisabetta, Francesco and Letizia. He was an orphan and had been raised by his aunt Italia, who took over Mattei’s business, in 1908, for her beloved nephew. That is how the story of three generations of biscuit makers begins…