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Tiers of Joy

Wedding cakes are the centerpieces of most receptions, drawing oohs and ahs from guests and a crowd of gawkers when the newlyweds cut the cake. No wonder brides and grooms aren't married to the plain white cakes of old, with their pillars between layers and those little plastic newlyweds on top.

Today they prefer cascades of real or sugar orchids, the smooth finish of fondant, even Swarovski crystals or metallic painted icing. And the cakes keep getting bigger and more elaborate, with price tags to match. The four-foot-high cake covered with thousands of edible flowers at the wedding of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones reportedly cost $1 million.

Daniella Palumbo hasn't reached the million-dollar mark, but she whips up some of the most lavish cakes in Naples at Sweet Tiers Specialty Cakes. Trained as a pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., she specializes in designing grand cakes for that most special of days.

"It's something I was drawn to from the start," Palumbo says. "I loved the wedding cake class. The work is so clean and precise."

For brides-to-be, the reception room of her confectionary is like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory is for kids. Sample cakes are draped with swags of frosting that resemble richly textured fabric and decorated with clusters of seashells molded from white chocolate. Sugar perfumes the air.

Just 26, Palumbo decided to specialize after working the line at the Ritz-Carlton in Lake Las Vegas.

"It wasn't my thing," she says of cranking out dinner desserts.

Palumbo returned to Naples, where she lived before heading off to cooking school. She did some work with the former owner of Sweet Tiers before she bought the 14-year-old business in the spring of 2005.

Now her days are filled with baking cakes from basic white to red velvet with Bavarian cream fillings in flavors such as hazelnut and Key lime and additions such as fresh berries and Frangelico.

Then there are the special requests for birthdays or bachelor parties: A cake shaped and painted like a Harley Davidson took an entire day to make. For someone with an off-kilter sense of humor, there's the Mad Hatter cake-topsy-turvy tiers of brightly colored and whimsically decorated fondant-covered cake.

Many customers come in with creative ideas of their own. Think scallop shells and starfish molded in white chocolate or sugar.

"When I first saw the seashells, I didn't like them," she says. "Now I love them. It's so perfect here."

The latest look is metallic. Palumbo recently worked on a cake with a gold, midnight-blue and avocado-green palette for an east coast wedding. The bill was in the low four digits.

Being immersed in the world of weddings might be taking some of the romance out of the nuptial ritual for Palumbo. If she marries, she confesses, she's decided she doesn't want a wedding ceremony-or a cake.

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