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The first time I ever had panna cotta was also the first time I ever heard of panna cotta.

I guessed—glomming on, impetuously, to the “panna”—that it was some sort of Italian variation of bread pudding, and so was unprepared for the soft disc of custard that arrived at the end of the meal. Its jiggly whiteness put me in mind of a sickly-looking jello.

That was maybe two-and-a-half, three years ago.

If you had told me, then, that I was getting my first taste of an insta-classic—of a dessert that is destined, says Steve Klc, who comes up with the sweets for Zaytinya, Cafe Atlantico, and Jaleo, to assume its place as “the crème brûlée of the 21st century”—I know for a fact that I would have been laughing too hard to keep the dessert down. It was so unassuming and so utterly lacking in sex appeal that if, not for its novelty, I might not have even noticed it.

So how did this Italian peasant concoction, which dates to at least the 17th century—a simple treat of scalded cream, lightly sweetened, thickened with gelatin, then molded and served chilled—transform itself, virtually overnight, into the darling of the culinary world? Scan the dessert menus of local restaurants that take their desserts seriously and you’re as likely to turn up a panna cotta as you are a crème brûlée or chocolate cake—though whether the pastry chef will list this largely-unknown-to-the-lay-public dish by its actual name is another matter. You’ll probably have a waiter or waitress try to entice you with an “Italian custard” or—in shameless appeal to dieters—“an Italian eggless custard.” Occasionally, it’s billed as a “parfait of sweetened cream.” But a panna cotta is a panna cotta is a panna cotta.

Almost alone among desserts, panna cotta is more notable for what it’s not than for what it is. It’s not chocolate. It’s not rich. It’s not even all that sweet.

Actually, panna cotta’s structural resemblance to jello is a telling clue to its proliferation. Like that humble but versatile pantry staple (which turned up, Zelig-like, in everything from a translucent red square at the school cafeteria to your aunt’s Bundt-pan molded salad), it’s exceedingly easy to make.

“Much easier than crème brûlée,” insists Frank Morales, chef at Zola.

“I would say it’s probably the easiest dessert I do at any of my restaurants,” says Klc, describing his fluted-glass dessert as a “reach-in-the-fridge-and-grab” effort.

Rita Garruba, pastry chef at Butterfield 9, ticks off its many virtues: “Easy to teach, easy to store, easy to make.”

The other upside for the pastry chef is that panna cotta tastes more complex than it is—the opposite, say, of a chocolate soufflé, which tastes simple but in fact requires loads of painstaking preparation. Delve into Klc’s coconut panna cotta with mango and lime, for instance, and you’d swear that such a soft, luscious custard, with its almost liqueur-like intensity of tropical flavors, was the result of hours of labor over the stove.

A simpler-than-pie dish that not only tastes luxurious but also imparts a note of the exotic? In an industry rife with trend-humping and copycatting, and ever on the lookout for the Next Big Thing, the surprise is not how, but how swiftly the dessert has spread—“like fucking Starbucks,” says Klc. It’s only four years ago, after all, that Claudia Fleming, then the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York, included the recipe for a buttermilk panna cotta with lemon gelée in her popular cookbook. She thought she was creating a dessert; in fact, she was birthing a movement.

Fabio Trabocchi, of Maestro, one of the few chefs I talked to who’d not only heard of panna cotta before it hit it big but who’d actually grown up eating it—his grandmother prepared it in a large pan, into which everyone around the table dug his spoon—regards the phenomenon with a mixture of amusement and quiet disdain. “It is,” he says with a kind of pained chuckle, “a poor people’s dessert.”

Tellingly, Trabocchi doesn’t serve a panna cotta for dessert, sending it out (gratis) to tables, instead, to introduce dessert—“it is a pre-dessert,” he says, “a palate cleanser.” Which is his way of ensuring that everyone who comes to the restaurant gets to taste his stunning panna cotta with lychee puree and a splash of basil-infused grappa, or his way of subtly showing us that a panna cotta is not really that kind of dessert, or both.

As Trabocchi’s two-spoonful tour de force demonstrates, panna cotta’s inherent lack of character—of sweetness, of flavor—turns out, in fact, to be a huge plus.

“Basically, it’s a blank canvas,” says Morales, in which the chef is limited only by his own creativity. A pudding or a crème brûlée, after all, rarely if ever occasions the kind of conceptual questions that a panna cotta does: Savory or sweet? Wildly inventive or traditional? Fluid and served in a glass, or solid and unmolded on a plate? Morales points to his own panna cotta with blue Hubbard squash for fall, which he conceived as a “vehicle” to “translate the essence of the season.”

Except, of course, that the chef doesn’t call it a panna cotta. He calls it a “custard” and instructs his servers to describe it as a “cooked cream.” Joslyn Bergmann, until recently the pastry chef at 1789, touted it as “an Italian custard made without eggs.”

In defending her decision, Bergmann says, “The salient point is that it’s a custard.” In explaining her decision, however, she sounds like a wised-up chef once spurned: “When I was at Clyde’s, in Reston, I did a lemon panna cotta with cherries. I thought it was fabulous. No one wanted it.”

Theories abound as to the nom de pluming of panna cotta. Some pastry chefs point to the public’s unfamiliarity, still, with the full spectrum of Italian cooking; others, to the reluctance of even fine diners to tackle unfamiliar, foreign words on a menu. Still, it’s ironic, to say the least, that a dish that’s grown wildly in popularity over the last few years, remains, in many cases, cloaked in coy obscurity.

Are pastry chefs educating us slowly? I wonder. Or are they educating us without educating us too much? —Todd Kliman

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