SARONNO, Italy - In Italy it’s hard to tell who looks forward to the holidays more, the kids or their grandparents. For different reasons of course. Maybe the grandparents aren’t quite as enthusiastic as the kids are about what Babbo Natale is going to bring, probably because they know that Babbo Natale is the new guy in town and it’s really La Befana who fills those empty stockings.
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The grandparents also know that back in the day, before electronic gadgets and video games, the real Christmas treats were the dolce, the sweet cakes and pastries and goodies that made the holiday special. I remember my father waxing poetically about the orange he found in his Christmas stocking the year before the family emigrated to America, his joy at finding that special treat lasted his lifetime. Who knows how far and how long that orange had traveled before reaching that hilltop village of Piansano in northern Lazio.
It’s the time of year when the gifts, now shiny and new, will soon be forgotten, but the memory of those sweets will stay with us forever. In every town, big and small, from the mountains of Trentino Alto Adige to sunny Sicily, you will find local Christmas specialties that bring a smile and a nod, and a warm remembrance of Christmases past. Here are a few of them.
Starting in the northern region of Trentino Alto Adige you’ll find zelten, a dried fruit and candied fruit cake that gets its name from the German word selten, (rarely), which gives you an idea of how special it is. From Milan we get panettone, probably the most popular Chistmas cake in Italy today. A close second in popularity is pandoro, a specialty of Verona. It’s a tall yellow Christmas cake with the texture of pound cake.
As far back as the 15th century the bakers of Cremona, in Lombardy, were busy making torrone, a nougat candy made of honey, sugar, egg whites and hazelnuts. Torrone is actually older than that though, as it was listed as being served at a banquet in Milan hosted by Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1395. You find torrone all through Italy these days. In some regions they make it with hazelnuts, in others they use pistachios or almonds, it all depends on what is available locally.
Heading south to Abruzzo you’ll find parrozzo, a dome shaped almond cake covered with chocolate icing. It gets its name from pan rozzo, or rough cake. At Christmas, the most famous creation in Naples is struffoli, a confectionary wonder of tiny balls of fried pastry dough covered in honey and sprinkled with tiny colored confetti called ‘diavolilli’.