Few people do love – and therefore Valentine’s Day – as well as the Italians. They are passionate and romantic. As a result, the holiday is the perfect match. On this day in Italy, lovers go on dates. They get dolled up. They eat a special meal (and really all the meals in Italy are special). This year, most of them will be avoiding meat because Valentine’s Day coincides with the Catholic holy day, Ash Wednesday. The men will dole out bouquets of flowers to their beloved. The women will offer little gifts to the man in their life. In other words, Italians are just like everyone else on V-Day.
What Makes the Holiday Different for Italians
Still, Italians celebrate the holiday while being Italian. They have a reputation for being great at love. A story I wrote about Italian men and why women find them so appealing is still the most popular article I have ever written. You know why? The truth is people are find Italians to be wildly attractive. Many Italians are driven by the bella figura, which means making a good impression and having your outside appearance reflect your inner being. So, they often take great care with their looks and clothing.
In addition, they have a way of flirting that makes the other person feel as though no one else exists. It’s embedded in the culture. Courtship still exists in Italy in a way that it no longer does in other parts of the world, including the United States. Men still pay for women’s meals and entertainment (even if they are not romantically linked to them). They are taught to woo each other with playful texts and extraordinary compliments. If you’re with an Italian, you feel the love. You feel as though you’re the only person in the room and the most beautiful ever. That rush is hard to get over. That’s why people are always seeking out Italian lovers. There’s no better time to recognize this way with love than on Valentine’s Day.
Wherever you go in Orlando, you can’t escape the spectacle of the Magic Kingdom fireworks.
As you drive around the city on any given evening, you see bursts of colorful light shooting up into the air. Then, they quickly cascade as though electrified streamers are raining down on passers by. Finally, the sparks disappear into the darkness as if they were never there. Those flashes of hope bring me back to central Florida again and again.
Nostalgic for Wonder
Even if Disney is too expensive, too commercial, and too corporatist (and it is indeed all those things), it brings me back to my childhood. A visit to the theme parks or one of the resorts reminds me of my wonder. My father, an Italian immigrant, was a workaholic. He never missed a day’s work, not for illness, not for anything. But when the season turned to winter and his landscaping company was on leave, he would take us to Disney World. The first stop would be Peter Pan’s Flight. The second stop would be the fireworks. He considered them awe-inspiring. They reminded him of the elaborate fireworks he would see from Buceto, the woods in Ischia, Italy, where he regularly camped out as a kid for certain religious feast days.
So, we return to Disney. Today, we watch Happily Ever After from the top of California Grill in Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The flurry of images projected onto Cinderella’s Castle cast a spell on us. Hearing the rush to silence from the sea of onlookers is magnificent. That booming launch of fireworks dancing in the sky, in beat with the music, stays with a person.
Standing on that rooftop with fireworks shaped like hearts dissipating before us, I clutch my little boy. His jaw sits practically on the floor. “I never want it to stop, Mommy,” he says. And I respond, “I know. I know.” Truth is neither do I.
Bridge to the Generations
My own parents sit right inside the doors of the restaurant. They preferred to watch the show from our table. Certainly, they long ago held onto my siblings and me in the same way. They too wished upon a Disney firework that we would stay little just a little bit longer. Of course, they longed to make our innocence and sense of security and cherished moments endure as long as possible. Now, they are doing the same for their grandchildren. As the fireworks enlighten us, we must accept that these years vanish in an instant – and there’s no way to get them back once they’re gone.
My son is 6 years old now. Everyday when we leave school, we have to walk about a block to our car. Once we say our good-byes to the crossing guard, my boy takes off. First, he slides his hand away from mine. His chubby fingers brush against the tips of my fingers. Then, he runs with verve down the sidewalk. Sometimes, he looks like one of those men in jogging suits in the 1980s who would speed walk with weights in their hands. Other times, he is actually skipping. Once in a while he looks like an Olympian racing to the finish line.
He always looks back for a second or two. But then he just keeps going. I fall into a panic replete with heart palpations and nausea. I fear he’s going to run into the oncoming traffic on one of the busiest streets in our town, which is really a city now. He never does. I think, “This is it. The fun is over. He doesn’t want me anymore.”
Giving Him His Voice
Ours is a unique situation. For starters, my boy did not speak until he was 4. Tirelessly, we worked on communicating. Along the way, we made up our own language. I knew he wanted to sleep when he gently played with my hair. When he wanted some love, he would speak to my husband and me with his eyes. And when he could not get us to understand what he so desperately wanted to communicate, we would experience the. end. of. the. world. A full-fledged tantrum would ensue. (The photo above came after one of those.)
The point is in those first years he needed me a little extra. No one else could really understand him. It became my mission to get him to speak. His teachers probably did the heavy lifting, but I reinforced everything at home. We would snuggle over a book. In the mornings before school, we would pour over worksheets from his speech therapist. Every syllable was a celebration. Now, no one would know he ever had a delay. His teachers even forget. They tell me no matter where they put my boy on the carpet during circle time, he finds a friend with whom to talk. Ours has been a revolution.
Then, there’s the other reason that makes us different from the rest of the world. I’m his Italian mamma. Being an Italian mamma implies so much, most of all that I can’t just let go. Italian mammas and their sons have a bond like few others. I mean they’ve written songs about it. It’s the stuff of legend. I’m pretty sure they’ve also written psychological case studies on it. But I don’t want to go there.
One of Those Moms
While I’ve railed against becoming one of those Italian mammas, who wants to keep him just for herself, I can’t help wanting to keep him little. I want him to still hug me in his sleep, curl up in my lap, sing off key with me. I am not ready for him to stop twirling my hair with his fingers when he’s tired or taking my hand just because. I once said the sweetest pain was the weight of my then 3-year-old son sleeping on my chest. I want more weight on my chest. Every time he rolls up into a ball and lays all 45 pounds of himself right on me, my heart swells just a little. When he runs out the school doors and jumps into my arms and says, “I missed you all day, Mamma,” I squeeze him just a little harder. The truth is I’m not ready to let him fly.
A New Beginning
But kindergarten is forcing me to let go. It’s not my choice. He is deciding to take flight. More and more he is telling me it’s time. “I can do it myself,” he’ll say. He doesn’t need me to speak for him anymore. As his fingers slip away from mine on that sidewalk every afternoon, we get closer and closer to this thing we have ending. I can cry about it. My heart may ache. Nostalgia for the days of holding a chubby, cooing, cute-as-a-button baby boy in my arms is setting in. But there’s nothing I can do about it. For my boy is growing up. And I have to give him his wings.
Today is the feast of Epifania, which is known in Italy simply as “Befana.” In fact, many people in Italy will greet each other on the street today with the words, “Buon Befana.” This salutation refers to La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. She is still searching for Baby Jesus, whom she learned about from the Three Kings. Throughout her journey every Jan. 6, she offers gifts to other Italian children in the hopes she will one day find Gesu. Or at least that is how one of our story books tells the story. There are a few theories about how she came into this job.
Befana – From Whence She Came
Indeed, she made a stop at our house this morning. When my son awakes, he will be surprised. He went to bed early with visions of the Italian Christmas witch in his mind. Now, Befana is no Santa. She is a poor old lady. Before this gig, Befana was best known for sweeping inside and outside her home everyday. She mostly kept to herself. So, she offers up one or two small gifts to each child. When my father was a kid in Italy in the 1950s, he received tangerines, walnuts, a piece of chocolate, and pencils for school in his socks from Befana. Back then, she was the only gift giver of the season. Times have changed.
Even though Santa has since grown more popular than Befana even in Italy, she still makes her rounds on Jan. 6. This, in fact, marks the end of the holiday season and work and school breaks, which is different from the United States. Many families will gather again today for one more special meal. Children will recite poems for pennies — err euro. And Befana will leave a little something for them. Sometimes, adults even give each other little tokens of their love on Befana’s day. The Epiphany, after all, is about the arrival of the three kings, also known as three wise men. They had brought little gifts to baby Jesus and his family in Bethlehem.
One Last Hurrah
Throughout the holiday season, we keep a Befana doll hanging over our window. Some of our American friends think we’ve forgotten her there since Halloween. But Italians know better. You can read more about Befana in my previous stories:
Italian Christmas cookies are a favorite of mine. Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of Italian pastries and desserts. I can give or take a “lobster” tail. Italian American cannoli are simply not for me. And the cakes soaked in alcohol taste like someone wet them with a water pistol. I understand wanting moist cake, but wet cake is yucky. Maybe it’s just me. The entire country of Italy seems to disagree with me.
But I can always get behind a cookie. Italian pastry shops offer loads of them this time of year. Rather than rely on the pastry shop (and pay such a high bill), I decided to try my hand at making these babies. In fact, I’m gifting boxes of my sweet delights on Christmas Eve. Learn how to do the same:
Italian Sandwich Cookies
This was my first attempt at Italian sandwich cookies. I learned how to use my cookie press/decorating kit for this one. You use the star tip to form the cookies for the sandwich. It tries your patience. After the dough oozes out the top and the bottom falls off for the millionth time, you start to lose your cool. Just as you’re about to throw the whole thing against the wall, a miracle happens. It starts to work, and you find your rhythm.
Suddenly, you’re popping out cookie form after cookie form. I was a little trigger happy. That’s why my cookies are huge (err, yyyyuuugggeee). I’ll do better next time. I promise to make them slimmer. Use the Food Network’s recipe for Italian sandwich sandwiches. Instead of raspberry jam, I used strawberry preserves in between cookie layers. (My husband hates raspberry.) And I also nixed the oil. I just melted milk chocolate chips in the microwave for dipping the sandwich.
I’ve become famous for these pignoli cookies. When my grandfather Rocco visited me for the last Christmas before he passed away, he ate two of these cookies. He wasn’t eating much of anything in those days and he rarely ate sweets anyway, so it was a big deal. My grandmother and cousins love ’em, so I make them every year. When I whipped up a bath for my sister’s birthday a few years back, her American friends in Florida were blown away.
The good news is this recipe is the easiest to make, especially if you have a food processor. I use the Food Network recipe for this one, too. I actually follow it word for word. But I have swapped a mandarin or clementine for an orange whenever that’s what I have on hand. I only make these once or twice a year because the price of pine nuts keeps going up. It’s super expensive. But it would not be Christmas without them now.
In the past, I may have made these one or two other times. But this Christmas I felt a pull. I had to have them. It might have been because my husband and I both bought giant tubs of ricotta, which have been mocking us in the fridge. In any event, when the Betty Crocker recipe for them landed in my emailbox, I could not resist.
What I love about this cookie is how easy it is to make. This is perfect for gift giving because you can make many without breaking much of a sweat. They also happen to be delicious. Indeed, I will be needing my fat pants far sooner than anticipated unless I give these away soon. Use the Betty Crocker Italian Christmas Cookies recipe for best results.
Italian Rainbow Cookies
Readers of this site know of my family’s love for Italian rainbow cookies, also known as tri-color cookies. Already I have detailed how to make this cake. You can get access to the recipe right here on this site, and see how we presented it as a robot for my son’s birthday. For Christmas, I added a “string of lights.” But I was also thinking of piping on a snowflake or just some festive holiday-colored sprinkles. The beauty of this cake is that you can use the top as a canvas, so it fits into any theme.
Now, I recommend cutting the cake into squares, brownie-style. You can also cut it up ahead of time and divide the cookies among the trays or boxes. People go crazy for these cookies, so be prepared to get asked to make them over and over again.
Making a Christmas cookie tree like the one in the photo above is not as hard as it seems. I always begin by making my favorite from-scratch cookie dough. But you could buy already made cookie dough and go to town with the decorating.I also make the icing with powdered sugar, water, and a touch of lemon extract or lemon juice, but you can purchase that as well. My point is that this project is only as hard as you want it to be.
How to Construct the Christmas Cookie Tree
Cookie dough from the fridge, ready to roll out
Graduating cookie cutters (in a star or snowflake form)
Optional decorations (sprinkles, sugar, candies)
Dish or cardboard baking circle
Instructions for Baking:
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Grab your dough from the fridge. Place it on a floured surface and sprinkle some more flour on top of the dough. Roll the dough to an inch or quarter half-inch thick, depending on how tall you want each cookie to be.
Then, take your cookie cutters to cut out the necessary shapes. Make sure that you cut out three to four of each size star or snowflake. The more you make of each size, the taller your tree will be. This year I opted to make mini trees. But I’ve done giant ones in the past.
Place a piece of parchment paper on each baking sheet. Next, place the cookie shapes on the parchment paper. Bake in the oven. The cookies are different sizes, so they are bound to require different cooking times. I check mine every 5 minutes at first and then every 2 minutes as time wears on. I remove the smaller ones as they finish baking. Obviously, the largest ones end up staying in the sheet the longest. I make sure the edges are brown. You don’t want soft-center cookies because you want the tree to remain intact after construction.
Instructions for Construction of the Tree:
Let the cookies cool. I place mine on a wire rack 3 to 5 minutes after removing them from the oven. Once cool, the fun begins.
Create an assembly line of cookies in size order with the largest ones at the front and the smallest ones at the back. You might want to try stacking the cookies before icing them to make sure you will achieve the look you want. Then, put icing on the bottom of the largest cookie to adhere it to the dish. Next ice the top of the cookie and place another large cookie on top, so that the star or snowflake edges form the look of leaves. I added green sugar crystals on the tips of the stars to make it look like an evergreen. I did this as I iced each cookie to ensure they would stick to the icing.
Make sure that the cookies get smaller as you move toward the top of your tree with the smallest ones at the very top. You can add a cinnamon candy, M&M, sugar star or sugar holly to the top of the tree. I dressed the bottom of the dish with mini candy-canes and the sprinkles that naturally fell as I decorated the tree.
You can place these on ceramic holiday dishes you plan to give as a gift and then wrap the entire thing in cellophane. Or you can not put the tree on a dish and place it in a cellophane bag. You could also put a little tree on each family member’s place setting for Christmas dinner. It could also be a centerpiece. Now, I have mine under a transparent cover on a serving dish at the center of my dining table.
As we gear up for the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, I can’t help but think of the seafood I ate at ‘A Figlia d’o Marenaro in Naples, Italy. The shellfish could not have been more perfect. And my son’s pizza Margherita was one of the best I’ve had in Naples. While the food was sublime, the flashing cameras and line down the block was the most memorable part of the evening.
‘A Figlia d’o Marenaro Uses Social Media to Its Advantage
With 154,000 followers on Facebook, ‘A Figlia d’o Marenaro restaurant knows how to maximize its social media presence. In fact, its use of video is more than admirable. The restaurant’s name means “daughter of the fisherman.” Indeed, the face of the restaurant is a blond woman who presumably is a daughter of a fisherman. Whether that’s real or not, she plays the role perfectly. Her quintessentially Neapolitan dialect and accent only enhance the branding of the place.
Her presence in the videos that you can find on the site has made her somewhat of a celebrity. In one, she and others go fishing before dawn to get the ingredients that will appear on the dinner menu that same night. By the end of the introduction, they broke into Neapolitan song.
When we walked outside after our dinner at Marenaro, the “figlia” was taking photos with guests as they were coming in. She stood for a photo with us, too. My native Italian friends fawn over her and the photo quickly became a treasured souvenir.
Old-Fashioned Home Cooking
Still, the best part of the meal had to be the food. As promised on the website, the dishes are influenced by the home cooking of yesteryear. But they include modern twists. Even the simplest menu items were beautifully presented and a delight for the taste buds. For example, I ordered grilled calamari salad. The calamari was grilled to perfection. It melted in your mouth. A light dressing of olive oil and lemon left a refreshing taste in your mouth.
Mountain of Shellfish
This type of “shellfish soup” is typical of what you’ll find in and around Naples, Italy. What made this remarkable were the fresh ingredients, savory sauce, and crunchy taralle. Usually, restaurants serve this with grilled Italian bread. The idea is to have a toasted bread to soak in the sauce. Using taralle, a typical Neapolitan snack, was novel and welcome.
A Sweet Ending
This giant profiterole was the dessert for the table. The four of us dug into it with verve. And we were not disappointed. Now, I’m not a huge chocolate dessert fan. But I will make an exception for this one. It was a yummy ending to both our delightful meal in Naples but also my annual trip to Italy. Certainly, this meal perfectly fit into my dolce vita.
Today is #NationalCookieDay. As I honor this day, I sit beside trays and trays of holiday cookies that my family made for our annual get together, which happened yesterday. We wore ugly Christmas sweaters, told bad jokes, and laughed so hard we cried. We also indulged in the homemade cookies we made. We took many photos, and ate until our pants snapped.
Nine times out of 10 (and more recently 10 times out of 10), I’m the organizer of these kinds of events. Over the weekend, I was feeling exhausted. I stayed up until 2 a.m. baking and decorating and cleaning. I thought, “Why am I doing this?” My back ached, and my feet were swollen.
La Dolce Vita
Then, with the head of one of those gingerbread in my mouth, I saw my cousin hugging my brother and my father jeering the Giants with his nephew. The work was worth it. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But in this moment we all had each other. We all had a hand to hold, a security blanket, pure joy. Frankly, that’s priceless.
So, I say get out and celebrate #NationalCookie Day. Shout, “I love you,” to family and friends. Deck the halls. Or at least smile and choose happiness for the day. Meet a friend for a cup of tea and a pignoli cookie. What’s most important is using this day as an excuse to slow down and smell the poinsettia. Keep the hustle and bustle of the holidays from distracting you from its real purpose: expressing your love, experiencing joy, and appreciating what you have.
My Italian family did not set a Thanksgiving table until 1960, when they first discovered America. My father, who was an immigrant in an American elementary school, came home and said all the other kids were talking about eating turkey on Thursday. So, his parents picked up one at the supermarket. When my zia put it in the oven to cook, she did not realize the gizzards were in a plastic bag in the cavity of the turkey. It wasn’t exactly the kind of stuffing you would want to eat. Needless to say, they ditched that first turkey for lasagna. Nowadays, we put both on the Thanksgiving table.
I’m thankful we’ve gotten much better at the celebration since then. Truly, Thanksgiving is the kind of holiday all Italians can get behind. Everyone gathers around the table to break bread, drink wine, laugh, and enjoy. That’s our thing. To distinguish the day from Nonna’s house on any given Sunday, I always set a special table. Discover some of my favorite ideas:
Always have a printed menu.
Mine have included the one above featuring a vintage postcard image I found online. I’ve also written the menu on a large chalkboard that served as background for the buffet table. You could also frame one 8×10 menu and put it near the food or on the table.
Create a beautiful centerpiece.
Usually, I create floral arrangements inside cornucopias, which I have from our wedding day in 2008. (We had a vow renewal in the United States Thanksgiving weekend, one month after our wedding in Italy.) In addition, I’ve made floral arrangements in a basket shaped like a turkey and a bowl in the form of a pumpkin. I try to get the kids involved in making centerpieces now. One year I had them paint acorns in bright glitter paint colors; then, I put electric votive candles inside a clear vase and surrounded the “candle” with the acorns. They are painting pinecones that we’re going to turn into woodland creatures for this year’s table. My hope is to make a little diorama-type scene atop a crystal cake stand.
Let the food be the showstopper.
There are few things in life Italians appreciate as much as food. Because Thanksgiving is all about the food, you should let the dishes shine. Cook up your best recipes. Of course, serve them in beautiful dishes and on your best plates. I recently began using my grandmother’s china, which my grandfather carried all the way back from Italy. I also have a few serving pieces – a copper-colored dish shaped like a maple leaf and individual gravy boats in the shape of a turkey – that often make an appearance.
In addition, you can use the food as decoration or centerpiece. Add artichokes, apples, or pears to a cornucopia, bowl, or floral arrangement. Use breadsticks standing in a glass goblet or antipasto platters featuring salumi to catch the eye at the center of your table.
Put out handmade place cards.
This is good practice whenever you are celebrating with extended family. Place cards can be an exquisite touch. But they also keep Mario from sitting next to his arch enemy cousin Guido. In the photo above, you’ll notice that I made edible place cards. That one is a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a turkey. I featured names on the belly by using cookie stamps. I have the complete alphabet of stamps. You can also attach name tags to a pear, apple, or gourd using a decorate push pin. Using food markers on those items works, too. Or you can be a traditionalist and make place cards out of paper. Personalizing each menu is another option.
Use fabric napkins.
Paper is can be beautiful, too. Don’t get me wrong. But fabric napkins indicate this is a special day. Also, you can more easily fold fabric napkins elaborately or wrap them with a napkin ring. The ambitious among us may try to fold each napkin into a turkey. Now, that’s a Pinterest goal.
Making this Italian onesie was a sort of sweet torture. I had envisioned this onesie from the moment I heard an Italian friend of mine was pregnant. With my Cricut machine on hand, I simply couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. And I wish I had the ability to make it back when my baby was itsy-bitsy. Now, of course, the stars have aligned and I have a swell of work, which was cresting around the weekend of the baby shower. But I could not be stopped. Nothing would get in my way. Waking up at 6 a.m. on the day of the party proved fruitful.
The good news is this project is super easy. I could have slept longer. I kind of wish I had realized this sooner. Also, you don’t have to have a Cricut machine to make it (although that made it much easier). Italians are not the only ones who can make such a onesie. I have also made one for a Greek friend that featured the Greek flag in blue glitter iron-on, which read, “It’s Greek to Me.” I put that flag and saying on the lower backside of the onesie, so it would appear on the baby’s bottom. The point is to use your imagination, and don’t feel limited to this example. Baby will make the onesie adorable.
How to Make the Italian Onesie
What You Need:
A white cotton onesie (I used on in size 0 to 3 months)
Iron on paper in red glitter, green glitter, and black (I used the kind for the Cricut machine but you can also use printable iron-on paper for your computer printer if you don’t have a Cricut)
Cricut machine or scissors (if you are using a printable iron-on paper)
Iron and ironing board
Light cloth or handkerchief
What to Do:
Design the image you want to appear on the onesie. I used Cricut’s Design Space. But you could also use Word and print it on a printable iron-on sheet. Before printing, make sure you are creating a mirror image because it will turn out correctly when you iron it on. If you are working with a Cricut or a printer, you will need to cut out the image with scissors. Be careful to leave significant edges.
Begin to pull away the excess iron-on paper, so you’re left with the image you wish to feature on the onesie and a sticky, transparent backing. Remove the excess iron-on paper, such as the triangle or circle at the center of a block letter. Make sure when you put the image sticky side down on the onesie that you see what you envisioned. Follow the directions that typically come with the the iron-on paper.
I place a light handkerchief over the iron-on transfer and begin to iron. Make sure the iron is not emitting steam and that the steam option is shut off. I usually hold the iron in place over the image and handkerchief for the first 30 seconds or so. Then, I gently move the iron back and forth. Don’t do it in quick motions because you could stretch the image.
Take Your Time
Once you feel the image is completely stuck to the shirt, you should put it aside to cool down for a few moments. Refrain from trying to tear away at the transparent film immediately. If you start pulling too quickly, you risk pulling up the iron-on image, too. And you’ll have to start over. Once it’s cooled down, you can gently pull away the film from the corner and on the diagonal. Be careful not to tear at the image at all.