Pumpkin pleasers: Asheville food specialties welcome autumn

PUMPKIN PIE: Peter Affatato, owner and chef of Nona Mia Italian Kitchen, was inspired by his grandmother's pumpkin dishes to make his popular deep-dish, roasted pumpkin pizza. Photo by Nick Moen

When Peter Affatato was growing up in Flushing, Queens, his grandmother — his “nona” — would take him to Long Island farms to buy pumpkins.

“She bought them because they were cheap,” says Affatato, owner and chef at Nona Mia Italian Kitchen in West Asheville. “Then she would cook them with everything.”

That’s how Affatato came up with Peter’s pumpkin pizza, a pie customers begin calling to ask about as soon as pumpkins start bronzing the fields.  The deep-dish, Sicilian-style pizza has fresh ricotta cheese, scallions, cut pumpkins rubbed with olive oil and roasted in a wood oven, roasted tomatoes, pancetta bacon and mozzarella cheese. Hand over a slice, please.

“My “nona” would make focaccia-style bread topped with roasted pumpkin,” says Affatato. ”I translated that to my pizza.”

Ashevillean Elizabeth Foley, general manager/chocolatier at the Chocolate Fetish in downtown Asheville, is glad he did: “It’s one of my favorite pumpkin dishes. You would think a pizza with pumpkin on it is crazy, but it is so good.”

Affatato likes working with pumpkin in part because it doesn’t fall apart — and it plays well with others, savory or sweet.

Pumpkin’s Savory Side

Most of us think pie when we hear pumpkin. But when it comes to food, chefs have enlarged brains. That’s why William Dissen, chef and owner of The Market Place on Wall Street, can create an intoxicating roasted pumpkin soup topped with a sprinkling of toasted pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, and cave-aged bleu cheese from Blue Ridge Mountain Creamery.

“The soup is finished with chile-infused oil that adds another layer of flavor,” says Dissen.

Joe Scully, chef and owner of Chestnut on Biltmore Avenue and Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village, serves his own version of pumpkin soup. “It’s a basic purée soup topped with a savory cinnamon whipped cream that makes it start to look like a cappuccino,” he says. “That soup on a chilly fall day is not to be matched. It makes you feel better about days getting darker.”

Pumpkin’s Sweet Turn

It may be hard to imagine a pumpkin truffle, but it’s not hard to savor one at the Chocolate Fetish. European milk chocolate topped with a toasted pumpkin seed surrounds organic pumpkin purée blended with cinnamon, cloves, allspice and secret spices that enhance the fresh pumpkin taste.

Pumpkin is a lead performer for Aimee Mostwill, owner and founder of Sweetheart Bakery, which sells its goods at the Asheville City and North Asheville Tailgate markets on Saturdays, and the River Arts District Farmers Market on Wednesdays. “We sell pumpkin coffee cake, sticky buns, chocolate chip cake, doughnuts, cream cheese brownies and coffeecake, pop tarts and scones,” says Mostwill, who uses fresh pumpkin as long as she can get it.

“If I can figure out a way to put pumpkin in a recipe, I do. It adds moisture and nutrition. Eat my pumpkin chocolate chip cake, and you probably get all the vitamin A that you need for the day.”

Baker Bonnie Troyer, co-owner of Troyer’s Country Amish Blatz in Fairview, feels the same way.

“Pumpkin makes everything moist and is good for you too,” she says, noting that she favors her pumpkin bread. “When I’m out of it,” she says, “Ashevilleans aren’t happy.”

That’s probably true of Troyer’s customer Brenda Williams. “I really love it,” she says. “It’s baked onsite and topped with nuts — so fine and not sold just seasonally.”

The bread has formidable competition: pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, whoopee pies, cream cheese rolls and Troyer’s grandmother’s pumpkin pies with a touch of ginger. Where would fall be without our “nonas?”

Norm Engle, owner of Whit’s Frozen Custard on Merrimon Avenue, has also added pumpkin to his fall menu. “In frozen custards, we have pumpkin cheesecake,” which Engle notes is his favorite, “pumpkin with crushed gingersnaps, with chocolate flakes or with pecans. We’ll also have frozen pumpkin custard pies,” he says.

And, of course, no fall can go by without a pumpkin latte, no matter what kind of coffee freak you are. The place to go is Edna’s on Merrimon Avenue — at least, according to Ashevillean Heather Lewis. “I am not usually a fan of flavored coffee,” says Lewis, “but I love Edna’s pumpkin-spiced latte.”

Bryan Giudici, Edna’s general manager, is a fan as well. “Our pumpkin-spiced latte is sweeter than most,” he says, “made without preservatives and with pure cane sugar, a little clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. It is holiday flavor from fall to winter — until people stop asking for it.”

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