Maybe you've never eaten Danielle Di Vecchio's biscotti, but it's possible that you've seen them on the small screen: the treats appeared on an episode of The Sopranos, in which Di Vecchio played Barbara, Tony's law-abiding younger sister. Fleeting cameo aside, the actress's company, Biscotti di Vecchio, is enjoying more business than ever. Read more about how she turned her grandmother's recipe into an off-the-set gig.
James Beard Foundation: How did you start your biscotti company? Was it something you always wanted to do?
Danielle Di Vecchio: Starting a biscotti business was not something I seriously thought would be a part of my life’s path. But looking back, I don’t see how it could have been any different. I’ve always loved to bake and had my own cheesecake business right after college. Later, I worked for a local gourmet food store in Connecticut as the morning baker, making the scones, muffins, croissants, and cookies.
A dear actress/singer friend of mine was organizing a 9/11 benefit at a local church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and we decided to give out my biscotti as a favor to the attendees. Why the biscotti I really don’t know! When I put bags of the Pistachio Chocolate Chocolate Chunk flavor together for the benefit, no one seemed to think of them as biscotti, just as really unique, good cookies. Everyone seemed to have this perception of biscotti as hard, dry, and flavored with anise—something their grandmothers dipped in their morning coffee.
In 2003 I was all set to leave town for an acting job, but it fell through at the last minute and I needed to pay the rent. So, based on my biscotti history, I got a free fax number, wrote up an order form, and sent it to everyone on my email list. I left the apartment and came back later to 25 orders and lots of encouragement! After the 2008 holiday season, when the economy was bleak and the outlook not good, Biscotti di Vecchio actually had its best season ever. I realized that this could be a viable, full-time business. So I took a deep breath and made the commitment to take it to the next level.
JBF: Are you a big baker? Did you develop the recipes yourself, or did you collaborate with other people? We saw on the website that you sell several kinds of biscotti—what are the most popular flavors?
DDV: I’ve always loved baking and cooking and am pretty much self-taught through observation, trial and error, and parents who both love to cook and raised my brother and me to appreciate good, home cooking—no fast food or take out was in our house. My grandmother was a fabulous baker and taught me how to make biscotti when I was 13 or 14. I would riff on her original recipe and create my own varieties using combinations of chocolates, nuts, dried fruit, and spices. I love creating something and seeing what happens as it evolves.
As far as collaborating with other people, my friends and family are the best tasters out there. They’re my in-house focus group and let me know when I’ve hit on something terrific or failed miserably.
A couple years ago, I was fascinated with the new chocolate craze and the different combinations that were becoming popular with artisanal chocolatiers. I thought about combining chile pepper and chocolate, so I created Cayenne Cherry Chocolate Chunk biscotti—that’s been the most successful flavor to date. The savories were developed after a friend of mine, who is diabetic, asked me for an alternative to the sweet biscotti. I didn’t want to create a biscotti using sugar substitutes, so I thought about creating savories that would be wonderful with salads, soups, tapenades, and cheeses. The Sun Dried Tomato, Basil and Cheddar flavor comes in first with the Black Pepper Asiago Parmesan and the Rosemary, Thyme and Walnut tied for second!
JBF: We also read on your website that your biscotti were featured on The Sopranos. Could you tell us which episode?
DDV: The episode is called "Walk Like a Man," from season six, written and directed by Terry Winter. I used to bring my biscotti to the set and would give it as gifts during the holidays. Terry wrote that Barbara (my character, Tony’s younger sister) was to arrive at Christopher’s house with her family, carrying in a box of pastries, for the Christening of his baby. But then he asked me if I still made my biscotti and if I would like to bring that instead. I said, “Of course!” and now my Speciale Festa—the bag of assorted biscotti—is part of television history!
JBF: What's the most exciting part of your job? What do you like least?
DDV: I love the possibility of it all and working with others who are excited about my product and story. I have some amazing opportunities for cross-promotion, which could make the product more visible to the general public. I have a great product and am committed to maintaining the integrity of the product as opportunities arise and business grows and the challenges posed by that expansion. I’m beginning to put together a great crew of dedicated and passionate bakers and, although rolling out the dough is something I love to do, I want to be promoting it and selling it and spending less time in the kitchen.JBF: How do you see this job and the company evolving?
DDV: As a creative person, I love thinking outside the box and working with others who do, too. I think that one of the great things to come out of the recession has been the innovative and creative thinking from those in business who have a product to sell and share with the buying public. I’ve met some amazingly experienced people who are realizing that “business as usual” isn’t cutting it anymore, and they are opening up to new ideas. There is a strong sense of community among the people I am currently doing business with and I want to continue to nurture that spirit of community through the development of new products, innovation, and the power of “Yes!” versus “been there done that.”