In Italy, I have come to believe that you don't need much reason in order to celebrate life! It seems like at least a few times a month, there's a reason to get together, order cake, celebrate! There are also a lot of "Saint" holidays in Italy! St. Francis, St. Antonio, St. Giuseppe and of course, St. Giovanni, or St. John. Celebrated just two weeks after St. Francis, (see previous post), St. Giovanni Battista celebrates St. John the Baptist and while growing up in Italy, my family was no different in celebrating, particularly because my dad's name was Giovanni.
In Christianity, it is believed that Jesus was a follower of John and that John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. As stated, Italy has many such religious holidays celebrating saints and depending on the location and region, it can be a full celebration with parades, fireworks and processions or it may be more subdued, or as subdued as Italians can do anything!
By far, the biggest cities that celebrate the feast day of St. John include Florence, Genoa and Turin, as St. John is their patron saint. If you’re not familiar with what a patron saint is, they are basically considered to be cities protectors and intercede on the cities’ wellbeing on behalf of God. Just about every small town in Italy has a patron saint, which is celebrated at various times during the year. It’s a comfort for many residents to feel that their own city or town is under divine protection. Many businesses are closed on this day, as well as most public offices. A Mass, fireworks, parades, processions and other traditional festivities take place in these cities and families gather to celebrate their saint. Fireworks are displayed over the Arno River in Florence, so if you find yourself there during this time of year, you will be in for a treat.
In Italy, the relationship between Godfather and Godchild is very strong. What does this have to do with St. Giovanni, you ask? Well, when someone baptizes a baby, they always refer to that relationship as having “Il San Gianni” with them, meaning that like the relationship between St. John and Jesus, they now have an unbreakable bond. Many Godfathers and Godchildren celebrate this day with small tokens of gifts or simply treating each other to an espresso or gelato.
All of the “Giovanni,” “Giovanna” and names deriving from these, celebrate their onomastico on this day. An onomastico is a celebration of one’s “name day.” Quite popular in Italy, it is similar in celebration to one’s birthday, particularly for names such as Giovanni, Antonio, Giuseppe and Francesco/a. I recall growing up celebrating my dad’s onomastico on June 24th and it would always include a cake with a small family gathering.
So if you know a Giovanni/a, wish them “auguri di felice onomastico” – or happy name day! They might wonder what that means, so you will be able to tell them that you’re celebrating their name day, as is tradition in Italy!
Growing up in an Italian household, I heard the phrase “St. Anthony will help you find it!” so many times that they were ingrained in me pretty much from birth! It didn’t matter what the “it” was, whether it was an object of little monetary value or an item more sentimental, my mother always had utmost trust and belief that if we prayed to the Patron Saint of Lost Things, we’d find whatever us kids had misplaced. More often than not, she was right. And I’d be lying if I said I still don't call on him when I misplace my everyday items. If not for St. Anthony, I might never find my car keys!
My mom has always had a close relationship with St. Anthony, also the Patron Saint of Padova (Padua in English), Italy and she has passed that on. We were excited when a few years ago, we were able to visit his own preferred location in Italy.
A few years ago, on a return trip to our native Calabria, my mother, sister and I decided to take a train ride to Padova to visit the shrine that is devoted to St. Anthony. Calabria is as far south as you can get in Italy, with the exception of Sicily. The Veneto area, the region in which Padova is located, is pretty much at the opposite end of Italy. It was August and it was hot. Very, very hot! And why we decided to take the train as oppose to a simple flight it still beyond us! But the adventures train ride did add to the experience.
The very long, hot, uncomfortable train ride was all but forgotten once we reached the beautiful, but not very “touristy” city of Padua. There’s a sense of classiness to this city that is somewhat unique. The people are beautifully dressed, the dogs are on leashes, which is not always the case in Southern Italy, and the drivers actually appear respectful of traffic lights, which, again, is not always the case in Southern Italy! Our first stop, and reason for the trip, was a visit to the Chapel of St. Anthony, an immense, brick building, overwhelmingly stunning.
The inside is massive and adorned with art, religious statues and relics of St. Anthony. A sense of calm immediately overtakes you upon entering. I knew being here meant a lot to my mother, particularly since we had lost our father not long prior and needed a restoration in faith. This was a “bucket list” trip for her, so my sister and I were delighted to see how content she was at being there. Folks from all walks of life are drawn to this church by their strong devotion to the Saint, and she was no different.
Whether one is religious or not is almost inconsequential once one takes a view of both the outside and inside of this beautiful chapel. Museum like in nature, the outside was initially built as a small, single construction, but extensive additions and renovations over the centuries reflect Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Byzantine influences. Architecture aficionados and novices alike will appreciate the beauty of the outside. Upon entering, you’ll notice that it’s much like entering a museum. Beautiful frescoes, statues and figurines adorn the inside. Most impressive is the statue of the Madonna and Child, sculpted by Donatello.
Despite being the patron Saint of the city of Padua, St. Anthony was actually from Portugal. Born in 1195, his birth name was Ferdinand and he was born to a well-off family who had high aspirations for him, none of which included a religious calling. Despite his good fortune, he ended up leaving his home at 15 to follow his religious ambitions. At the age of 25, he was ordained a priest, and soon after became a Franciscan friar, changing his name to Anthony.
His goal was to go to Morocco and preach the gospel, but after arriving there, he became severely ill, so decided to return to Portugal. His boat suffered great damage and went off course, and he eventually found himself in Sicily instead. From there, he made his way north to Assisi, and eventually to the city of Forli. One day he was asked to attend an important sermon, but when the friar scheduled to preach did not show up, he was asked to step in his place. This is when his life as a preacher took off, and he traveled all over Italy and beyond to preach. Padua was one of his favorite places to hold his sermons.
When he recognized that he was becoming deathly ill, he asked to be taken to Padova to die, but unfortunately died en route to his beloved city. He died on June 13th, 1231, when he was 36 years old. For his innumerable good deeds and several possible miracles, including a witnessed apparition of the Child Jesus being held in his arms, Anthony was canonized a Saint in 1232.
This trip, dare I say, pilgrimage, was very moving for us all. It’s hard not to be touched when surrounded by such artistic beauty, as well as all the handwritten notes on the walls left behind by pilgrims who wholeheartedly believe their prayers were answered by the Saint. It restored not only my religious faith, but also my faith in humankind. To see this devotion is unlike any other experience one might have in Italy.
I have beautiful memories of how we celebrated June 13th, the feast day of St. Anthony, when we lived in Italy. On this day, bread shops bake many extra bread rolls for the purpose of celebrating the Saint. Rolls are bought and given away to friends, families and neighbors as an offering of thanksgiving for prayers answered by St. Anthony.
So if St. Anthony has come through for your before, being by finding your car keys or other more meaningful miracles, consider doing a good deed on June 13th, perhaps buy someone less fortunate lunch and consider it a thank you to St. Anthony.
Is it June, or is it November? If you live in the Boston area, it’s hard to tell these days. Rain, dreary, cold and downright depressing! We haven’t had much of a spring and I’m afraid we’re going to jump right into summer soon. What ever happened to a nice spring? The only thing keeping me going these days is my upcoming trip to Italy! The thought of summers in Italy has kept me going ever since we moved here from the Bel Paese. Summers in Italy is what made the school year bearable growing up! Especially when we first moved here, and we were still learning English. My dad and I would count down the months, then the weeks, until eventually we were counting in days and hours! The excitement was almost too much to take!
I must say, not much has changed, and I still count down the days to my return trips to Italy! And, if you’re like me and are planning a trip to Italy this summer, chances are, you’re going to be bringing some souvenirs for yourself and close friends. But rather than the standard magnet that says “I "heart" Italy” that is likely made in China, how about a thoughtful gift instead? Yes, you will be spending more, but it will go a lot further in appreciation and will surely make the recipient feel so special! Think quality over quantity!
Much like everything in Italy, souvenirs can be regionally divided. Depending on your destination, I have created here a short list of ideal gifts based on the region you will be visiting. Perhaps it’s the foodie in me, but I must say, food is always an appreciated gift. But don’t limit yourself to food alone; use this guide as a quick reference of must bring back gifts. But if you are planning to bring back food, be sure to check with your airline and the State Department before packing anything, just to make sure you are not bringing back any contraband food items! Nothing hurts more than having your luggage cracked opened at customs and seeing the agents trash your goodies, trust me I know how much it hurts from experience!!
If you’re headed to Venice this summer, brace yourself for the heat and crowds! But besides that, be sure to pick up a small handmade Murano glass statuette or figurine. Murano is a small island off of Venice that produces the real thing. When buying your gift, be sure it has the Artistic Murano Glass trademark to make sure you are getting an authentic item and not a cheap replica aimed at eager tourists!
Perhaps you’re headed to Lake Como this summer. I know, I know, I want to get a glimpse of George too, but in case he’s too busy with his new twins, I can at least shop for some high-quality silk. Seventy percent of Europe’s silk is made in Como, so you know you’re going to find a beautiful scarf for that fashionista friend of yours.
Headed to one of my favorite regions, Emilia Romagna? Here is where you will want to stock up on the foodie gifts for your special friends. Whether it’s a small piece of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese from Parma or small bottle of Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, a few eatable gifts are a must from this region. They even sell dry tortellini that are incredibly delicious! And yes, you can find these same exact items throughout Italy, but there’s noting like handing a loved one a small bottle of real Balsamic Vinegar of Modena that you bought, well, in Modena!
Headed to Tuscany? While you will find great leather throughout Tuscany, Florence is the place to find high-quality leather shops selling locally made leather goods. Check the label for “Made in Italy” and “Italian Quality” to make sure you are getting an authentic item. Keep in mind that the real thing will have some minimal imperfections and even slight discolorations in any given item, be it a large bag or set of gloves. So don’t look for perfection, as that’s a sign of a chemically-treated item. My favorite leather gift? A journal! I can never have enough of these!
And the vino! How can you go to Tuscany and not bring a loved one a bottle of Chianti, Brunello or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Tuscany also produces the sweet wine, Vin Santo, which ironically, goes very well with their Cantucci di Prato. Cantucci are miniature dry biscuits resembling biscotti, but smaller in size. Tuscans love dipping these in Vin Santo and enjoying them as an after dinner treat. A bottle of Tuscan wine and a bag of Cantucci are sure to go a long way as souvenirs. I know I’d love receiving them!
Or perhaps you are going to Italy’s capital, Rome? Whatever you do, step away from the wobbly-headed gladiator. I know, it’s tempting, in his skirt and all, but don’t do it! Opt instead for an artistically made ceramic coffee mug or small piece of marble engraved with a beautiful saying. Both of these are regionally made and typical of Rome. And if all else fails, buy a small wedge of Pecorino Romano cheese, Rome’s preferred cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Going to Calabria? Did you know that Calabria produces almost a third of the country’s olive oil? How about bringing back a small bottle of oil for those “special occasion” dinner parties? Other food specialties of Calabria include tuna packed in oil, olives, and Guglielmo espresso coffee. And I also love the ceramics in Calabria. I visit a small town by the name of Squillace. Here you will find many pottery shops that love welcoming visitors and will even give you a demonstration of how they create their masterpieces. Now, if you’re going to buy a magnet, this is the place to do it! They make beautiful ones here, relatively inexpensive and light in weight, so easy to pack!
Or perhaps you’re going to the Amalfi Coast? If so, a bottle of Limoncello is a must. Made with lemon peel and alcohol, this after dinner digestive is a must and usually enjoyed after a hefty dinner as it aids with digestion. The Amalfi Coast is also where you will find beautiful handmade pottery, frequently decorated with those beautiful lemon images. A small handmade item such as a sugar bowl or tray will make a great addition to any kitchen.
What should you bring back if you are headed to Sicily? Sicilian wine and cheese would surely make a great gift, I mean, how can you go wrong with that? But are you thinking about something more authentic? How about a piece of Etna? Yes, you read that right. The still active volcano sits between Catania and Messina and is a tourist destination of many folks visiting Sicily. Along the way, you will find souvenir and specialty shops selling trinkets made from lava stones. Whether it’s jewelry, decorative pieces or more practical items such as mugs, there’s no shortage of unique items to bring back, even cosmetics made from the lava!
So don’t get caught buying a cheesy, overpriced gift at the airport. Nothing says “I was having too much fun to think about you while on vacation” than a calendar purchased at the duty-free shop! With just a little bit of forethought and a few extra Euros, you can really make someone’s day with a well-thought-out gift from one of the world’s most beautiful country! And when in doubt, head over to one of the many craft markets held throughout Italy. Here you will find handmade items that are locally made and very unique. Purchasing from these vendors will not only ensure that the gift will be well-received, but you are also supporting a small business owner that counts on your purchases for their livelihood!
But if all else fails, forget shopping, forget souvenirs, and head to the beach instead! I'm sure your friends will understand! ;-)
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Oh Calabria! To know you is to love you! But the problem with that is that not too many people know you! Although perhaps that’s not a problem at all, it just means you remain unspoiled, un-touristy and pristine. At least for now anyways, although I expect that will not be the case for much longer. As a big promoter of tourism to Calabria, I expect to be doing my part in exposing as many people as I can to this wonderful region.
When I tell people that I am a native of Italy, the certain reaction is one of genuine interest and the reply is more often than not that they have always wanted to go there or that they have been there and they find it beautiful. When I give more details and say that I am from Calabria, I usually get nothing in reply; crickets. They don’t know where it is and they’ve certainly never been there. But you should know that there’s more to Italy than the Tuscan Sun or Rome, beautiful though they may be, and I love speaking about Calabria and all its beauty to anyone who wants to listen.
If you were looking at a map of Italy, Calabria is the toe of the boot-shaped country. Picture it giving Sicily a kick. The air is pure; the purest in the country in fact, the food is spicy, the beaches are breathtakingly beautiful, the mountains are equally as stunning, and the people are characters to say the least. The winters are relatively warm, as compared to the North, and snow is rare, unless you are in fact in the mountains. The summers are scorching hot. But all is well though since the beaches are plentiful to cool you off.
Calabria is a must visit region for anyone that likes to sunbathe and people watch by seaside or swim in the salty ocean. While Calabria is relatively unknown to the rest of the world, other Italians flock by the thousands during the summer months. Surrounded by the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas, Calabria’s beaches are some of the cleanest in the country. My family, and many others in Calabria refer to their region as “Calabrifornia” – a reference to the beautiful waters and climate resembling that of California. Some of the most beautiful beaches can be found in the cities of Tropea, Pizzo, Copanello and Soverato. A rental umbrella is a must and the best investment you might make for the season. I prefer the beach during the early morning hours, before the crowds flock down like they’ve never tasted seawater before. The sun is light on the skin, the water is already warm, and you can get a whiff of the morning espresso, cappuccino and famous cornetti alla crema (cream-filled croissant-like brioche) baking just steps away at the café on the beach. See image below. Yum!
The gastronomy in Calabria is as lively and vibrant as its seas. Because of its vicinity to the ocean, seafood is quite popular in Calabria, particularly sardines, swordfish and salted cod, known in Italy as baccala. Produce grows easily under the southern sun and tomatoes, zucchini and their blossoms, eggplants and sweet red onions, particularly from the town of Tropea, are plentiful. Sheep and cows roam freely in the lush green landscapes and as such, soft cheeses, such as ricotta is plentiful and incredibly delicious. Rare is a day when Calabrians don’t eat pasta, which in the south is mostly made with just flour and water and it is not egg-based, as in Northern Italy. Meat served usually includes pork and lamb. And then there’s ‘Nduja. Have you ever heard of spreadable pork? Well, as strange as it sounds, ‘Nduja is just that; spicy hot and not for the faint of heart. At first sight it just looks like a salami stick, but the inside is much softer and is spreadable and a perfect accompaniment to sharp cheeses, a tomato salad made with sweet red onions and a slice or two of crusty homemade bread. Washing it all down with a glass or two of homemade wine doesn’t hurt.
I have spoken to many people this past year who, after hearing about it from a native, want to travel there. I tell them how wonderful and unspoiled it really is. While the main cities in Italy, especially the “Holy Trinity” of the main sites of Florence, Rome and Venice remain on everyone’s must see list, and if you have not been there, I highly encourage that you visit, Calabria and the entire South are by far the most authentic Italian locations to visit. Tourism is low, allowing for ease of getting around, and the locals are very hospitable to visitors. And while in the main cities, you will have to carefully select your restaurants as to avoid the ones that cater to tourists (thus, the food is not as good because, frankly, they think your palates aren’t as refined!), in the South, you will never find a touristy restaurant, and you’re pretty much guaranteed a delicious meal, even if you stop by the side of the road.
I’m getting ready to head back to Calabria very shortly. And though I usually head back for vacation and to bake under the sun, this year, I’m combining business with pleasure. I will be organizing a culinary tour of Calabria in September 2018, so on my upcoming trip, I will be scouting new locations, interviewing possible vendors to work with and hitting wineries and cheese shops for possible stops on our tour. The tour promises to be as authentic as Italian travels can possibly be. The food will be delicious and the olive oil and wine likely to be the best you have ever had. But don’t forget your swimsuit, chances are, we’ll be hitting the beach at least once during our trip.
If you are interested in this trip, be sure to contact us ASAP, this one is sure to sell out! Use the contact us link to be added to the waitlist for September 2018.
It was, yet again, another dreary day in Boston today. Though we’re winding down on April, it doesn’t much feel like it around here. I debated staying home to finish a presentation I am giving on Friday, but decided that Friday is still a ways away and that I would have plenty of time to finish. And so, rain and chilly air and all, off I went to a few of my favorite stores around my area. To the mall, you ask? Nope, not at all, I headed to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wilsons Farm in Lexington, MA. I wasn’t really in the need for anything. In fact, I had just done my big grocery shopping for the week. I go to these stores not for “needs” really, but because they are a great way of spending an afternoon, especially a boring one, picking up a few items that the main grocery stores do not carry.
One of those items are frozen artichoke hearts from Trader Joe’s. There aren’t enough words to describe just how much I love this item. They are absolutely amazing! I’ve been buying them for years and last year, they stopped carrying them! Imagine my disappointment, anger even, when this happened! I add them to soups, I coat them in egg, parmiggiano cheese and breadcrumbs and bake them, I stir-fry them with sausages and I make them in frittata. Lucky for me, about six months ago, they reappeared in the freezer isle! I wonder if my calls and emails had anything to do with that! ;-)
I bought six bags today and went home eager to cook one bag. I was debating just how to prepare them today. Perhaps it was the boring weather but I was feeling a little inventive and decided to cook them in diced tomatoes. Truth be told, I’ve never cooked them this way but have been wanting to for a bit. I wasn’t sure what pasta to use then remembered that I had a special kind that I had been saving for a special recipe. The strozzapreti I used are imported from Calabria, my native region and they are a bit hard to find in the store. In fact, these come from the online shop Pasta & Vino. “Strozzapreti” means to choke priests! They somewhat resemble cavatelli pasta. Where does the name come from, you ask? There are several stories but one is that gluttonous priests devoured this pasta so quickly, due to its deliciousness that they, well, chocked! I’m not sure how true that is but they were very good! Unlike typical dry pasta, they very much taste like freshly made pasta. Their flavor is a lot more delicate and tantalizing than your everyday dry pasta.
I made the sauce using diced tomatoes and one small can of ground tomatoes. I also used imported olive oil, from Calabria, of course! The sauce takes about 25 minutes to cook and the strozzapreti take just two extra minutes than regular pasta, so about 12 minutes, so halfway through the sauce cooking, you can add the pasta to the boiling water. You can purchase the strazzapreti, oil and other delicious products here. Pasta & Vino is a great resource for authentic Italian ingredients that are hard or impossible to find in the grocery stores. Many of their items are imported from Calabria, so that excites me even more!
Strozzapreti with Artichokes and Tomatoes
3 Tablespoons Migliaresi Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Small Onion, Chopped
2 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
3 Sprigs of Parsley, Finely Chopped
1 Teaspoon salt
1 14.5 oz Can Diced Tomatoes
1 8 oz Can Crushed Tomato Sauce
1 12 oz Bag Frozen Artichoke Hearts
½ pound Astorino Strozzapreti pasta
If Rome has the carbonara, and Bologna has the fettuccine in Bolognase sauce, than Puglia’s dish to fame is Orecchietti with Sausages and Broccoli Rabe! Puglia is a region in Southern Italy and being a Southerner myself, its cuisine is certainly something I enjoy eating and preparing. I recall growing up in Calabria and being surrounded by wonderful produce. My father was a produce merchant, so we certainly never lacked for great produce around the house. Summertime favorites growing up were zucchini and their delicate blossoms, eggplants and of course, tomatoes! If you have never had a freshly plucked tomato in August in Calabria, well, I will go so far as to say that you’ve never had a really delicious tomato! They are just amazing simply sliced with salt and olive oil. A fresh mozzarella next to them always helps too! ;-)
One vegetable that is versatile and found year-round is broccoli and also broccoli rabe, or rapini. I really enjoy both and one of my favorite ways of preparing the rabe is in this typical Pugliese dish. The Pugliese are known for their orecchiette shaped pasta. Orecchiette means little ears, although I think they look like small caps more than little ears! It’s very typical to walk in the streets of Bari and find local women making these fresh and selling them right on the streets. If you happen to find yourself there, I highly recommend buying a kilo or two, you will not be disappointed.
This is my version of how to make this classic dish. Everyone has his or her own way but I have found I rather like my version, if I do say so myself! Many do not use the onion that I add, but I really like it and find that it adds lots of flavor, so I use it. Add garlic too, if you wish, although I do not in this dish. This dish serves about 4 people.
Orecchietti with Sausages & Broccoli Rabe
2 bunches broccoli rabe, trimmed, and washed
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons of olive oil
2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
1 small onion, chopped
1 – 2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
4 pre-cooked sausages of your choice (pork, chicken, hot, sweet)
1/2 pound orecchietti pasta
Is it really the end of March and we have yet to celebrate Easter? It’s incredibly late this year, and, as I love Easter, perhaps more so than Christmas, I am really itching for it to get here! Facebook recently reminded me that last year, I made this delicious Easter bread. It made me yearn for the holiday even more. Easter resembles all that is good in the world, doesn’t it? Spring weather, renewal, and new hope. The birds chirping, tulips blooming and we’re all filled with a new sense of optimism and assurance.
I grew up eating this bread (or cuzzupa in Calabrian dialect) every Easter. It would actually start a week or two before the holiday and my mother would either make it or buy it at the local pasticcerie. Sometimes she would make it glazed, sometimes just with a sprinkle of sugar on top, either way, my sister and I would devour it for breakfast and afternoon merenda, or after school snack. As if this yummy bread wasn’t enough by itself, my sister and I would spread Nutella on top. Yup, talk about making a good thing great! I am very ashamed to admit it, that practice has not stopped in my adulthood. Yes, I still smear it with Nutella! Although I no longer eat it for weeks leading up to Easter, but rather just for a few days around the holiday. And if time permits, I have been known to make it for Palm Sunday too. #golosa
This bread is not overly sweet, if you don’t add the icing and the Nutella, that is! It tastes a bit like brioche and challah bread. It goes great by itself, or simply toasted with some butter and / or jam. Topped with cinnamon sugar is also a great combo. Last year, I made it twice, for Palm Sunday then again for Easter. You’ll see the two results below. I am torn about whether I like the colors on the eggs. I think this year, I will skip coloring them and use just white. No matter how I try, the color always bleeds into the bread, which makes it look so artificial and a bit messy. Or perhaps I’ll make two, one with colored eggs and one with white, so I can best decide which I prefer. It’s a dirty job, research really, but someone has go to do it!
Tip: You do not need to boil the eggs first, they will bake in the oven, just be careful not to crack them. Also, the eggs are mostly for decoration only. You can eat them the same day you bake the bread, but once you leave the bread out a few hours, the eggs do spoil. So either leave the eggs on the bread and trash them as you eat the bread, or remove them and put them in the fridge. Since the eggs are really what ads to the appeal of the bead, I just leave them there and trash the eggs when the bread is finished.
Cuzzupa Calabrese (aka: Italian Easter Bread)
2 ¼ teaspoons rapid rise yeast
1 ¼ cups scalded milk, cooled
pinch of salt
5 1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
3 ½ cups flour (the flour is approximate, you may need to go up to 4 to 4 1/2 cups)
1 egg, slightly beaten
3 uncooked dyed or undyed eggs
Icing – Optional
1 to 1 ½ cups of confectionary sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 – 4 tablespoons of milk
We’re in the middle of March and for Italians, March means a few things. For one thing, we’re in Lent, so chances are, Catholics have Easter on their minds. But before that, we’re looking forward to celebrating the Feast of St. Joseph, or La Festa San Giuseppe, in Italian. Celebrated on March 19th, the feast honors Joseph, husband to the Virgin Mary and earthly father to Jesus. It is also the day in which Italy celebrates Father’s Day. And if your name is Joseph or Josephine, you will also be celebrating your “onomastico.” An onomastico is the celebration of your “name” day. St. Joseph, St. Francis, St. Anthony, St. Anne, St. Catherine and so forth, are all celebrated name days in Italy. And while not celebrated with the same grandiose celebration of a birthday, an onomastico is an occasion for Italians to celebrate with family, friends and of course, a cake or pastries.
While St. Joseph and Father’s Day are celebrated all over Italy, the celebration of St. Joseph is more prominent in Southern Italy, particularly Sicily. Considered by Sicilians as the Patron Saint of their region, St. Joseph is credited to have saved Sicily’s residents during one of their many devastating droughts. Tradition has it that residents prayed to St. Joseph for rain. The rain came, and as such, their spring crops were spared from being destroyed, preventing a widespread famine for Sicily. It is believed that this is the reason the celebration is held in March.
A traditional “alter” or “St. Joseph’s Table” is also popular in Italy. Placed in private homes, churches, social clubs and even cafes, creating a table for St. Joseph is commonplace. Many Italians brought that tradition with them to the States and while it is less common these days, it is something older Sicilians still take great pride in. The table is filled with gifts, both of food and sentimental ones, offered to the saint in thanksgiving for prayers answered. Generally, a statue of St. Joseph is placed at the head of the table and is surrounded by gifts of various foods, citrus fruits and of course, breads. On the feast day, an open house is held, inviting friends and family to join in the celebration of eating the gifts left on the table. Fava beans, one of the spared crops, represent good luck and abundance, so be sure to add them to your table for March 19th.
As with anything in Italy, the menu for a St. Joseph celebration is rooted in tradition. Because the holiday falls during lent, meat is generally not eaten on the holiday of St. Joseph. Foods containing breadcrumbs, or the “poor man’s parmigiano” are enjoyed. Joseph, as you might know, was a carpenter, so breadcrumbs are supposedly eaten to resemble the sawdust left behind after a day’s work in the carpenter’s shop. Lemons, like fava beans, are said to bring good luck, particularly to the single ladies looking for a husband.
While relatively unknown to the non-Italian U.S. population, one city that widely celebrates this feast day is New Orleans. Louisiana used to be a popular arrival port for Sicilians and at one point, the now French Quarters were known as “Little Palermo.” Celebrations occur, even to this day, with traditional foods and festivities.
While fava beans, lemons, breads and seafood are frequently eaten on the feast day of San Giuseppe, and are certainly delicious; my all time favorite food to enjoy is the Zeppole di San Giuseppe. Found in any respectable Italian bakery, both in the States and in Italy, a zeppola is a pastry, almost resembling a cream puff, but fried, and tastier, if you ask me. After fried, the zeppola is cut in the middle and filled with various flavored creams or sweetened ricotta. It’s frequently topped with amarena, a sour cherry preserve, and dusted with confectionary sugar. Delicious by itself or enjoyed with a cup of espresso, if you do nothing else this upcoming holiday, be sure to enjoy a zeppola in honor of San Giuseppe and say a little prayer of thanksgiving for the gifts you have been granted.
A fun fact about San Giuseppe: Did you know that he’s the patron saint of realtors or anyone trying to sell a home? As with any tradition, its origin is very unclear. But if you’re trying to sell a home, be sure to buy a small statue of St. Joseph, and bury it upside down in your yard, preferably near flowers. As he is also the patron saint of “home life,” it is believed that he will quickly help anyone trying to sell a home if placed in a somewhat uncomfortable (upside down) position. His eagerness to be removed from there, will speed up the sale of your home!! After the sell of your home, be sure to dig the statue up and display it in your new place as a way to honor him and in thanksgiving for his assistance in the speedy sale of your house.
As you can see, there are a lot of traditions, superstitions and customs to Italian religious holidays. If nothing else, be sure to pick up a zeppola this week-end and celebrate the day in a very sweet way.
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You’ve certainly seen images of it, and perhaps have been intrigued by it all. The masks, the loud music, the rowdy behavior, the overindulgence, but what exactly is Carnival? There’s more to it than the masks, right? And why even wear a mask? Well, I’m so glad you asked! Well, perhaps you didn’t, but here you are still reading about it so perhaps you have some curiosity about Carnival.
This year, on Wednesday March 1st, Catholics will celebrate Ash Wednesday. Though the date changes every year, Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, the 40 days (minus the Sundays) before Easter. As Catholic tradition has it, Lent should be a period of sacrifice, consisting of abstinence, self-denial and fasting. Well, if one is aware in advance that the next 40 plus days are going to be sacrificial, what better way to prepare for them than going out with a bang? And that’s precisely what Carnival is: a Pre-Lent period of celebration, festivities, gluttony and over-indulgence.
Celebrated with parties, music, dancing, parades, alcohol and excess foods, most of which are less than healthy and theoretically not eaten during lent, Carnival can last anywhere from a week to several weeks. Revelers, young, old and anywhere in between, take to the streets in celebration of what is sure to be a grand old time. The term Carnival is believed to come from the Latin terms “carne” and “vale” – or the removal of flesh. One could safely assume that implies the removal of meat from your diet, as well as pleasures of the flesh. Carnival was also a good a way to remove all those foods that were to be off limits during lent, from the home. Meats, fried foods, sweets and other gluttonous ingredients were off limits, so the best way to quickly dispose of them would be to throw a party! Out of sight, out of mind, so no temptation during Lent.
In one way or another, Carnival is celebrated in many parts of the world. New Orleans has Mardi Gras and Rio de Janeiro has perhaps one of the wildest Carnival parties around. But of course, being Italian, my own personal favorite is celebrated in Venice. I will admit, I have never been to Venice during Carnival season. I’ve been there during the summer, and have added returning during Carnival to my “life list.” (Yes, I call it “life list” – bucket list is just so dreadful and morbid!) After all, some 3 million people visit Venice during Carnival, what’s one more, right?
Venice has been celebrating Carnival “on again, off again” since 1162. Having just won their victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia, Venetians took to the streets for celebration. Masks were always important to Venetians, and they were permitted to wear them from the day after Christmas until the day before Ash Wednesday. Also worn during other times of the year, it wouldn’t be unheard of for Venetians to wear masks for upwards of six months of the year! Masks permitted the generally reserved and “high society” Venetians to partake in risky business, such as gambling, or mingling with the higher class. Masks took one out of character and allowed one to become someone else, if only while wearing the mask. Transgressions were not unheard of while wearing the mask.
There certainly isn’t a lack of entertainment in Venice during this time of year, and this can last anywhere from 12 to 14 days, leading to Ash Wednesday. St. Mark’s Square becomes a festive and joyous piazza filled with locals and tourists alike wearing masks and costumes. Food stalls are common selling local items such as the famous peach Bellinis to frittelle, or fried dough. Seeing as we’re not going to be enjoying any of these during Lent, now’s the time! (If you’re looking for a great recipe eaten during Carnival, be sure to check this recipe for Chiacchiere out!!) Many events are family-friendly and free, while some require tickets and an admission fee. Many parades include children dressed as cartoon characters. Music festivals fill the streets and “invite only” masquerade balls are also very common.
If you’re like me and plan on adding Carnival in Venice to your “life list,” be sure to plan ahead. Hotels book early as this is their peak season, and some events require tickets that sell early and fast. Many balls can be very expensive but numerous hotels host their own masquerade balls, so this may be a great option. Fancy dress-up gowns can be rented, though I advise buying a mask and keeping it as a souvenir. They are wonderful ornamental items that can be carefully displayed on your wall. They make for a great addition to any home office.
But remember; don’t get too risqué while wearing your mask. You may be wearing a mask today, but don’t do anything you wouldn’t be able to look yourself in the mirror for tomorrow!
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“I can’t be left alone in the room with them,” I told my sister with a very serious tone. And I wasn’t kidding. As a frequent home baker, over the years, I have pretty much learned self-control. As much as I love baking and having something sweet to go with my after dinner espresso, I am definitely a sharer as well. I frequently bake and immediately give away much of my efforts to neighbors, friends or even the mailman! And if I don’t give away the fruits of my labor, I will enjoy them with family over several days. Rarely over doing it, for the sake of health or overindulgence. I find that giving goodies away permits me to bake more often, which also gives me the ability to try different recipes on a more frequent basis.
All that said, the rules change completely when it comes to chiacchiere. I don’t show any self-control, nor do I share! These crispy pieces of sweet dough are fried and immediately dusted with confectionary sugar. They are very, very addictive! Much like potato chips, it is impossible to eat just one! And like I told my sister, I can’t be left alone in the room with them! And I am not even kidding! Over indulgence is almost a sure bet with these. They are most often eaten during carnival season in Italy. The period before lent in which overeating, in preparation of the more restrictive period of lent, is almost a given.
The word “chiacchiere” loosely translates to “small talk” or “chatter” in English. More than that, it means a few laughs. In Italy, you’ll often hear people say something like “C’i incontriamo per due chiacchiere?” Or “Shall we meet for a few laughs?”
There are various variations of these, much like most Italian dishes. Many add white wine, some add grappa and many add citrus zest. These here are vanilla and when sweeten with the confectionary sugar, they are just perfect! If you have anise liquor or white wine, you can add a few tablespoons here, in place of the milk. You can also add citrus zest, but if you do, I suggest leaving out the vanilla or the anise liquor as those flavors to not blend well with the zest of lemon or orange.
Truth be told, these are not very lazy. In fact, if you have an extra set of hands, it will make the process of rolling the dough in the pasta machine that much easier. They are a great Sunday afternoon activity. If you do not have a helper in the kitchen, you can still make them just as easily; just give yourself at least an hour’s time from start to finish. And be prepared to munch on these all day long. They go well with coffee, tea, wine, anisette liquor or all by themselves!
This recipe makes about 70 pieces.
4 cups of flour
½ cup sugar
3 large eggs, slightly beaten
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 – 5 tablespoons of milk
4 – 5 cups of vegetable oil for frying
Confectionary sugar for topping
Specials tools required: pasta machine
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