When Gilda Doganiero says biscotti, you want to ask her to repeat the word, because her voice already has you dreaming. Bite, and you’ll see why it isn’t bombastic to toss around reviews like “best cookies in the world” and “best biscotti this side of the Atlantic,” nor to marvel “it’s a wonder that anyone can keep them in stock.”
You’ll be captivated by every flavor, including Chocolate Espresso, Lemon Fig, Almond Anise, Cherry Pistachio, and Vanilla Bean.
Amidst the mid-90s coffee boom, herself enjoying the buzzing excitement and proliferation of European-style coffee shops around Philadelphia, Gilda noticed the lack of authentic biscotti. (She was attuned to its dearth because her previous undertaking as a Vail hotel pastry chef had been to perfect an incredibly light, butterless biscotti that was used to accompany all coffee service.) In 1994, lured by the intoxicating coffee scent streaming from the storefront of Philly’s La Colombe Torrefazione, Gilda entered, met the owners, and departed on a mission to bake them a batch of her chocolate hazelnut biscotti. They were happily convinced, and La Colombe became her first client, bartering espresso for biscotti. As the biscotti’s popularity grew, Gilda knew it was time to leave her job as pastry chef at the Four Seasons and to begin making her artisan biscotti by hand, every day.
The burgeoning company quickly outgrew the 800 square foot Haddonfield, New Jersey, apartment in which Gilda’s Biscotti began. Recognizing that the city was also a challenging place to raise a family, Gilda and her husband began looking for an old farm that needed restoration, and 12 years later, the major work is done on the farmhouse in Salem, NJ, where Gilda lives with her husband and daughter.
Gilda jokes, “Have you seen the movie The Money Pit? That is our life! We were actually attracted by the renovations if you can believe that. We were much younger end had more energy!” But they enjoy living a quieter life on the farm, still proximate to the cities of Philadelphia (about 35 miles) and New York (a couple of hours away).
“This is so different from my city life. Nearly every day, I come home for lunch. I’m 2.5 miles away from the bakery. My daughter’s school is 10 miles away. Everything is very convenient. Most decisions are based on maintaining a balance of work and not work. I am always faced with how to grow and still maintain flexibility for my daughter and household.”
The family’s 5 acres are surrounded by 200 undeveloped acres, and their working farm is alive with sheep, chickens, and bees. You’ll find the farm-fresh eggs from her own flock of chickens in your biscotti, part of Gilda’s commitment to using the most wholesome, finest, and freshest ingredients possible to make her authentic biscotti.
Where did the passion for biscotti enter? “I am Italian-American and I grew up eating some pretty lousy biscotti. You know when you have that experience where you eat something, and you just know the moment you taste it that the rest of your life is going to be spent trying to match it? That’s how I felt eating biscotti in Italy. I understood that what we had in the US was a sorry substitute. Experiences like that calibrate, or re-calibrate, your taste. We go back to Italy once a year. I love getting into the small towns, meeting people, eating their foods, really getting down to the authentic things that make a place special.”
You’ll notice that Gilda’s Biscotti labels are made from black and white portrait images, which I discovered are based on vintage family photographs. With the exception of Dad’s Midnight Stash, they depict a woman standing stoically, her right hand grasping her left elbow behind her back. “My father, Antonio Doganiero’s, mother was named Gilda. I was named after her. She was born in Teramo, Italy, in the mountainous Abruzzo region near the Adriatic. People may recognize the name from the recent terrible avalanche. Gilda’s marriage was arranged and my grandparents wound up in Camden, NJ.”
Her father, Antonio, appears on the Dad’s Midnight Stash tin. The tin’s contents are biscotti “ends,” and are a mix of all the flavors. Gilda reflected on the birth of the idea: “When we cut the cookies from the logs, we always have the end pieces. A couple of years into my business, I started saving the ends in little bins and giving them to my father. My dad is that guy who always wants the end of the bread, the end of the roast beef—the hard, crunchy, burnt parts of things. As I got busier and had more and more ends, this guy Mr. McNally who owns an Irish Pub in town said, ‘You should bag these up and I’ll sell them in the pub!’So I did. For the label, I found an old picture of my dad from when he was in the service in 1953. Dad just turned 89 and is hilarious. He’s an attorney and always jokes with everyone about the cookies, saying ‘I am still waiting for my daughter to pay me royalties for the use of my image!’ Turns out, it’s our most popular product! You never know which flavor you’re going to get, which people find kind of fun.”
Although Gilda’s has grown tremendously since she began baking her biscotti in her little Haddonfield apartment, she still operates most aspects of the business. “I did it on my own for twelve years and my mom handled the books. When I had my daughter, it forced my hand and I found a baker, Glen, who now does all of the baking. I come after I drop my daughter off at school and help with packaging, invoicing, social media, etc. There is always plenty to do!” Gilda’s has operated for a decade in its current bakery, which was an old 70s barbershop bought from the city’s economic redevelopment committee. Gilda’s enthusiasm leads her to many new ideas, and she is currently at work on making a bittersweet bark that incorporates biscotti crumbs—a combination of leftovers from her Chocolate Espresso Biscotti and the readily available post-baking crumbs.
Throughout our interview, I knew that Gilda had been out walking. As our phone call came to a close, she revealed that as we’d conversed, her dog had jumped in a pond and come out a muddy mess. Following a dirty cleanup, she was on her way to the bakery. I had no idea what had taken place, and she’d never let on or missed a beat. This do-it-all and do-it-all-well woman is just as authentic as her biscotti.