The Science of the Lambs

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
The Science of the Lambs
The Science of the Lambs

It's Easter week, a time when even non-Italians swarm Philadelphia Italian bakeries for ricotta and ham pie, bunny cakes and Easter egg sweetbread. But you have to be old or Sicilian to know about Eastertime marzipan lambs.

These candy-sculpture representations of Christ as Paschal lamb are an edible centerpiece of many an Easter meal. Sold in bakeries all over Sicily, the lambs were also a fixture of Sicilian-American-owned Italian bakeries in the U.S. through the 1950s. But only a few Philly bakeries still make them.

The marzipan lamb is a 100-year-plus tradition at the 107-year-old Isgro Pasticceria (1009 Christian St.). Mary Sarno (pictured), 95, comes out of retirement every spring to make them from plaster molds hand-carved by her late father, bakery founder Mario Isgro, a Sicilian native.

"She can still fill a cannoli with a spoon," Mary's son, Isgro owner and baker Augustine "Gus" Sarno, says admiringly. Mary no longer works Isgro's busy counter ("I'm afraid someone will knock her over"), but she can craft the lambs at her own pace in the old home kitchen off the bakery salesroom.

Gus actually makes the marzipan candy, a mixture of almond paste, corn syrup and sugar cooked at high heat in copper kettles. Mary does what they both call the hardest part: Getting the candy in and out of the antique (and in one case, cracked) molds intact. Then she decorates them with royal icing flowers, pressed-sugar chicks, ribbon bows and jelly bean eggs. It takes her up to 30 minutes to create a single 4- to 6-inch lamb and six weeks to produce the 1,000 lambs Isgro's sells in stages ($6.85 to $18.95 each) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Said Gus last week, "If we put everything out, we would have already run out. And then some of the families who've had these lambs on their Easter tables for generations would be disappointed."

Unless, that is, they go to Varallo Bros. (1639 S. 10th St.), the other Philly bakery that still makes them. At 43 years in the business, Michael Varallo, 55, is a comparative novice at marzipan lamb-making. Varallo says he used to turn out hundreds for a local convent's Easter feast, but today makes only 150 undecorated ones. Even at $15 to 25, the lambs are money-losers. "I make them for the prestige," he says in heavily Italian-accented English.

"There is no money in it," agrees Gus Sarno. Nodding to his mother, he says, "She does it because she likes it and she loves me. If I had to pay someone? I don't know what I'd do."


Photos: Carolyn Wyman

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