Salvatore Papa is an excitable chef; the smile never leaves his face as he begins to explain the humble beginnings of his now three pastry cafes in Sydney.

It was 1988 when Papa arrived in Sydney to start a new life. His move was prompted by a visit the previous year, where he discovered that Australia was lacking something particularly important to his culture: traditional pastry and bread. Opening the first of his Pasticceria Papa shops in Haberfield with his two brothers, in just over 20 years, things have developed favourably for the Papa family.

Today, there are three Pasticceria Papa locations in Sydney and Papa is constantly running between them to ensure that the freshest, highest-quality ingredients are being used to ensure each of their daily sweets and custom-made cakes are baked to the same standard that his family in Sicily would hold him to.

“It started when I was really young,” he says. Growing up on the island of Sicily, just off the toe of Italy’s boot, Papa began his journey as a young boy, working alongside chefs passionately carrying on 100-year-old traditions. “These are still the Sicilian recipes we use in our stores today,” says Papa.

Notorious for their devotion to home, and not simply just to their country, each region of Italy has its own cuisine, traditions and, some say, even language. The food is unique to the location and agricultural practice there, and to inherited traditions and age-old recipes. Sicilians hold their heads high when it comes to their famous desserts, first and foremost the cannoli; fried pastry dough filled with sweet cream or ricotta.

Pasticceria Papa has brought the tradition of Sicilian cannoli to Sydneysiders, and the access to fresh and fantastic ingredients from all over the world has allowed them to pipe creativity into the centre of this much-loved treat and even expand its cream-filled dessert offering.

“The first memory I have of using Frangelico was in a bianco e nero cake,” Papa tells us. The cake is special to the south of Italy and when Papa migrated his business to Australia, he began baking a new variety of the common Sicilian treat. The Papas now use hazelnut liquor to make a delicate, nutty cream which is then piped into their famous cannoli and the profiteroles, or cream puffs, which are used to top their traditional bianco e nero cake, more commonly called profiterole cake.

The nutty flavor of Papa’s hazlenut cream is right on track with Italian culture, where nuts are extremely common in a variety of cooking and sweets, particularly around the holiday season when roasted chestnuts are sold on every street corner. Specifically, hazelnuts are an Italian staple, often mixed into or used to top chocolate cakes, or perhaps even more famously, mixed into spreads.

It should then come as no surprise that in the 1980s a new liqueur was introduced into the Italian cuisine, created through an infusion of locally grown hazelnuts. Frangelico originated in the Piedmont region of northern Italy and migrated down through the country, eventually finding it’s place in Sicily’s pastry kitchens.

The sweet liqueur is made through the infusion of hazelnuts with alcohol and water and the mixture is then distilled and finished with a combination of cocoa beans, vanilla berries and spices to develop the sweet, nutty flavour.

“These flavour combinations are complex,” says Papa, “but because they aren’t too powerful on the palate, we have the freedom to continue experimenting with them.”

As is the case with hazelnut liquour, many Italian flavours are rich or creamy, so chefs add extra ingredients to balance them in desserts. Ingredients such as espresso, naturally bitter enough to balance sweet creams and decadent chocolates and vanillas, and even liqour. Thanks to world-renowned desserts such as tiramisu, the notion of espresso as more than just a morning caffeine hit isn’t out of the ordinary anymore in Australia.

Papa says that although these rich ingredients are commonly used in some of their more elaborate pastries, in today’s food culture, they are really more common as stand-alone gelato flavours.

However, in a culture where it is perfectly normal to consume a sweet, creamy, even fried pastry with your morning cappuccino, and nearly obligatory to have an after-dinner dessert, it’s no small wonder that Italian chefs are continually working on new ways to re-frame the old classics.

This piece was produced in partnership with the new CONNOISSEUR Empire Collection, which includes the ‘Emperor Nero’ ice cream with coffee, chocolate coated hazelnuts and hazelnut liqueur.

View our entire Empire flavour exploration here.