I grew up in a small town in Southern Italy called Palermiti, in the province of Catanzaro, in the region of Calabria. If you were to look at a map, chances are, you would never find it. The permanent population of Palermiti is probably around 1,200 residents. Many residents, my family and myself included, have migrated to other regions of the world for better opportunities and only a few permanently still live there at this time. Although the permanent residents are few, it’s during the month of August that the population doubles, perhaps even triples in size. No matter the distance, be it Milan, Rome, Switzerland or the U.S., and whether you have to get there by planes, trains or automobiles, we are all called to return in August to reunite with family and friends, to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the South and to relish in the fiery cuisine. But one other main reason, perhaps the main reason, we all flock back to Palermiti in August is to once again bare witness to the majestic feast of La Madonna Della Luce.
Whenever any ex-pat travels back to Palermiti, the first question you will get from the locals is “You’re staying for the feast, right?” To visit Palermiti in the summer and not stay for the feast is most frowned upon by the locals. A sin, to say the least, and a sure sign of disrespect! Celebrated the last Sunday in August, the feast of La Madonna Della Luce, or Madonna of the Light, is undoubtedly the town’s favorite and most famous day of the year. The feast’s duration is actually three days long and it includes a street fair, a band, a pop musical concert, fireworks and of course a Mass and procession on Sunday. The Madonna is the town’s confidant, a most trusted source for all that ails us, be it troubles of body, mind or spirit.
Stories and tales reign supreme in small-town Italy and how the Madonna of the Light came to Palermiti is an exceptional story indeed. The year was 1720, and the day like any other, until it wasn’t. Field workers had just ended their day in the fields and were headed back home. They walked past an abandoned worksite named Murorotto (broken wall) when among the rubbles of discarded construction equipment, they suddenly noted an immense burst of light coming from the area. Upon closer examination, they found a beautiful and rather large fresco painting surrounded by thick bricks and cement. The painting was of a beautiful Madonna and child. Adorned in celestial blue, she held baby Jesus in her left hand and a bright candle in her right, of which the light they had noted was coming from.
Word soon spread, as it still tends to do in these small towns, and people from nearby towns all immediately gathered to witness this miraculous scene for themselves, some claiming miracles occurring right on the spot. Many construction workers from local towns came to try and remove the painting from the wall and bring it to a more dignified location, but despite their strength in trying, they were unable to move it. That is until a certain Mr. De Marco, from Palermiti, came to visit the Modonna. With much ease and a gentle tug, he was able to remove the painting from its improper location, but the question remained, where should it be moved? Everyone who came to witness this miracle claimed the newly named Madonna of the Light as their own. Since they could not come to a conclusion, they decided that the painting should be placed on an unguided oxen cart. The oxen were free to go where they pleased without direction from anyone. The town in which the oxen were to stop could claim the Madonna of the Light as their own. It seemed to be a fair method under the circumstances.
With the painting securely placed on the cart, the oxen started their journey. Their slow voyage took several hours and they crossed several towns. It wasn’t until they arrived in front of an old church in Palermiti that the oxen stopped, kneeling in fact. Were they exhausted from their journey under the scorching, summer sun? Not so, we like to believe, they had plenty of opportunity to stop beforehand. Rather, the Madonna Della Luce had selected her new home, Palermiti. What an honor it was for the Palermitesi to have the Madonna of the Light select their town as her home. That same honor is still felt this day, close to 300 years later.
The Madonna of the Light is as significant today as ever. Every five years, a special celebration takes place. A replica of the painting is once again taken to Murorotto. The trip to Murorotto is completed by cars these days, but the return trip to her home in Palermiti is always done the way it was in 1720. Followed by a large statue of the Madonna, and thousands of pilgrims, the painting is securely situated on an oxen cart and makes its way back to Palermiti. The pilgrimage takes hours, under the August sun, many walking in bare feet to demonstrate their devotion, or in gratitude for a favor granted by the Holy Mother.
The Madonna Della Luce remains Palermiti’s main pride. The feast is known throughout Calabria and the small town of nearly 1,200 swells by the thousands the week-end of the feast as locals and non-locals all come to enjoy the festivities, fireworks, music but most of all, to pay homage and gratitude to the beloved Madonna Della Luce.
First, it’s the smell that will hit you as you enter. You might momentarily wonder if you’ve died and gone to heaven. Then, displayed graciously behind glass windows, very much like valuable jewelry safely nestled and protected, your eyes might not believe the beauty you are seeing. No, you have not died and gone to heaven after all, but you have just entered an Italian pastry shop, or pasticceria. I shamefully have to admit that on my return trips to Italy, the pasticceria is most likely going to be my first stop, jet lag and all. Dolce means sweet or sweets in Italian, I’m starting to think that the saying “La Dolce Vita” is referring to their pastries and not their lifestyle!
It’s very much a tradition in Italy to utilize pastry as hostess gifts when visiting friends or family for lunch or dinner. Although eaten on a daily basis, you will certainly find a greater selection on Sundays, when just about every household will buy a tray to be enjoyed after Sunday lunch. And much like all Italian food actually found in Italy, the flavors are intensified immensely, particularly so in pastry, where the fresh eggs and butter make all the difference.
The below are just a few of the specialties you’ll find in the Italian pasticcerie. You’ll note that much like all Italian cuisine, pastries are also very regional and each region will have its own specialty. Be sure to grab a tray for your host, and one for yourself.
Sfogliatella: A specialty to Naples, though found throughout Italy, the sfogliatella is a shell-shaped, crunchy, multi-layered pastry comprised of multiple layers of very thin pastry dough and filled with pastry cream and sometimes candied citrus fruits. Foglia means leaf in Italian and this is called such as it is supposed to resemble layers of dry, flaky leaves. Be warned, the flakes are sure to leave evidence of your gluttony all over your clothing!
Cannoli: Hugely popular in Sicily, cannoli are tubular shaped pastries made of a delicious crusty dough that is deep fried and filled with various versions of creams, though a ricotta based cream is most authentic to Sicily. Variations of this popular treat include a pastry cream or chocolate filling and a doughier and thicker outside dough.
Bocconotto: Typically found in Southern Italy, particularly my own native Calabria, the bocconotto closely resembles a small, individual sized tart filled with various creams then covered again with the crust. Usually small and dainty in size, it’s easy to eat, not requiring a dish or fork, thus making it ideal for on the go with an espresso.
Millefoglie: Translated in English, millefoglie means one thousand leaves. This refers to the crunchy layers in this pastry. Generally created with 5 layers of pastry and cream and covered with confectionary sugar, this flakey and delicious pastry has a few variations known as parigini or diplomatico.
Cassata: Another specialty of Sicily, the cassata is pan di spagna, doused in liquor, then topped with a ricotta cream with added candied citrus, covered again with pan di spagna and enrobed in an almond marzipan coating, finished off with elaborate decorations. This specialty is made in individual servings as well as large cakes that can be sliced and served.
Baba’ al Rum: This pastry is really an alcoholic drink disguised as a pastry. It’s made with a light, yeast dough, shaped to look almost like a mushroom, and then soaked in liquor, typically rum. Sometimes you will find it filled with whipped cream or pastry cream. Best eaten with a spoon as it’s generally too soaked that eating it any other way would be impossible. Best not to serve this one to the kids at your next family gathering!
Zeppole: Extensively used on March 19th for the feast of St. Joseph, though found year round, zeppole are round shaped pastries with a whole in the middle, fried, cut in half and filled with pastry or ricotta cream and dusted with confectionary sugar. Some pasticcerie also offer these baked, which are lighter and crispier than the fried version. When baked, they are best known as ciambelle.
Tiramisu’: This very popular pastry needs little introduction to the US population as it’s the most widely recognized on our list and can be found rather easily here in the States. Translated, it means “pick me up” – referring to the heavy dose of espresso used to moisten the ladyfingers in this dessert. Made with a mascarpone cream and topped with cocoa powder, be sure to try a real Italian tiramisu’ on your next trip to Italy.
Aragosta: Aragosta is the lobster tail (hence the name) shaped crunchy pastry found throughout Italy. Crunchy layers make up this pastry and the inside is filled with a very generous serving of velvety smooth pastry cream.
Brioche con Crema: This morning pastry is very popular in cafes and coffee houses throughout Italy and makes a great breakfast treat. Italians aren’t shy about eating things like these in the morning and this particular one is made with a dough resembling a sweet bun and filled with cream. As my image demonstrates, it goes wonderful with a delicious cappuccino
This is just a partial list and you’ll find at least a few dozen other varieties to try on your next trip. The only consolation is that many of these come in mignon size, which means miniature or diminutive, so you can easily try a few varieties without going overboard.
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My dad used to like to say that you can take someone out of Italy, but you can’t take Italy out of him or her. I think he was very accurate and any ex-pat will tell you that we try to incorporate aspects of Italy in our every day lives in any which way that we can. There are a number of ways in which I bring Italy to my life lived in the US. My Eros Ramazzotti CD is almost worn out in my car CD player, I listen to the evening news broadcast on Rai Italia and I don’t miss any opportunity to socialize with anyone in my native language. But of course, the best way in which I bring Italy to my every day life is through my cooking. Not a morning goes by without my espresso, Sunday lunch is prepared with the soccer game in the background and a batch of biscotti or a jam crostata is generally in my oven.
The below is just a partial list of items you should have in your pantry or refrigerator in order to bring Italy to your everyday life.
Olive Oil: First and foremost, you must have a few bottles of excellent quality olive oil. I like having a few options of extra virgin and also lighter flavored ones for recipes in which a strong olive oil may be too overpowering. I also use the lighter ones in baking a lot and use it in place of vegetable oil in all of my baking recipes as it is healthier. Keep in might that when referring to “light,” it applies to the flavor and not the calorie or fat content. Imported is highly recommended.
Onions/Garlic/Italian Parsley/Basil: It’s amazing to me how many Italian recipes start with these four ingredients! Whether it’s sauces, soups or meats that get baked, it appears that they all require these basics. Store your parsley and basil in the fridge and the onions and garlic should be stored in a mesh basket in a cool and dark place, like your basement. The mesh basket will allow the air to circulate and extend their shelf live.
Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese: Imported is the only way to go here, anything else would not be real Parmigiano cheese. I like to buy a large chunk and grate it as needed; this keeps it fresh and prevents the pre-grated one from drying out. Whether it’s in meatballs, braciola, frittatas or to top off a dish of pasta, it’s a must in my fridge and not seeing it there is always cause for panic.
Tuna packed in EVVO: Whether it’s in a simple tuna & tomato salad, added to a summer rice salad, or to enhance a tomato sauce, tuna packed in olive oil is a great item to keep on hand. Imported is best but can get very pricy, there are a few domestic options which are rather great in quality, so try a few until you find your new favorite.
Prosciutto: Nothing compares to the taste of freshly sliced prosciutto di Parma or San Daniele. Its lip-smacking saltiness hits the roof of your mouth and if sliced just right, it will just melt in your mouth. Whether it’s added to a tomato & mozzarella sandwich, to top off a pizza or to make chicken saltimbocca, prosciutto should definitely be in your fridge. However, freshly sliced prosciutto should be used the same day it’s sliced, so also keep a package of the pre-sliced kind in your fridge so you will have it available when the mood hits. The pre-packed kind has been vacuumed packed so it will last longer in the fridge.
Dry Pasta & Arborio Rice: What would an Italian pantry be without pasta and rice? It’s cheap, convenient and you can literally cook it in thousands of ways. Hundreds of shapes are readily available at the grocery story, so pick up a few different shapes and be inspired to try something new. Arborio rice is the best kind of risottos as it’s starchier than the other varieties, thus giving you a creamier risotto than if using a long-grain rice.
Canned tomatoes: From imported to domestic, whole or crushed, canned or jarred, we’re not short on variety of tomatoes to select for our Sunday sauce. Like some of the other items on this list, I suggest trying a few varieties in order to find your favorite one. When my family and I first moved here from Italy, we went through several brands before finding the one we liked best, so I recommend you do the same as flavor does vary substantially from brand to brand.
Dry or Canned Legumes: Italians eat a lot of legumes and chickpeas and cannellini beans are a staple in my household and I use both the dry and canned variety. I find that the dry variety is tastier but requires the overnight pre-soak process plus substantially longer cooking time. If I plan ahead, I’ll use dry, but some brands of canned legumes are very good. Always rinse the beans before using and to reduce the sodium even further you can rinse and also soak in cold water for half an hour before using.
Anchovies: Love them or hate them, canned anchovies are in many Italian households. The most widely used method is to top a homemade pizza but they are also a required ingredient in the traditional dish “pasta puttanesca.” I prefer the imported ones packaged in a glass container.
Espresso: Nothing brings me back home like the smell of freshly brewed espresso using the traditional stovetop Bialetti espresso maker. If you buy nothing else from this list, treat yourself to a stovetop espresso maker and a jar of high quality imported espresso. Whole beans ground up just before use will give you the freshest flavor, but understandably, that is a lot of work to do every morning, so be sure to keep ground coffee in an airtight container in a dark place, like the back of your pantry.
Nuts: Almonds, Pistachios, Hazelnuts, Pine Nuts: I love baking so something to accompany my espresso is always in the oven. As such, I keep a fresh supply of nuts always on hand. These are my favorites and I use them all to make various Italian treats such as biscotti, amaretti or pine nut cookies. Keep them in the refrigerator in order to extend their life and maintain optimal flavor.
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