The pignoli cookie is a sweet, simple way to time travel

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“We need amaretto with these,” my cookie tester opined.

I agreed. So much so that I’d have had it as a shot in my honey-vanilla chamomile as I wrote this. I’m not, though. Because there’s no amaretto in the house. With the holiday season fast approaching, that’s about to be remedied, but even so, I now have two notes to write to myself this morning.

Always have amaretto, Amy Drew.

And, since the years have clearly done a number on your priorities, always have pignoli cookies.

Keep your frostings, fillings and whipped toppings. For me, the pignoli cookie is pretty darn close to perfect. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

I just finished baking a batch, and these sweet, chewy-delicious pine nut cookies — with that beautiful lacquer of toasty pine nuts on top — are the stuff of nonna’s kitchen, which may be tied to the holidays (they’re so festive!) or just baking with her on a Sunday while the sauce is going. Maybe it’s your uncle they remind you of. Or mom. Doesn’t matter. The point is pignoli cookies are evocative of family.

And can you think of a better way to celebrate National Nut Day (Oct. 22) than with a salute to your family?!

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I kid, I kid, but when I heard this food holiday was upon us, my first thought was pignoli cookies. It had been forever since I’d had them, so I made a batch. And while doing so, I wondered whether other people had similarly strong feelings.

“OMG! That is literally my favorite cookie!” Denny Tornatore wrote after I sent him a pic. “I don’t care how much they cost when I am in N.Y.C. I pay the price. Pignoli cookies are the best!”

He agreed to discuss them with me for the price of two cookies. Which, if I were selling them, would be a lot.

Pignoli are expensive little buggers. Tasty, too. And calorically dense. But it’s a good fat. No, seriously, it really is. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

Pine nuts are expensive. There are a multitude of reasons why. The types of trees that produce them (a limited number of pine species actually produce edible nuts) don’t do so until they are quite mature. The harvesting process is laborious. Most pine nuts are imported, and because they can spoil, extra prep and care go into their transport. They’re also in very high demand.

“I think the cookies were $24 a pound last time I went to Ferrara in New York,” Tornatore tells me. (They’re currently clocking in at $42.95 a pound via Goldbelly.)

As the chef/owner of Tornatore’s Restaurant in Orlando’s College Park neighborhood, he’s also a regular consumer. Pine nuts are the prime ingredient in pesto, after all, which he has on the menu. “They’ve gone up consistently since COVID,” he says. “Lots of things have started to come back down since then, but not pine nuts.”

It was around the holidays that Tornatore remembers the cookies showing up.

Diamond brand pine nuts are less expensive than these, but sometimes you have to go with what’s in stock. Case in point, there was only one tube of the Odense almond paste on the shelf, so I had to get a Solo-brand box, as well. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

“My nonna would make them and put a little powdered sugar on them, and we’d just eat them warm, oh my god…” he trails off, lost in food memory. I get it. As I type, mine are just about cool. I’ve already had three.

“Pignoli cookies!” Patrick Tramontana replies when I send him the same pic. Again, there’s a similar time warp.

“They make me think of my childhood on Long Island. Going to pick up my mom after school with my dad when she worked at the bakery. She was the cookie lady.”

Erga Italian Bakery was a neighborhood staple in Bethpage, New York, for decades. (It’s since become another bakery, Moscato‘s.) Little did the cookie lady know that one day, her son would be heading up the kitchen at Antonio’s of Maitland before taking the helm at The Mayflower at Winter Park.

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Every time he went, Salvo, the baker, would come out and let him pick whatever he wanted.

“I’d always pick the strawberry eclair because it was the biggest thing they had!” he says, laughing. “My mom would come home with loaves of semolina bread all the time. And every once in a while, and always during Christmas time, she’d come home with pignoli cookies. They’re so delicious! They have this wonderful chewy thing, but they’re also crisp at the same time.”

Yep. It’s a texture thing, courtesy of its prime ingredient — almond paste — that’s at least equal to the rich almond flavor it imparts. There’s a balance of crisp and gooey in these flourless cookies that’s matchless.

“Pignoli cookies!” was the universal reply when I sent this pic out. My neighbor said the same when I brought over a plate. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

“I’m a big almond fan. I go crazy for almond desserts,” says Kevin Fonzo, whose La Tavola dinners at the Emeril Lagasse Foundation’s Kitchen House in College Park sell out as fast as he posts them. “But for me, this is a history thing. It’s the feeling of warmth and comfort and love.”

Growing up in upstate New York, Fonzo would regularly visit his grandparents in the Bronx. And though his great aunts made pignoli cookies all the time, they still remind him mostly of the bakery behind their apartment building.

Pulse almond paste for a bit in the food processor before adding the rest of the ingredients. This recipe, by the way, is entirely gluten-free. (Amy Drew Thompson/Orlando Sentinel)

“When we’d spend the weekend with my grandparents, it was a daily stop for us. We’d walk around the corner to this bakery, and there were all these amazing cookies that weren’t chocolate chip or Oreo or things you’d see at the supermarket.”

To date, Fonzo still orders many of his cookies from his favorite places in New York, like Ferrara in Little Italy.

“Every year, I order like for my sister, who is crazy about the pine nut cookies, too, and for the holidays, I’ll get an assorted cookie tray. And I always get pissed off because there’s never enough pignoli cookies.”

That’s why you have to make your own.

Find me on Facebook, TikTok, Twitter or Instagram @amydroo or on the OSFoodie Instagram account @orlando.foodie. Email:, For more foodie fun, join the Let’s Eat, Orlando Facebook group.

Pignoli cookies pair nicely with tea, coffee or espresso (with or without Amaretto).

Pignoli Cookies

Recipe by Angela Allison courtesy of This Italian Kitchen (

Some notes: This recipe made 24 cookies. I baked them at 350 degrees instead of 325, and they browned beautifully. Try out a couple of testers and see if the higher setting suits your oven as it did mine. And if you want to stretch your pine nuts farther, which you might when three ounces go for about $13 at Publix, press them into one side of the dough ball instead of rolling the whole thing.


6 ounces pine nuts
14 ounces almond paste (two 7-ounce tubes)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup powdered sugar
2 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon salt


Preheat oven to 325 degrees.* Line two baking sheets with parchment; set aside. Place pine nuts in a small bowl; set aside.
Open tubes of almond paste and break into one-inch chunks using your fingers. Place paste into food processor and pulse until the it has broken apart.
Add granulated sugar, powdered sugar and salt to the food processor. Pulse until well combined and mixture forms a crumb. Add in the egg whites and process until a dough forms. (Dough will be slightly sticky).
Use a cookie scoop to measure out equal amounts of dough. Form dough into balls using your hands (wet hands slightly if dough begins to stick). Place the dough ball in the bowl of pine nuts and gently press in the nuts so they stick to the ball.
Place cookies on lined baking sheet, leaving about an inch and half between each (you should be able to fit a dozen cookies on each baking sheet.) Bake on center rack in oven for 15-18 minutes, or until the cookies start to spread and lightly brown.
Remove the cookies from oven and cool on the baking sheet completely before moving. If you move the cookie while warm, you risk it falling apart. Dust cookie with powdered sugar before serving (optional).

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