Ciao a tutti! About once a month (or so), I have been re-blogging posts that describe the lesser known places in Italy – or the more well-known viewed in a unique way – under the heading, “Your Italian Travel Tips.”
For April 2019, I am featuring Margie Miklas, an author and travel blogger who writes the blog Margie in Italy.
When I first read a recent blog of Margie’s entitled “Weird Italian Laws,” I loved the insider’s perspective and touch of humor that she used to describe these unusual Italian laws. It came to mind that many of these laws were surreal – almost too fantastic to be true! And yet, they are all still a part of Italian law!
In short, I am posting a blog about unusual laws in Italy on April Fools Day, but this is no April Fool! By the way, Italians celebrate April Fools Day on April 1st, as we do here. In Italy, the holiday is called, “Il Pesce d’Aprile,” which is a reference to the many jokes that people play on one another involving… fish. (Has anyone experienced this? Leave a comment below if you have!) The origin of April Fools Day is unknown, but according to Wikipedia may have started with ancient Roman holidays called l’Hilaria or l’Holiinduista, both connected to the spring equinox.
Margie Miklas is also the author of several popular travel books that describe her experiences while traveling in Sicily and Italy. I truly enjoyed reading her book, My Love Affair with Sicily prior to visiting Sicily for the first time myself. If you’d like to learn more about her books, visit her Amazon author page.
In her own words, the author says about her books and her blog about Italy:
You’ll read about the good and bad in Italy but always with a special love for the Italian people. This isn’t your typical guide about what to see in Italy. It’s experiential, informative, and hopefully entertaining.
You’ll feel my my passion and also my frustration at times about how things are in the Bel Paese. You’ll see my photos, but they won’t be the same ones you’ve seen a hundred times on other sites or in guidebooks. I share a glimpse into the heartbeat of Italy and a sense of its people.
I’ve re-blogged the original post from 2017 in honor of Womens Day this year.
Our saying is about a truly Italian holiday, the Festa della Donna, which was celebrated on March 8 this year. It is a simple holiday started by Rita Montagnana and Teresa Mattei after World War II (dopoguerra), during which men give the mimosa flower to all the women in their lives as a show of appreciation and love.
The saying below is a tribute to Sicilian women that was written by my favorite, and world-renowned Sicilian author, Andrea Camilleri. His mystery series has been made into the hugely successful BBC television series Inspector Montalbano, segments of which I watch almost every day to keep up on my “local” Italian.
August means Ferragosto in Italy and Ferragostomeans a much-anticipated family vacation on the beaches or in the mountains.
My introduction to Ferragosto was in 2013, when I stayed with my cousin who was living in Vicenza, a small town west of Venice. The town had an eerie feeling, as most of the shops were closed and the hoards of tourists I had become used to encountering during the summer months in Italy were nowhere to be found. Some of the locals frequented the two coffee shops, which remained open. But, most restaurants and non-essential shops in their small piazza were closed. I could only take my cousin and his family to dinner right before I left, at the end of August, when their favorite restaurant had finally re-opened.
If you’ve never heard of Ferragosto, read on to learn more about this ancient Roman holiday and why it is still celebrated in Italy today, with anticipation and excitement for Italian families that is second only to that found during the Christmas season.
Ferragosto – just what is this ancient holiday that still becomes the focus of every Italian during August? While Italy is known as a destination for world travelers seeking to enjoy the Italian landscape, art and food, it is less well-known how Italians enjoy their summertime vacation.
In our story, Caterina, an Italian-American girl, is a guest in Milan at the house of her Italian cousin Pietro and his wife Francesca. She arrives in Italy just before the start of the important Italian summer holiday called “Ferragosto”. The holiday is officially one day – August 15 – and is a holiday celebrated by the Catholic church. But, most Italians take off at least a week and often two or even three weeks, as people in the cities and even smaller towns escape from the to summer heat to the mountains or beach to enjoy time with their families.
Then, read the Cultural Note below, adapted from the same textbook also found on Amazon.com, “Conversational Italian for Travelers,” which describes the history of Ferragosto – how the holiday came to be during Roman times and the different celebrations that take place around Italy today. —Kathryn Occhipinti
To read the Cultural Note about Ferragosto,CLICK HERE
Buona Pasqua a tutti! I am a new convert to celebrating Easter the traditional Italian way, with Easter lamb, as you will discover if you read on below. But now I enjoy Easter lamb just as much as any Italian, and – more importantly – my family does, too! The method I developed for roasted Easter lamb was originally posted on March 21, 2018 on the Learn Italian! blog for Stella Lucente, LLC and www.learntravelitalian.com. Below is an excerpt. Click on the link for the entire method!
I’d love to hear if your family makes Lamb for Easter dinner and your favorite method!
The Easter holiday and the Easter lamb for dinner have been linked together in Italy far beyond recorded years. But, I have to admit that here in America, my Italian-American family’s own tradition for Easter was (for many years) a special Sunday brunch with friends at our favorite restaurant. My children loved greeting the Easter bunny as he walked through, the Easter egg hunt, and of course, the special (and the children’s second) Easter basket filled with chocolate goodies provided with dessert.
Now that my family is a bit older, and the charm of the Easter bunny has faded (although not the love of chocolate, mind you), we prefer to meet at home for Easter. Since the matriarch of the family, my mother, has had to give up cooking, making our Italian Easter dinner – which, as we all know should feature lamb – has fallen to me.
Another confession – I’ve never really liked the particular “gamy” taste of lamb. But, luckily, I’ve taken up this family challenge with years of Italian cuisine to fall back on. I’ve tried several ways to make lamb known to Italians of different regions. And I think I’ve found a method that my family all agrees makes our lamb moist and delicious. (Hint: you may find some similarities between this recipe and the pot roast recipe I posted from February.) I hope if you try this recipe for Easter, or for another special family dinner, that your family will agree with mine that it is the most delicate and flavorful lamb you’ve tried. Click here to read on for the recipe!
March is the month for showing thanks to fathers in Italy. “La Festa del Papà” takes place on March 19, the day dedicated to San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph, father of Jesus Christ in the Christian religion.
Many Catholic churches in Italy and America, as well as Italian-American societies, host special ceremonies and parades to give thanks to St. Joseph. In my community in and around Chicago, this is a much-loved holiday that seems to bridge the generations between young and old. I’ve had the honor of celebrating St. Joseph’s Day many times, sometimes with two or three different Italian clubs each year!
The traditional St. Joseph’s Day celebration is completed with an afternoon feast, which is centered on a “St. Joseph’s Table”*—a large, three-tiered table with a statue of St. Joseph in the center surrounded by platter upon platter of special foods. Because it is the Catholic season of Lent, the traditional dishes for the St. Joseph’s Table do not contain meat. But that does not stop the Italians from creating a wonderful feast of pasta, fish, and special pastries to celebrate St. Joseph and all fathers of Italy.
Below is a bit of history about the day that I have found during my research on the topic. And, of course, because much of the focus of this holiday is on the special foods to be made for the feast, a Sicilian recipe for Sfinge—fried dough balls—is found at the end of the blog post.
*Featured image of a St. Joseph’s Table courtesy of azenofmyown.blogspot.com.
La Festa di San Giuseppe
Il 19 di Marzo
St. Joseph is honored with a special day by many countries of the world that practice Christianity. In Italy, it is said that the people from Sicily hold St. Joseph in special regard because they believe that their prayers to St. Joseph ended a drought that had caused a severe famine during the Middle Ages.
Legend has it that the drought in Sicily one year was so severe that the only vegetable left growing in the fields was the fava bean. The Sicilian people prayed to St. Joseph and promised they would honor him with a great feast every year if he ended the drought. They survived on fava beans until their prayers were answered and the rains came. From that time on, as promised, Sicilians all over the island have dedicated a feast in honor of Saint Joseph. The tradition has continued to today, and the St. Joseph’s Table, as it is now called, has grown into a feast rich in delicious and symbolic foods.
The St. Joseph’s Table should have three tiers, representing the holy trinity of Catholicism. In the center is a statue of St. Joseph. Fava beans are always included—in a bowl by themselves or as part of a dish. An ancient peasant food thought to have been introduced to Sicily by the Romans called “Maccu” (a soup of dried, crushed fava beans, fennel, and olive oil) was included in the past, as “Maccu di San Giuseppe,” but it is rarely seen today in Italy. Today, many Italian Americans have fava beans blessed at church and carry them for good luck for the rest of the year.
Breadcrumbs are also a popular component of the St. Joseph Day feast, and they are said to represent sawdust. This serves as a reminder that St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers and supported his family by working as a carpenter. Breadcrumbs can be found in many Sicilian dishes, and for St. Joseph’s Day, they are popular in stuffed artichokes or in pasta con sarde.
Treats from the bakery abound on the St. Joseph’s Day table, because St. Joseph is also the patron saint of pastry chefs. Every region has its own special “San Giuseppe” breads and desserts. Breads are made into the shape of a staff or a cross. Fried pastries are very popular. “Sfinci” is a small, fried dough ball (fritter) sprinkled with sugar. Larger puff pastry balls called “zeppole” are piped with custard or cannoli cream and are often topped with a maraschino cherry.
The table is also decorated with many types of citrus fruits. And red is the color to wear for good luck at your Festa di San Giuseppe! When you greet people at the festa, say, “May St. Joseph always smile upon you.”
After the celebration, as part of the tradition, the table is broken down, and all food that is left is wrapped and distributed to various charities, so those less fortunate may also partake.
Traditional Sfinge di Ricotta from Sicily
Below is an excerpt from the site Visit Sicily about the wonderful Sicilian treat, Sfinge di Ricotta, which is traditional for La Festa di San Giuseppe. They are simple to make—a puffy, fried dough ball, or fritter, sprinkled with sugar—and delicious!
The recipe of “Sfinci” is one of the oldest, typical Sicilian recipes. Sicilian people, as all southerner people, go crazy for frying and during Carnival they prepare thousands of yummy recipes. These Sicilian cookies are small pieces of fried dough enriched with nuggets of raisins or ricotta cheese and then fried in hot oil.
There are several variants, some of these also add boiled potatoes in the dough. This is the most classic version with a simple mixture of water, sugar, flour and ricotta cheese. Try them, they are delicious, you will not stop eating!
500 g (whole milk ricotta cheese [about 15–16 oz.])
200/250 g flour (2–2.5 cups)
2 spoons of sugar (teaspoons)
1 teaspoon baking powder
Place all ingredients together in a bowl (eggs and ricotta in a well in the center of the dry ingredients) and mix them with a mixer or by hand until you get a dough with a solid and firm consistency. (Start with 2 cups of flour, and add the rest as needed).
Let stand for about 20 minutes.
Then take the dough with the tip of a spoon and push it with your finger in a saucepan filled with boiling oil. (A small, deep pot works well for this step. Use only small bits of dough and try to form a small ball as you roll it off the spoon. Test the oil by putting one piece of dough in and watch it cook. Moderate the oil so it does not get too hot, so the center of the dough will have time to cook.) Let them cook until they have a goldish aspect.
(The pieces of dough will form a puffed ball (fritter) as they cook. When one side is finished cooking, the ball will flip by itself to the other side. When the other side has finished cooking, the ball will flip again. Let the fritter cook a few more seconds after the second flip and then remove it with a slotted spoon.)
(Drain fritters on a paper towel and while still hot roll gently in sugar. Then remove them to a serving bowl and sprinkle with more sugar if desired.)
Sprinkle them with sugar and serve.
*Volumes are approximate and additional directions in parenthesis are added to the original recipe by the author.
While researching “La Festa della Donna,” which takes place on International Women’s Day every March 8, I came across a bit of history about the origins of this special day for women. Although the holiday in Italy today is a lovely early springtime celebration, made complete with bright yellow mimosa flowers and a light, airy yellow cake, the origins are a bit more serious. I thought I would share what I have learned about the origins of the day in this blog.
Read on after the short history of International Women’s Day for a brief description of how Festa della Donna is celebrated in Italy today and how to make a mimosa cake for the special women in your family.
Since the turn of the century in the 1900s, a history had already developed of commemorating “the woman” with “women’s days.” On these days, women held special gatherings and marches, usually in an attempt to bring women’s and children’s rights to the forefront.
An excerpt from an article titled “International Women’s Day History” from the University of Chicago describes how these early “days of the woman” turned into a celebration of women around the world, now called “International Women’s Day”:
In 1975… the United Nations (UN) began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Only two years later, in December 1977 the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a “United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.“
In Italy, mimosa flowers are in bloom in central Italy on March 8 and were chosen as the symbol of this holiday by the Italian Women’s Association. Mothers, wives, sisters, and teachers can expect to receive small bouquets of these flowers from the men in their lives. Also, in most Italian cities, the Italian government grants free entrance for women to museums, and galleries may even host special exhibitions about women in history or dedicated to female artists. In the evenings, many restaurants offer special discounts for women, many who dress in yellow for the occasion and go out to celebrate with their families or significant other.
Finally, no celebration is complete in Italy without a special food to enjoy, and in this case, there is a special “mimosa cake”—a light, airy yellow sponge cake with a topping made to look like the small blooms of the mimosa flower. Most of the cakes I have seen are round, but I found a beautiful sheet cake version on YouTube that I’d like to share. It is from the Fatto in casa da Benedetta blog, and Benedetta has a book of recipes that has been available since last year (click on the link if you are interested in the book).
The cake is a bit complicated, and descriptions are in Italian, but the video gives clear directions. The end result is delicious and looks beautiful! I hope you enjoy!
From the cook:
Questa torta è dedicata a tutte le Donne
che ogni giorno rendono il mondo un posto migliore.
To all my friends… May all your Italian dreams come true in 2018!
Auguri di un Felice e Prosperoso
Best Wishes for a Happy and Prosperous New Year!
Il Primo di Gennaio
I hope you have enjoyed my blog as much as I’ve enjoyed sharing about the Italian language and Italian traditions. Please visit me at this blog in 2018, and invite your friends to join in for more Italian language tips, Italian sayings, and Italian cultural notes.
And remember, this blog is part of our open Facebook page, Conversational Italian!, which is a great place to share about all things Italian. Practice your Italian on this page, ask questions, and share pictures from your trips to Italy. I’d love to hear from you!
It’s never too late to learn Italian or too early to plan your trip to Italy!
For advanced Italian language materials, Italian cultural notes, and Italian recipes, visit our sister blog atLearn Italian!
To all my friends who love all things Italian… Warm wishes for a wonderful holiday!
Il 24 di Dicembre
This special Italian saying for the December holidays was originally posted by Rita from our Conversational Italian! Facebook group. Special thanks to E. L. Word for the Italian photo and Italian language.
We would love to hear what you have to say about your experiences learning Italian and visiting or living in Italy. Join our open Facebook group and share about all things Italian! —Kathryn Occhipinti
The event took place at Casa Italia in Stone Park, the cultural center and central meeting place for Italian-Americans in the Chicagoland area for many decades. There was a wonderful turnout that day for this event, and there were many, many varieties of cuccidati, all beautifully presented and available to taste.
We had dozens and dozens of cuccidati to sample – all donated for benefit of Casa Italia – from local bakeries and also from individual families. The family recipes had, of course, been handed down through the generations, and many recipes were proudly displayed along with their cookies. There were more than 20 different varieties! There was a contest for the best bakery cookie and also the best homemade cookie. There was a demonstration as well.
All this is to say that I was really looking forward to this event, and it did not disappoint in the number and variety of cuccidati available. Making this cookie with my mother, aunts, and now my children, has always been a highlight of the Christmas season for me. I was looking forward to sharing this tradition with members of the community that I have come to know in Chicagoland, and so excited that they, too, shared special memories of the same Christmas treats that I loved.
Although, a funny thing happened. I found out that the cookies that my family makes and calls “cuccidati,” are not exactly what were made that day. In fact, all of the varieties that day used a fig filling, while my family recipe uses a combination of raisins, almonds, and citrus. So, I did a bit of research, and although I have not found the exact recipe for my family’s cookie online, I have found many similar recipes. I have an idea that it is just one of many similar “types” of Sicilian Christmas cookies that have developed over the years.
Visit the recent Learn Italian!blog post from December 1, 2017, to read about my family’s cuccidati method if you like. An excerpt is below.
I’d love to hear from anyone who makes a cookie with similar shapes or a similar filling! And, whatever your family traditions this holiday season, I wish everyone, ” Auguri di buone feste natalizie!”
Italian Christmas traditions are unique to each region of the Italy and have been lovingly handed down within families through the generations. Cuccidati – a version of Christmas cookie that probably originated after the Arabs introduced oranges and almonds to Sicily centuries ago – play an important part in the Christmas celebration in Sicily even today.
All Sicilian cuccidati, or any Italian cookie for that matter, are unlike what Americans think of when they think of cookies. Most Italian cookies are made from dough that cooks up drier than American cookies and there is much more variation in the presentation. Sicilian cookies come in a multitude of different shapes and sizes and fruit fillings are often enclosed in the cookies as a special treat.
The recipe given below is for a Sicilian Christmas cookie—my family calls them “cuccidati,” although they are not identical to most of the cookies found online under this name. The cookies in this recipe start out as the “typical” cuccidati: one long “tube” of sweet, Italian pie-crust-like dough, which contains a dried fruit and nut center. (No figs in our version, by the way.) But, instead of then cutting the tube into bite-sized pieces that are finished with icing, my family cuts larger pieces, which are then formed into different shapes, and finishes the cuccidati with a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Whatever the name, this is just one version out of many dried, fruit-filed cookies still made in Sicilian bakeries today to celebrate the Christmas season.
When I was a child, my family always gathered the weekend before Christmas to share our creativity while we formed our cuccidati into wreaths, ribbons, or candy cane-like forms. They could be completely covered in dough, which would allow for a creative, fringe-like covering, or left open. The sides could be pinched for decoration if like, similar to how Americans form a pie crust along the rim of their pies. If you would like to see how the various shapes of these cookies are made, visit the Stella Lucente Italian Pinterest site.
The ingredients for the cuccidati filling are considered easy to come by today, but remember that dried fruit, including raisins and oranges and spices like cinnamon were considered special when the cookies originated. These filling ingredients were only found only in well-off households. Since the filling ingredients are difficult to chop and mix together, in some Sicilian towns “back in the day,” people would bring their filling to the butcher to mix together for them in his meat grinder, which had been newly cleaned for the season for this purpose.
Despite the few ingredients in traditional cuccidati, and the difficulty of making the filling with them, the dried fruit has a rich sweetness, the roasted almonds a robust flavor, and the cinnamon, orange, and citron add a complexity of flavor that goes beyond its simple ingredients. Try our recipe this Christmas season for a taste of Sicilian tradition! —Kathryn Occhipinti
Click here for the recipe and method to make cuccidati.
You can best witness the Feast of San Martino in Venice at the Rialto Market. This is a “hub” offering all the ingredients we need to prepare traditional spicy dishes, reflecting the harvest now arriving in the city because it’s the end of the agricultural year, the ancient Venetian capodanno agricolo. November is a transition…Read…