Yesterday, Pasticceria Natalina closed after four years as both the most notorious and critically acclaimed bakery in Chicago. It takes some kind of special talent to pull both of those titles off, but chef and cowner Natali Zarzour managed to do it by crafting Italian pastries of exceptionally high quality that sold for famously high prices. By the time it closed, one cannoli was going for $9. Of course, it didn’t help that the shop was far from downtown, and that the she was, as the Tribune described her, “Chicago’s most provocative pastry chef.” While we are not exactly sure what is store for Zarzour, we decided to get in touch with a few of the city’s best food writers, including Michael Nagrant (Modern Luxury, Newcity Resto), Steve Dolinsky (ABC 7, WBEZ), and Mike Gebert (Sky Full of Bacon, Chicago Reader), to see what they thought about the closing, and whether there were any other places in town to satisfy a need for exquisite sweets.
All three had fascinating takes on the shop. Nagrant described each visit as “some kind of Felliniesque dream sequence,” and that the rise of the shop was a “beautiful moment that really hasn’t been replicated.” Dolinsky was struck by the passion of Zarzour on his very first visit, telling us that she was “as giddy as a kid who just got a new bike” when describing the ingredients in one of her desserts. Though there are other Italian bakeries in the area, Gebert claimed that the shop was “far ahead of anyone else in terms of artisanship and use of quality ingredients.”
That said, all recognized problems early on. Dolinsky called the closing a “real shame,” but that in “hindsight” a different location, especially one downtown, might have worked. Gebert wrote that he refused “to believe there wasn’t a viable business there.” He pointed out that it could have sold more items to restaurants or moved to a “less pricey location.” But Nagrant didn’t seem as convinced that the shop would ever make it. While he let us know that he wished “they would fight” and stay open, he understood “theirs was both a business and an art.”
So, what about alternatives? Interestingly, all three picked Sandra Holl’s Floriole as one of the best options in the city. Nagrant admitted that it is “quite incredible and it has a similar spirit to Natalina.” He also picked out Vanille Patisserie and Hoosier Mama Pies.
While Gebert admitted that there is “no one doing what they do,” a few places are “doing things of comparable exquisiteness in their own categories.” He gave another shout-out to Hoosier Mama, and also added Fox & Obel and Black Dog Gelato.