DAYTONA BEACH — In Italy, food is as popular as art and the opera. And there's plenty of it.
The country boasts a cuisine that pleases even those who have never crossed the Atlantic to dine in a candlelit arbor of an old Tuscan villa, or to try the house specialty at a standup pizzeria in Naples, or to join a family party at a fluorescent-bright trattoria in Rome.
People love Italy's pasta, pizza and pastries.
''We have 20 different regions in Italy and more than that many different types of cuisines,'' said Sylvana Hoitt, co-owner of La Dolce Vita Bakery and Cafe on North Beach Street. ''Sometimes breads and pastries vary from city to town within the same region.''
Hoitt and her brother, Raymond Hoitt, opened their tiny shop last year as a bakery and sold five types of Italian bread as well as a variety of pastries and cakes. Earlier this month they expanded the front of the store into a cafe and added Italian-style sandwiches, salads and frittatas (Italian omelets that look like French quiches) to the menu.
''We want to share our rich Italian specialties with our customers, many of whom have never heard of them,'' she said.
Hoitt, who was born in Florence, a city in central Italy synonymous with art, fashion and Chianti wine, brings several Florentine baking traditions into her shop.
Cookie trays filled with cantuccini, almond cookies of Prato, empty quickly when coffee drinkers stop by for a cup of espresso or cappuccino.
''These hard cookies are a specialty of Prato, a city near Florence famous for its textiles and its cookies,'' Hoitt explained. ''Many Italians call them simply biscotti (biscuits) and like to dunk them in a glass of sweet amber wine called Vin Santo before nibbling them. But they're great dipped in coffee, too.
''Amaretti (almond paste cookies) are good with espresso and cappuccino, too.''
Hoitt fills her cake trays with other Italian delights that offer a miniature sweet tooth tour of her homeland: Cassata and cannoli from Sicily, torta della nonna (custard pie) from Tuscany, crostata di mandorle (almond tart) from Abruzzo, crostata di ricotta (Roman cheesecake) from Latium and traditional rum cakes popular throughout the country.
''Most people have tried cannoli, those crunchy pastry shells filled with a mixture of creamy ricotta, nuts and fruits. They're so popular in the south of Italy that it's impossible to have any celebration without them.''
''But few have enjoyed cassata, another Sicilian specialty, that is a simple cake decorated to taste,'' Hoitt said.
Desserts usually mean the end of a meal for Americans. Italians, on the other hand, don't wait that long to enjoy their pastries and cakes. They eat them for midmorning or midafternoon treats or to honor guests at times when a regular meal may not be wanted or possible.
''Desserts can signify good times and festivities, special days or rewards for deeds well done,'' Hoitt said. ''They're also good for banishing the blues.''
Hoitt admonishes people who pass up dessert and move straight to coffee.
''That's probably because they've indulged in one too many treats that are overly sweet, heavy and fussy. Italian sweets are none of those,'' she said.
La Dolce Cafe keeps an Italian flavor on its salad menu with antipasto plates and pasta salads. Sandwiches tour Italy from the Alps in the north to Rome, which is considered the beginning of the southern regions of the land.
''We make our own breads for these sandwiches, including the multigrain German-style bread from the north; a hard-crust Romano bread that comes not from Rome, but from the central part of the country near Bologna, and focaccia, a tasty flat herb bread popular in Tuscany.''
Hoitt has named her sandwiches after the towns and regions that inspired them: Tuscan, Alpine, Florentine and Roma. There's also the Americano and the Vegetarian.
The cafe and bakery are open from 10 a.m.to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Hoitt hopes to expand the cafe hours into the evening and add music.
La Dolce Vita Bakery and Cafe is at 116 N. Beach St., Daytona Beach.