Annika De Paula Loureiro doesn't want you to just eat dessert. She wants you to experience it -- to feel every knead in the dough and slow stir of melted chocolate, every drip of warm caramel and light dusting of sugar.
The 30-year-old pastry chef is bold, colorful and energetic, yet focused and "pretty much obsessive," she says. And so are her dishes at Vicini American-Italian Kitchen and Bar in Frisco, which opened in January with chef Kyle McClelland in charge of the kitchen. McClelland is the former executive chef at Driftwood (now closed) and Proof + Pantry.
Loureiro's signature dessert -- a torta di semolina with blood orange -- is an elevated take on cheesecake. She aerates and whips the torta with wheat semolina, then tops it with creamy and crunchy goodies: candied almonds, almond biscotti, caramel, crème fraîche and little truffles she calls brutto buono, or "ugly good." "They're just these little ugly truffles," she says, "but they are so good!"
The tart blood oranges take several forms on the dish -- supremes on top, a purée that holds its shape (Loureiro calls it "server proof"), and gelled, translucent circles for a touch of modern drama. A mini torta sits to the side, topped with almond shortbread. "It's got a little hat on," she says. "I like doing hats."
The dish is elegant yet fun, with layers of flavor, texture and surprises.
Loureiro's journey is as deceptively serendipitous as the stories she tells on the plate. She's not classically trained and didn't attend culinary school, but she's worked with some of the most talented chefs in Dallas.
After high school, while working in catering at the Nasher Sculpture Center, she walked across the street to Stephan Pyles' namesake restaurant, where she asked for a job application; Matt McCallister was executive chef at the time. "Instead of answering the questions, I just wrote all over the paper about why I wanted to work there," she says. "Matt called me back in about 15 minutes."
There, she worked with McCallister and pastry chef Maggie Huff before going to Cedars Social, where McClelland was working at the time. She then made a big move to New York, where she worked more closely with McClelland at Prospect in Brooklyn before coming back to Dallas to work as executive pastry chef at Driftwood and Proof + Pantry, and then as pastry sous-chef at Uchi.
Her passion for desserts sprang from an unlikely place -- Fuddruckers, where she worked as a teenager.
A little boy walked up to the ice cream counter with a dollar, "which wasn't enough for anything," she says, but she gave him a three-scoop sundae with fudge and whipped cream.
"His eyes lit up, and the way he looked at me, I thought, 'I'm not going to forget this,'" she says. "I felt kind of powerful. I kind of feel like I changed his destiny, and something in me kind of woke up."
Loureiro was born in São Paulo, Brazil, where homemade breads and sweets are not a special treat -- they're a way of life.
Her parents were high school sweethearts from the state of Minas Gerais, and her grandfather owned a sorbetteria. "When you say, 'I'm from Minas,' people automatically say, 'Oh, you know how to make cheese,' or chocolate. Because it's just what they do."
She says baking is a cultural experience because it's so tied to the land. "It's sensual, you feel so much," she says. "You took grain you grew, you dried it out, you crushed it down. ... You're becoming one with something, you're in tune with things. You have to understand your environment in order to grow bread."
Loureiro also learned about other cultures and cooking techniques in Brazil, thanks to the country's large Japanese and Italian populations. Her family then moved to Sweden for a few years before landing in North Texas, where she graduated from Plano East High School.
Now, she's excited to be in Frisco, where she says Vicini is bringing a new energy. It's the perfect venue for her skills, her varied cultural influences and "all the weird things I know how to do."
She'll be bringing a modern approach to traditional Italian dishes. "I'm not talking modern like I'm going to make spheres or something," she says. But she's made a crunchy, candied puffed risotto topping for a passion fruit perfetto, and she's smoking and fermenting cherries with Cuban tobacco for a smoky flavor with a bit of fizz. "It's an ancient technique in a modern light," she says.
In addition to plated desserts, Loureiro has been making pasta, focaccia, country bread, ricotta and yogurt. "We'll eventually be making our own cheese," she says. "My dream is to age my own cheese in-house, and serve a cheese plate that I've made completely."
And, knowing Loureiro, with her passion for play and devotion to discovery, she won't stop there.
UPDATE: April 6, 2016 Loureiro has left Vicini American-Italian Kitchen.
Erin Booke is the food editor at The Dallas Morning News.
Loureiro on ...
Candy: "Baking bread is fun, but if I could make candy and ice cream all day, I would do that. I'm a confectioner. The ultimate thing I need to figure out is Skittles. I need to perfect the candy shell on the outside. It's sprayed-on powdered sugar, pretty much. Anyway, that has nothing to do with the restaurant, it's just a personal thing I need to figure out."
Cereal: "I really love cereal. Puffing grains is really interesting to me." At Vicini, she makes a yogurt puffed risotto topping for a passion fruit perfetto. "I overcook the risotto and it makes a rice cereal puff, then I candy that ... and it has a bit of a Frosted Flakes look on the outside," she says. "It's an outlet to get my cereal game going."
Ice cream: "I don't really go for composed dishes when eating out; I will typically go for the ice cream. I'm really a fan of Maggie Huff at Filament and FT33. Maggie's ice cream game is amazing. I don't have a ton of money these days, but I've spent a lot of money trying to get Maggie's ice cream in my body."