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The desserts at Locanda are not flashy. The menu at the Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill regularly features such humble sweets as fruit tarts, gelati, orange semifreddo, and panna cotta. The treats, though, are as deceptive as their maker—72-year-old Liliana Dumas, the petite, grandmotherly pastry chef at Locanda. Both Dumas and her desserts speak with a simple, time-honored authority that doesn’t feel the need to shout to earn respect.
Few will argue that Dumas’ sweets are as seductive as, say, the Kit Kat bar at Central Michel Richard or the mini-whoopie pies in Heather Chittum’s “Tic Tac Toe” dessert at Hook. But Dumas isn’t the type to flirt with gourmet takes on mass-produced treats. Her style feels more firmly rooted in the history of Italian sweets—perhaps even in a war-torn period when butter was hard to come by.
“There’s no butter in any of my desserts,” she says. “It’s olive oil instead.”
If you scan a baking book or the sweets section of an Italian cookbook, it seems unfathomable that such a key ingredient could be consistently absent from Dumas’ desserts, particularly her cakes. But even without butter, Dumas’ chocolate-hazelnut cake tantalizes you with its balance of flavors and its distinctively non-haute presentation. Served without any droplets of chocolate or squiggles of raspberry coulis, the cake is decadent without being leaden. Its toasted hazelnuts, lemon, cocoa, and sugar serve as an excellent foil to the moist, delicious cake. It’s almost impossible to put down your fork when digging into this hefty slice—even when you know you should.
But don’t mistake Dumas for some time-capsule pastry chef. While her recipes are rooted in her homeland, she’s tweaked them enough to keep them modern. Sure, she still consults Le Ricette Regionali Italiane, the 1967 Italian regional cookbook, or The Silver Spoon, the Italian cooking bible recently translated into English. But her daughter, a photographer who travels throughout Europe, also sends her updates. “She’s taking pictures for a cookbook and sends me photos of Italian cakes and pastries with the recipes,” she says. “She keeps me up with the times. Food is lighter now.”
Dumas arrived in D.C. nearly 25 years ago, and she has quietly become the matriarch of District dining. Jean Paul Amsellem, owner of Bistro Français, hired Dumas when he discovered her working as a pastry chef at a little restaurant near Genoa, Italy, just three years out of culinary school. Initially, Dumas didn’t want to come to the United States, but her family—and the major opportunity—convinced her otherwise. Her career would follow a logical path, from work-for-hire gigs at Bistro Français and Mezza Luna to the opening of her own place, Trattoria Liliana, which eventually closed in 2006.
After closing her restaurant, Dumas briefly toyed with the idea of calling it quits. But she ultimately missed restaurant life and said to hell with retirement. It turned out to be a really sweet decision for Washington’s sweet tooth.