I was back in Rome recently for a strategic retreat and thought it might be interesting to wear an Italian dessert fragrance every day to mark the occasion. Caveat: I have incredibly narrow parameters for the gourmand category in general (I have no desire to smell like food) but I get even more exacting when it comes to Italian dessert fragrances. I have a serious weakness for Italian desserts and cookies – the pasticche di mandorle, the lemony torta della nonna, the apricot crostate, pistachio gelato, the unctuous crema gialla spilling out of fat cornetti, the teeny tiny cups of espresso made for fairies, even those powdery little pan di stelle – but am rarely if ever convinced by the perfume form.
But I like to think of this pernickety-ness as quintessentially Italian itself, as anyone who has ever tried to order a cappuccino after 12 noon or ask for their carbonara to be made with cream in Italy will tell you. The fact that standards exist for food in Italy and are enforced by everyone up and down the food chain from the farmer to the waiter and the old guys at the next table is one of the biggest joys of my life. We should all care more about what the quality and ‘rightness’ of goes in our gullet, and correspondingly, on our skin.
La Danza delle Libellule by Nobile 1942
Crisp red apple whisked into the fluffiest of white musks. I can see why people love this. It renders apple pie in an admirably light, fresh form. My only problems with this are two. First, the apple note never smells less than a synthetic recreation of apple, in the same way that apple-scented shampoo or body lotion does. The accord is undeniably pleasant but you are never less than aware that this is not a smell derived from nature. And this awareness is what breaks the fourth wall.
Second, I am of the opinion that if you are going to render apple pie in perfume form, then at least some of that vanilla and cinnamon had better show their face. Here, though I do understand the brief was for the perfume to be as airy as a dance of butterflies, it is the foamy ocean of white musk molecules that dominates, making it feel a little like that first chug from a glass of water into which you’ve just dropped an Alka-Seltzer tablet, i.e., somehow both powdery and wet. Again, it is pleasant and eminently wearable, but there are no real points of interest. Possibly the worst thing one can say about a perfume is that it is not memorable, and La Danza delle Libellule just hits that line for me.
Lira by Xerjoff
Lira is quite similar to Indult’s Tihota in the double eiderdown thickness of its vanilla-musk, but with the lovely bright zestiness of blood orange up top and an intense caramel accord threaded through the basenotes. Normally, I find this sort of thing overwhelming, but the hint of licorice and flash of orange give the vanilla and caramel a much needed twang. It’s like crema gialla and Campari! Delightfully lush and enveloping, sweet but not syrupy, no jarring synthetic bits to annoy me – this is Italian gourmandise done right. I would buy the biggest bottle if I knew I’d wear it regularly, but because I suspect Lira would be an occasional treat only and not a true workhorse in my collection, I am content to keep on buying samples of it. (Think I am on sample number five at this point.)
Noir Tropical by Maria Candida Gentile
Every time I wear Noir Tropical, my husband remarks – rather unkindly, I must say – that I am wearing ‘that keks i mleko’ perfume again, referring to the mush of baby rusks (disturbingly called Plasma) dissolved into hot milk that is the cure to all ills in the Balkans. I made the mistake of buying a mini bottle of this blind with my birthday voucher from the Maria Candida Gentile site simply because a perfume friend of mine with impeccable taste adores Noir Tropical, so I decided to take the risk.
Unfortunately, there is nothing noir or tropical or even particularly special about Noir Tropical. It smells like high quality vanilla paste, with its woody, cocoa-ish and even slightly boozy aspects. But the perfume is never more than a background note in its own composition. Wearing it is like sitting in the theatre, waiting for the curtains to open and reveal the main act, but all you hear or see is the dim rustle of activity somewhere behind the curtain. Incredibly disappointing, especially for an indie perfume, where you pay (usually a lot) extra for something that deviates from the same old, same old.
I keep spraying this on myself, soaking my skin, mostly to get rid of it, but also because I want to understand if I can suddenly unlock the secret door in the perfume that will lead me through to the promised land of my original expectations. But I am down to the last drops in my mini bottle and am none the wiser. A plain, dull-ish vanilla milk n’ cookies scent is all Noir Tropical ever gives me and has ever given me.
Vanagloria by Laboratorio Olfattive
Front-loaded with enough iodine (saffron) and pineapple to cripple an elephant, Vanagloria makes a weird first impression – metallic, fruity, acid, and terpenic, like a burning tire onto which someone’s lobbed some opened cans of Del Monte pineapple pieces. And just under that, a ripe banana custard-like vanilla, like something you’d make out of a packet, but also really thick and expensive-smelling. Ribbons of smoke from just-lit frankincense add a slightly ashy-woody darkness, deepening the chiaroscuro effect.
It takes some time for all of this to settle, but when it does, what you get is a luxuriously creamy vanilla-incense accord that accurately reflects the aromas gathered in a dried vanilla bean pod – the slightly burnt-smelling woodiness, the booziness, the leathery dryness, the faint thick sweetness of it that floats in the distance. I smelled it first in Romastore, in Trastevere, in January 2022, and was appalled at its ‘crude oil’ start. But later, when it dried down, it became an obsession for me, far more compelling to me than any of the other more popular perfumes I’d gone there to try, like Gris Charnel by BDK Parfums. I bought a bottle the next day and it’s become one of my favourite vanilla perfumes, a group that by itself is very, very small.
Devotion by Dolce & Gabbana
Devotion is a happy, greasy little monger clearly riffing off the Lira model but lacking the budget (or perhaps ambition) to smell anywhere near as luxe. Featuring a bright, harsh citrus top strewn over a humongous, popcorny vanilla, it smells admirably cheerful and Italian – big, BIG flavors and maxi pad thickness galore. It smells a little like a girl’s first holiday to the sun with her girlfriends, all suntan oiled-legs and vanilla deo. Pretty irresistible actually.
That is, however, until a stale ‘fry oil’ note creeps into the rich, buttery mass of vanilla. I can live with popcorny vanillas if they don’t develop a smell too much like that burnt butter aromachemical everyone seems to use for lactonic notes. But this almost savory, fried foods element is not in the least bit appealing. It smells like the end of the girls’ holiday, where they’ve gone to a chipper straight from the airport, the scent of their vanilla body sprays and monoi mixing with the greasy smells pouring out of the vents and rising up from their hot sausage rolls. And boy, does this perfume linger.
Dambrosia by Profumum
The opening of Dambrosia is wince-making: strident pear-scented Windex. I never would have bought a travel size of this perfume had I not smelled it on a colleague every Thursday at our pre-pandemic coffee and cornetto mornings, when the perfume, applied early that morning, was just now hitting its warm, figgy sandalwood stage. You could always identify her position in the room from the ribbons of expansive, voluptuous sandalwood that trailed after her like streaks of buttercup yellow.
I bought a travel bottle but was dismayed at the harsh detergent opening when I got it onto my own skin. And to this day, that opening is something I simply endure until the perfume finally hits its stride. But when Dambrosia finally turns into that winter-weight fig and oily, peanutty sandalwood that radiates ten meters in each direction, I invariably forgive it its ugly start. It is never less than edible at this point, never less than slightly artificial either, but I love its vulgar loudness. It suits the pushy but gritty glamour you see on Via del Corso, with its furred-up baby strollers, small dogs dressed in designer clothes, and flashy cars weaving around the gaggles of excited tourists and tired-looking Romans just trying to make it home.
Bianco Latte by Giardini di Toscana
Bianco Latte has whipped up one of those Internet-based hype storms that never last but still manage to pull an extraordinary number of people into its wake while it’s happening. So, of course, I was curious to smell it. Having smelled it, I can only ask why are some y’all so basic? Why train your taste up – and possibly stop there – on sugary vanilla bombs like this that are only 1.5 steps removed from Pink Sugar or a vanilla candle you can pick up at Aldi?
Adding to the meh-ness of it all is a sour lactonic note that smells like curdled milk to me but may possibly smell like caramel to others. It is also offensively sweet and devoid of nuance. I can never really distinguish between stuff like this, Pink Sugar, and Billy Eilish No. 1 – milky-sweet, monotone, full of simple sugar molecules, a bit burnt or artificial-smelling at times – but Bianco Latte comes with a price tag to match its hype, so I am even less willing to go easy on it.
None of us should be spending $150 for perfume that smells like it cost 50 cents to produce. Bianco Latte is built on synthetic vanilla and lactonic notes that you buy off the shelf in bulk from the fragrance and flavour factories, and not some super expensive vanilla extract squeezed from freshly picked vanilla pods on a Madagascan plantation. It’s built cheap and it smells cheap. If Bianco Latte were turned into an actual dessert, 10 out of 10 Italians would send it right back to the kitchen. Think about that for a second. Let’s have higher standards for what we spray on our skin.
Milano Caffe by Abdes Salaam Attar
I once lived half an hour outside Milan and spent many a happy afternoon wiling away the time in a café with a doppio or five. Drink enough espresso and there comes a point at which it acts upon your organism like a drug, speeding up your heart rate, and giving you an intense ‘high’. Nowadays, I edge towards that point via the pathetic wateriness of cafetière coffee. But Milano Caffe whips me right back to the intoxicating smell of the Milan coffee shop when I was still woman enough to take my coffee in concentrate.
Forget the rosy-cream-amber version of coffee presented in Café Rose (Tom Ford) or Intense Café (Montale). Milano Caffe is all about the dark, dusty bitterness of coffee beans, with the ferrous, animalic twang common to both coffee and chocolate. The smell is woody-barky rather than creamy, and rather austere.
In keeping with the authenticity of its coffee accord, Milano Caffe is shorn of extraneous detail. Those raised on the generosity of mugs of coffee might be a little dismayed at Milano Caffe’s lack of lushness or its refusal to tilt towards even a drop of cream or sugar. Rather, it packs an ocean of flavor into a tea-spoonful of liquid. The espresso expression itself is quite brief, but the mirage of coffee-ness is carried over and extended through the scent by linking the woodiness of espresso to the woodiness of the iris, opoponax, and cedar basenotes. Caffe Milano is an interesting scent, and not nearly as gourmand as it sounds. I find it elegant, dark, and a tiny bit fierce.
Ruby by Bruno Acampora
As if chocolate wasn’t sexy enough, Barry Callebaut decided to develop and patent a naturally pink-colored chocolate in 2014, and I was in Rome when it finally hit the market in 2018-2019. Suddenly pink chocolate (named ‘Ruby’) was everywhere, from flowy fountains of gloopy pink chocolate in Eataly to special edition Japanese KitKats. And in 2019, Bruno Acampora was the first fragrance brand was the first to translate pink chocolate’s unique flavor profile – tart-sweet berries, a yoghurty aftertaste – into perfume form.
God, how I wish they hadn’t. Ruby by Bruno Acampora smells fruity-sour, which would be somewhat bearable had they not tagged on a milk powder element that smells as foul as baby powder or, indeed, how Hershey’s Kisses taste to Europeans. That slightly vomitous aspect, a flavor profile that is nostalgic to American tastes, due to milk powder being subbed in for milk during World War II and never being subbed back out again, is deeply disturbing to me in a perfume. Ruby chocolate itself doesn’t taste that great, but the perfume is infinitely worse.
Madeleine by Masque Milano Fragranze
Madeline is an interesting take on the classic Mont Blanc dessert – a domed mound of pureed, sweetened chestnut paste topped with whipped cream. It pairs the intense sugariness of marrons glacés with the solar milkiness of tuberose, and then rounds it off with a very bready cumin to suggest the savory mealiness of the unsweetened chestnut flesh fresh out of its cooked shell. The cumin also creates a peanutty, floury, almost wheaten aspect that is really quite appealing – similar to the ‘crunchy granola’ raw foods store vibe of Bois Farine by L’Artisan Parfumeur.
The result is much airier and fresher than a Mont Blanc, and even though the white flowers and cumin lend the perfume a pinch of ripe, human-smelling sultriness, it is all somewhat hazy and milky, like a celestial bread pudding. I would place Madeline somewhere in an axis connecting Bois Farine with Amaranthine by Penhaligon’s, another fresh but sultry, slightly BO-ish floral gourmand, and even Castaña by Cloon Keen Atelier, which is not even a gourmand (it’s a dusty, earthy vetiver) but still manages to conjure up the smell of chestnuts roasting on those perforated metal drums in Rome. Given that I own those perfumes, I think that Madeline might be a redundancy in my collection. But it is lovely.
Sources of Samples: I either bought samples, bottles, or travel sizes of the perfumes featured in this article, or sampled them at niche and department stores in Rome. I do not do paid reviews and all opinions are my own.