December 18th, 2010
Always a focus among Italian-Americans, the kitchen isn’t merely center-stage during year-end holidays, it becomes the stage. During the latter half of December, everything revolves around cooking. Among families sticking to the “old ways,” desserts other than fresh fruit tend to be reserved for special occasions. So it’s noteworthy that in the weeks around the winter solstice, sugar is measured out—not in spoonfuls—but in pounds. Most of the sweets created are not for a single family’s consumption; those trays of cookies, pastries, candies, and other confections are made to be given to everyone from the mailman and the upstairs neighbors to the parish priest, your children’s home-room teachers, and the plumber who came after-hours the Friday following Thanksgiving when the dishwasher choked on a chunk of ziti al forno.
Skip’s recollections (Middletown, Connecticut):
On the day before Christmas, my grandparents held open house beginning around 4:00 p.m. For two or three evenings beforehand, my mother, grandmother and aunts would have spent hours to make traditional southern Italian sweets, like struffoli, giugiulena, and cookies decorated with multicolored sprinkles.
The day of the party, my grandfather spent the morning in the kitchen preparing his signature Stimparata, Sicilian olive salad, and as well as at least three different schiacciate: one with a broccoli filling, another with potatoes, and my favorite—a stuffing of veal that had been stewed with onions and white wine. As the morning blended into afternoon, a dusty bottle of Seagram’s 7 Crown found its way to the kitchen counter along with a quart of ginger ale, and an unlabeled gallon bottle of homemade red wine.
In the hour before guests arrived, my grandmother slid a sheet-pan of her Cudduruni into the oven. Then, she fried a few dozen slices of Italian bread in olive oil; each of these crostini would be adorned with a dollop of ricotta and half an oil-cured black olive, or perhaps a fillet of anchovy and some capers.
As the first guests arrived, a large wooden bowl filled with assorted whole nuts would be strategically stationed to accommodate those who enjoyed labor-intensive snacking.
As evening fell, my grandmother’s brother would arrive proudly bearing a cassata alla Siciliana from one of the large Italian bakeries on Franklin Avenue in Hartford. Around 7:00 p.m, my grandmother would pass around a tray of sliced cassata. This would remind the guests that it was time to head down the hill to the Methodist Church to watch the Christmas Pageant. The party was winding down…
What Noonie (as I called her ) didn’t mention was that for anyone who felt peckish after the pageant, there would still be some veal schiaciatta, cassata, and “una lachrima” of grappa….
Holly’s recollections ( New Britain, Connecticut):
My dentist father, whose own heritage was Polish, had a lot of Italian patients who always seemed to have emergencies just before Christmas. Someone would lose a filling biting into an unpitted cherry in the panforte or crack a crown on a lozenge of giugiulena. In fact, I don’t ever recall my dad coming home before 8:00 p.m. in the days leading up to Christmas. But there was an upside: all the Italians sent him home with gorgeous, edible gifts. Our dining room sideboard sparkled with red and green cellophane-wrapped platters of struffoli, sugar-dusted wandi (guanti), glazed dried fruits, frosted cookies, fruitcake, Jordan almonds, and torrone. No one, including my parents, worried about the irony in giving these things to a dentist with four children. Two patients in particular, a pair of ladies who ran the local hardware store, always had my father stop by for a glass of wine and maybe a sampling of Lasagne before sending him off with their annual tribute that included delicate anise-scented pizzelle and a magnificent double-crusted Torta di Ricotta (with an intriguing layer of unsweetened cocoa powder). I was particularly fond of their delicious, but rock-hard, Giugiulena made from sesame-seeds, almonds, and honey. Eventually, I was old enough to wonder how many patients those Sicilian delights had probably sent to my father.
While we hope that some of you will be scenting your homes with citrus rind, bitter almond, cinnamon, and butter, for those who lack the time or skill to craft these treats, there’s some buona fortuna for gourmets and anyone homesick for the of the Little Italys of yore. Whether you’d like to give or receive them, the seasonal sweets as well as all the usual temptations of great Italian-American markets are now available here in Sarasota: we want to recommend Piccolo Market in Gulf Gate, both for its ebullient atmosphere as well as the quality of its inventory.
Smell the olive oil and oregano. Listen to the Calabrian, Sicilian, and Italian banter as you indulge in overstuffed sandwiches on crusty bread or luxuriate with an espresso and freshly filled cannoli (Eat in or take-out. Delivery and catering services available.)
“Eccolo, our funghi porcini have just come in… The chestnuts should be here tomorrow. Have you tried these Sinatra tomatoes? They’re so sweet, I use them in my marinara….”
Replenish your pantry with pasta, lupini, salted chick peas, and giardiniera. Step around the pyramids of extra virgin olive oil and cardboard cartons in Warholesque stacks. At this time of year, the aisles are narrowed by just-delivered cases of olives and pallets of panettone. The owners, Antonio and Josphine, apologize for the tight space and for running off to pick up a delayed shipment of baccalà.
Want to cook for your friends? Pick up Piccolo Market’s own pizza dough, which they make from imported Italian “OO,” flour. Choose from a score of different brands of imported, canned tomatoes and prepared sauces. Add some fresh mozzarella made by Antonio’s mother-in-law…
Anchovies, tuna di Genova, a wedge of real Parmigiano, some sopressata, a little truffle oil, a package of arborio rice—all are good things to have your own larder, and they make welcome presents. Josephine has beautifully arranged gift baskets ready to go or she can help you select things for one you make up yourself. So many of the jars, tins, and boxes have such graphically seductive labels that they need no wrapping at all.
Whatever you do, don’t overlook the packages of Josephine’s homemade pizzelle, as fresh and fragile as snowflakes.
One picture is indeed worth a thousand words, so to keep this blog post at a reasonable length and give you a chance to get on with your own cooking and shopping, we’ll let our photo essay speak for itself. Click here to see some of Piccolo Market’s abbondanza. The place is the real deal and worth the trip if you live anywhere between Tampa and Naples.
Piccolo Italian Market & Deli
2128 Gulf Gate Drive
Sarasota, FL 34231
(941) 923-2202 Fax: (941) 923-7760
Open Monday – Saturday 10am to 6pm