Category Archives: History

Sfogliatella, a Neapolitan Pastry

The sfogliatella (sfogliatelle, plural) is a popular Neapolitan pastry eaten for breakfast or dessert that is also prevalent at Italian bakeries in the United States.  There are four varieties of sfogliatelle that exist in Naples–the shell-shaped riccia, which is the classic sfogliatelle, often with a ricotta-based filling;

IMG_3892

the circular frolla, which has a pasta frolla crust and the same filling;

pasta frolla

frolla

the santarosa, which has a custard filling and cherries on top;

IMG_2815

and the lobster tail, a longer version of the sfogliatelle riccia.  The classic shell-shape of the riccia, santarosa and lobster tail is named for its many sheets of dough.  Foglia means “leaf” or “sheet” in Italian.  It is very labor intensive and difficult to make, so one usually buys them in a bakery.  In contrast, frolla is easily made at home.

The traditional sfogliatella riccia was first made in a Medieval convent in Naples.  Pasticceria Pintauro in Napoli’s Quartiere Spagnoli, or Spanish Quarter, a historic area of the city, is about 200 years old, although it has had different owners through the years.  It is known for its sfogliatelle.

As is Antico Forno delle Sfogliatelle Calde Fratelli Attanasio, a bakery not far from the main train station, opened in 1930. It comes hot from the oven–just how it was made in the convents of old.  Attanasio’s is by far the best I’ve ever had.  The thin layers are crisped to perfection for a wonderfully crunchy bite.  According to its history, it is not only supposed to appeal to the taste buds, but the ears as well.

sfogliatelle

sfogliatella

The santarosa is named for the convent where it was first made, Monastero di Santa Rosa, which is now the site of a hotel on the Amalfi coast.

In New York City, sfogliatelle riccie and lobster tails are found at most Italian bakeries.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is the destination for pizza in Naples.  It’s the Pepe’s of New Haven or the Di Fara of Brooklyn.  Expect similar wait times too.

Da Michele

The Condurro family started making pizza in 1870.  Michele Condurro opened his pizzeria in 1906 and it has been at its current location since 1930.

IMG_2772

There are only two types of pizza served here, the Neapolitan classics, marinara and Margherita.  The pizzeria’s website says it doesn’t use “junk” to make its pizza, only “natural” ingredients.  Ed Levine, in his Pizza:  A Slice of Heaven, says that the pizzeria uses “cheap oil.”  This article from Vesuvio Live includes an interview with Francesco and Fabrizio Condurro who say they use a blend of vegetable, peanut and sunflower oils before they cook the pizza and then use olive oil on the pizza once it is cooked.  They say they do this because, at high temperatures, the olive oil leaves a burned taste to the dough.  In addition, they use fior di latte (cow’s milk) mozzarella.  Fior di latte is cheaper than mozzarella di bufala, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s “cheap” or “bad” to use it.  It is different and not as creamy or flavorful as bufala mozzarella, but it is still good.

IMG_2773

Da Michele is highly recommended by locals.  On my visit, there were a number of American tourists as well as Spanish-speaking tourists and locals as well.  It is an experience similar to eating pizza in New Haven.  When we arrived, there was already a crowd at the door.  If you go inside the doorway, there is an attendant who gives out numbered tickets.  Then you wait for your number to be called.  It was a bit daunting to get a 42, but the line moves quickly.  We waited for only 30 minutes.  The numbers are called in Italian, of course, so it’s helpful to know your numbers.  I was able to help some non-Italian-speaking Americans with their number.  The attendant assigns tables as they become available, so we sat at our assigned table.  Tables can be communal here due to the lines, so there was one older gentleman at our table who was a local.

history written in Neapolitan dialect

history written in Neapolitan dialect

We ordered one of each pie.  The marinara:

Da Michele

The Margherita:

Da Michele

You can order the Margherita with extra cheese (doppio mozzarella) too.  From these photos, you can see the nice bubbly char on the crust.  Both pies had the proverbial wetness in the center, so we did have to use forks and knives.  But the sauce, cheese and crust tasted good.

 

 

 

6 Italian Christmas Foods & Traditions

(Scroll down for list.)

Christmas is a special time of year in an Italian household. The holidays bring many traditions, but Italian traditions differ based on region. Italy is divided into 20 regions, but these regions came into existence only after Italy was unified in the 1860s. Prior to that, the peninsula and surrounding islands and areas were part of various kingdoms and under different rulers through the centuries. There are many influences from other countries, and some traditions that date back to the earliest inhabitants. So the things I’m going to mention on this list may not be celebrated by all Italians. Keep in mind that the majority of Italian Americans are descended from people from Naples and Sicily and other areas of Southern Italy, so the traditions of Italian Americans are primarily Southern Italian traditions. For example, while we may buy a panettone, it was not something Southern Italians made. Cookies like struffoli, bows, pizzelles and anginettes are classic Christmas cookies of Southern Italians.

I have fond memories of Christmas. We always had bowls of mixed nuts around the house. The Saturday before Christmas we’d bring my grandma to the fish market so she could pick out what we needed for dinner, which always included a live eel and lobster. At the market, they would cut off the eel’s head and skin and chop it. As a family, we would make the bows and struffoli cookies. I liked using the pastry cutter to cut the bows. I watched as my grandmother cut a hole in the middle and pulled one end through to make the bow. Or else she would just tie the piece of dough in a knot like tying a shoelace. She’d fry them and shake powdered sugar on them. They kept through the holidays. The trick to our struffoli is cutting the pieces small because that’s how we like them. We also like honey syrup, pine nuts and sprinkles on top.

For Christmas Eve, my grandmother made a tomato-based sauce with some shrimp, calamari, scungilli, lobster, mussels and clams to serve over linguine. Traditionally, my family also had octopus salad, baccala salad, fried baccala, fried eel, fried smelts, lobster tails and baked clams. Sometimes we’d go to Midnight Mass.

For Christmas, we had antipasto consisting of Italian meats like Genoa salami, prosciutto, soppressata, capocollo and dried sausages; cheeses like provolone imported from Italy and fresh mozzarella; olive salad; pepper salad; some kind of pasta dish like lasagna or ravioli served with a tomato gravy cooked with pork, beef, beef and pork neck bones and meatballs; a green salad; and pastries from an Italian bakery or an Italian cheesecake my grandmother would make.

cannoli, pasticcioti, sfogliatelle

cannoli, pasticcioti, sfogliatelle

My grandma always put out plates of finocchio, celery and olives as palate cleanser between courses. With dessert, the adults might have some liqueur such as anisette or Galliano.

La Befana

La Befana

La Befana is also a holiday tradition in Italy. La Befana is known as a good witch, but is really just an old Italian lady who was busy cleaning her house when three visitors arrived. They were the Three Wise Men, and they wanted her to come along to see the Infant Jesus. She had too much cleaning to do and didn’t want to go. (Sounds like an Italian lady.) However, she later regretted that decision and set off with her broom to find the Christ Child and bring him a gift. She is still searching, so that is why she gives gifts to children on Epiphany, January 6. Historians say La Befana may have her origins in a pagan goddess called Strina, or Befana may be the pronunciation of the Greek word for Epiphany, epifania. We were aware of the tradition of La Befana, a tradition my grandparents grew up with but didn’t continue with their children. My grandmother would put her shoes out for La Befana, who would fill them with oranges, nuts and candy. Children would get coal if they were bad–a tradition my grandmother did continue, as she gave one of my aunts coal when she was bad. La Befana still visits children in Italy on Epiphany, and my cousins get candy and gifts in stockings.

panettone

panettone

  1. Panettone and Christmas breads–Panettone is probably the most recognizable Italian Christmas food and was declared the national Christmas cake in 1931 in the Gastronomic Guide to Italy. It comes from Milan in Northern Italy. A number of Christmas breads come from Northern Italy like pane al doge from Venice,  
    pane al doge

    pane al doge

    pandoro (pan d’oro or golden cake) of Verona,

    pandoro

    pandoro

    pandolce of Genoa (more buttery than panettone) or pan dolce from Friuli. There are a number of legends as to the origins of panettone, one being it was pan di Toni (bread of Tony or Tony’s bread) named after a baker named Toni. (A more modern dessert is the zuccotto di panettone, a Christmas pudding made with a panettone.)

    zuccotto

    zuccotto di panettone

  2. Chestnuts and nuts–Chestnuts have a long tradition in Italy.
    chestnuts

    chestnuts

    They were once a staple of the poor and then a popular export. They are roasted and eaten plain or candied or used in other dishes.

    chestnuts

    roasting chestnuts

    Filberts/hazelnuts are also eaten at this time of year. Both chestnuts and hazelnuts were eaten by the Etruscans.

    hazelnuts

    hazelnuts

    As I said earlier, we always had bowls of mixed nuts, including chestnuts, around during the holidays with old-fashioned nutcrackers. Almonds have been cultivated in Puglia for 7,000 years.  Along with hazelnuts, they are used in the confections in #3.

  3. Confections and candyPanforte of Siena is a confection using spices, nuts, dried fruits and syrup to create a cake.
    panforte

    panforte

    It is similar to the pangiallo of Rome. Panforte dates back to the 12th century and derived from a honey and pepper bread named panpepato. Torrone is a nougat from Cremona with dried fruit and nuts.

    torrone

    torrone

    Italians love candied fruit like orange rind and sugared nuts as well.

    Candied citron

    Candied citron

    Candied citron is very popular in Italian desserts–not just at Christmas time but also at other times of the year. For example, citron is included in the Easter wheat pie, pastiera.

  4. Christmas cookies–Cookies are everyone’s favorite holiday food. And Italians take their baking very seriously. Both sides of my family always made strufoli/struffoli (also known as pignoccati) and fried bows. Struffoli are a Neapolitan treat–fried dough balls in honey syrup decorated with pine nuts, sprinkles or dried fruits like the picture below. These are a favorite of mine.
    strufoli, struffoli

    strufoli, struffoli

    Bows are another fried dough treat that cross many cultures. In Italy, they are made in many regions and have many names like chiacchiere, cenci, cartellate, galani, bugie, frappe, donzelli, crostoli, farfellate or “wandi,” which I think is guanti or gloves in Italian. Thinking about this more, I think it may be “vanti” because in Neapolitan dialect, we pronounce “v” like “w” and “t” sounds a bit like “d.” Vanti are boasts and since these cookies are also called “bugie,” or “lies,” I think they could be called boasts as well. These are a family favorite. They can be sprinkled with powdered sugar or honey syrup.

    bows

    bows

    In Puglia, there’s a variation called cartellate in a circular shape drizzled with a honey syrup or vincotto (cooked wine syrup). Anginetti cookies, also known as knot cookies, are a popular Italian cookie. My Aunt Angie made the best ones I’ve ever had. Anise cookies are made with anise flavor. Similar in taste to licorice, anise is a flavor that appears often in Italian foods.  Mostaccioli are diamond-shaped Neapolitan chocolate spice cookies. Tri-colored rainbow cookies are a favorite as well.  Sesame cookies are finger-shaped cookies coated with sesame seeds.

    sesame

    sesame cookies

    Cucidati/cuccidati are fig cookies from Sicily. These cookies, when made by hand, are labor intensive but great fun for the family.

    cuccidati

    cuccidati

    Pizzelles are originally from the Abruzzo region of Italy and most likely predate the Roman empire. Years ago, families had irons to create this waffled cookie, and the iron included a family crest or design.

    pizzelle

    pizzelle

    Pignoli cookies are popular Italian cookies made with pine nuts. I’ve also seen wine biscuits although my family didn’t make them. Many of these cookies like struffoli, bows, sesame cookies and pizzelles have their origins in ancient times.

  5. Liqueurs–Anisette is an anise-flavored liqueur that can be used as a digestive, by itself in a small glass or in coffee along with a dessert. Galliano is an herbal digestive (an acquired taste–not a favorite of mine).
  6. Feast of the Seven Fishes–As I’ve written on my blog before, we always had fish on Christmas Eve but never called it by this name. And there was no requirement of seven fishes. I think this may be from a different region of Italy from my family. The tradition of fish is a religious one, stemming from the Roman Catholic Church and abstaining from meat on certain holy days, Christmas Eve being one. The most popular fishes to eat include baccala (cod),
    baccala

    baccala

    calamari,

    calamari

    calamari

    and octopus.

    octopus

    octopus

    My grandfather made fried smelts, and my grandmother made eel. We also had baked clams.

    baked clams

    baked clams

     

Day 11: 12 Days of Southern Food Gifts

To represent the 12 Days of Christmas (which start the day after Christmas but I’m doing it earlier so you can give these as Christmas gifts), I’m showcasing 12 days of delicious artisanal food treats from the American South.  These are hand-picked by me, Dina, because I’ve tried them and they are delicious.

bloody mary mix, Charleston

Day 11, Charleston, South Carolina: Charleston Beverage Company Charleston Mix Bloody Mary Bold & Spicy

If you want to spice up your holiday brunch, try some Charleston Mix Bloody Mary Bold & Spicy. The ingredients are natural, and the mix is gluten free with no high fructose corn syrup. Owner Ryan Eleuteri is proud of the product’s premium ingredients. “We use ground black peppercorn instead of black pepper, sea salt instead of salt, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce,” he says. Most bloody Mary mixes use horseradish to bring the heat. But what really distinguishes Charleston Mix is the habanero mash. “It’s a great flavor,” Eleuteri notes. That it is. The bold & spicy version is made from a beef base, but vegetarians need not worry. The Fresh & Veggie version is made from a carrot base so you can enjoy your cocktails too!

Day 10: 12 Days of Southern Food Gifts

To represent the 12 Days of Christmas (which start the day after Christmas but I’m doing it earlier so you can give these as Christmas gifts), I’m showcasing 12 days of delicious artisanal food treats from the American South.  These are hand-picked by me, Dina, because I’ve tried them and they are delicious.

pottery, bacon cooker

Day 10, Seagrove, North Carolina: Bacon cooker pottery

North Carolina is known for its pottery, and the town of Seagrove boasts the largest community of potters in the country. It’s a fun day trip to tour the different studios. I have a collection of North Carolina pottery, and I’m always looking for an interesting new piece. The hot pottery of the season is the bacon cooker, made to cook bacon in the microwave, and it is available in many colors from many different potters. Mine is from McNeill’s pottery. If you pick one, make sure you get one like mine that has a tall enough cup to fit the bacon onto.

Day 6: 12 Days of Southern Food Gifts

To represent the 12 Days of Christmas (which start the day after Christmas but I’m doing it earlier so you can give these as Christmas gifts), I’m showcasing 12 days of delicious artisanal food treats from the American South. These are hand-picked by me, Dina, because I’ve tried them and they are delicious.

Moravian cookies

Day 6, Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Salem Baking Company Moravian lemon cookies

During the holidays in North Carolina, Moravian cookies are a staple. They are a thin spice cookie baked by the Moravian people who founded Salem in 1766. I’m not the biggest fan of crispy cookies. However, my aunt told me about the lemon variety, and I can’t get enough of them. The Salem Baking Company has been baking Moravian cookies since 1930. The ones I have pictured are from Carolina Cupboard, a store selling North Carolina products in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

UN Climate Talks Letters to the Future

This week, the UN climate talks commence in Paris. The Letters to the Future project inspired me to write this post.  Here is my letter to future generations:

Every generation has its unique oppression. In the past, the church and monarchy were oppressors.

In 1602, the Dutch East India Company was the first company to issue stock. With incredible political power, it ushered in a new era, rule not by monarchs or religions, but by economics. In the 18th century, physiocrats got an idea that if all agricultural land was owned, shares in it could be bought. This idea has been the driving force behind much of contemporary history.

The American Revolution brought ideas of freedom, all men are created equal; freedom of religion, of speech, of the press. The most influential idea: free trade.

Resulting in the multinational corporation. Now we fight for labor reform; food free of chemicals, pesticides and GMOs; products free of harmful chemicals; land uncorrupted by chemical waste. Your fight will be like every dystopian future so prevalent in pop culture—who will have access to the earth’s few resources? The wealthiest few who made their fortunes from corporate investments of today. The majority shareholders of BIG PHARMA, BIG FOOD, and BIG OIL.

These corporations must attract investors by showing not only high sales numbers, but also potential for growth. Corporations create new products, often creating the problems first, so they can then create the solution. The 19th-century carnie con of snake oil is the global economic standard so a select few make obscene amounts of money.

“Global crises have proved that economic decisions (promoting) permanent profit gains are unsustainable (and) inherently immoral,” Pope Francis told Turin Mayor Piero Fassino, in response to the Third World Forum of Local Economic Development held in Turin in October 2015. He added, “Local economic development seems to be the most appropriate response to the challenges of a globalized economy, which often has cruel results.”

Future generation, will you be alive? No one knows the long-term effects of GMOs, vaccines, electromagnetic waves on our bodies and environments. You are the product of the great experiment of economic world dominance. Are we the Age of the Corporation? We call ourselves the Information Age. Not the term that you will give us. Your world is the way it is because no influential body in my generation had the courage to act against its oppressor. We looked to our smartphones, tablets, TVs, and watched what was readily available. That’s why you named us the Age of Complacency, because as a generation, we didn’t fight the oppressor, we only consumed entertainment about dystopian futures, yours.