Creating the Perfect Tarts: Puff Tarts
WORDS BY LESLEY MAHONEY / PHOTOGRAPHS BY KATIE NOBLE
You know that experience: You eat something so good that you’re still talking about it for weeks. In fact, you can still almost taste it and it now serves as your new benchmark for that particular food.
For Vito Aluia, an apple tart at a South End restaurant had that very effect. To hear him describe the crisp puff pastry crust, layer of caramel and thinly sliced apples, you’d think it was yesterday rather than nearly 18 years ago that he ate that life-changing confection.
Like Aluia’s other brushes with culinary bliss, this tart served as an inspiration, a call to action. Soon, he was on a path to perfecting an apple tart of his own.
He made them for his kids’ occasional school fundraisers, and then on a more regular basis for his daughter’s school’s weekly café to raise money for an eighth grade class trip. The year of the apple tart, Aluia calls it. “Every week I practiced until I got it down pretty good,” he says. “By that time I had a good apple tart.”
Aluia, a freelance photographer by trade who’d always cooked for family and friends, says he’s constantly looking for new ways to channel his creativity. With the tart’s success, it made sense to look to food for a new creative outlet.
Using the apple tart puff pastry crust as a foundation for a menu of sweet and savory tarts, he and friend Janis Rothbard launched Puff Tarts in 2008. The business debuted at the Lexington Farmers Market and sold out of 50 tarts in a matter of hours, relieving Aluia of his fear that they’d be eating tarts for the rest of the week. The next week, they made between 60 and 70 and sold out again, eventually stocking about 80 tarts.
The business has since expanded (and Rothbard has left), purveying up to 100 tarts each week at several farmers markets per season, and moved its cooking operations out of a church basement in Lexington to a rented kitchen in Chelmsford. Aluia hopes to someday open a retail store.
On a recent Wednesday, Aluia’s Chelmsford kitchen is already buzzing by 7am. Onions are caramelizing on the stovetop, tomatoes are roasting in a convection oven and there are trays of tart crust in the freezer waiting to be shaped and filled.
Adding to the olfactory pleasure is the scent of Aluia’s signature herbs de Provence, which he adds to most savory tarts. While the tarts change each week to reflect what’s in season, some of the staples include mushroom and a blend of Emmental and Gruyere; plum and Belgian chocolate; spinach and feta; pecan; and of course, apple.
With the exception of the tomato tart, which takes a cornmeal crust, Aluia makes all his tarts with puff pastry crust—when he first started the business, he rolled all the dough by hand; now he finishes the handmade process with a dough sheeter outfitted with custom-made pieces.
He aims to use local produce and often shops at the markets where he sells, sourcing from many locations for quality ingredients and in the interest of keeping the cost to the consumer down. “I want to support the individual who makes or grows the items I need,” he says. “I am a small producer of a specialty item. I try to make the best product I can.”
While the South End tart may have led Aluia to a business venture, he credits his Sicilian parents for his love of food. Growing up in Somerville, there was always some sort of culinary activity going on: from making fresh pasta, sausage and wine to brining olives and canning tomatoes. His family grew their own vegetables and picked sea urchins from the ocean. “Everything was homemade,” he says. “When I was a little kid I used to carry my mother’s bags every Saturday as she shopped.”
He recalls bringing panini sandwiches for lunch while other kids brought more American fare. When he earned enough money from a paper route, to satiate his curiosity he bought a can of Chef Boyardee—something his mother refused to buy. He quickly learned he wasn’t missing much, but that innate curiosity fueled his experimentation with food.
“Some people fear cooking,” he says. “We were allowed to cook and experiment on our own. I always enjoyed trying new foods. When I found something I liked, I had to learn how to make it, whether it was making sushi, paella or tarts.”
Now, Aluia transfers that same sensibility to his tart-making, creating combinations like nectarine, raspberry and almond; sweet potato, onion and cheddar; lavender, blueberry and goat cheese; and apricot and pistachio. The rustic-looking tarts feature flavors that are simultaneously dense and simple, allowing each ingredient to shine. The tomato tart’s deep-roasted tomato flavor is mellowed with Aluia’s Emmental and Gruyere cheese mixture, and punctuated with basil and pine nuts. If you’ve never paired plums and chocolate together, the plum and Belgian chocolate tart makes you wonder why. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about the mushroom and Gruyere tart. Don’t even get me started on the dulce de leche turnovers. (Yes, he makes turnovers, too.)
This is all exactly how he intends it to be, just as that South End tart made such an impression on him years ago. “I want people to remember these tarts,” he says.
This summer, you can find Vito Aluia’s Puff Tarts at the Somerville, Lexington and Cape Ann farmers markets. Visit pufftarts.com.
Lesley Mahoney is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in South Shore Living, Cape Cod Magazine and various GateHouse Media publications, and her monthly column, Homegrown, can be found on JamaicaPlain.Patch.com. Lesley can be reached at LMahoney1@gmail.com.