Sweet Italian Holiday Traditions


Italian Sweet Traditions

Every year during the holiday season Italy showcases its confectionary delights and traditions. Leavened breads, panettone, pandoro, panforte, struffoli, torrone, gubana and ricciarelli, … just to name a few.

Each table shows strong territorial traditions and symbols. Simple breads enriched over time with different ingredients creating overabundance of choices.

In the 1300s spices became part of the cuisine and doughs made of flour, milk, lard and dried fruit were embellished with pepper, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. During Renaissance, in the kitchens of apothecaries, convents and courts, panettone, panforte, pandoro, and gubana were created expressing a unique territorial identity.  

 Here is a list of some traditional Italian Christmas Sweets and the legends and stories behind them:



Several stories and legends are connected to the birth of the quintessential Christmas cake originating in Milan.

According to tradition, Toni, lowly scullion at the service of Ludovico il Moro, was the inventor of one of the most typical sweet of the Italian tradition. On Christmas Eve, the chef of the Sforza burned the cake prepared for the feast. Toni decided to offer the mother yeast that he had kept aside for himself for Christmas. He kneaded it several times with flour, eggs, sugar, raisins and candied fruit, until obtaining a soft and leavened dough. The result was a great success and Ludovico il Moro called it Pan de Toni to honor its inventor.

Other attribute the origins to the tale of Ughetto deli Atellani who commissioned the pastry chef Toni to create a special bread to impress a beautiful young lady. The cake was made of butter, eggs, sugar, candied citron and orange. It appears the cake reached the desired results, that Lombardy nobility began giving “pan del Toni” as a sign of love and admiration.

However its origins date to mediaeval times when all the bakeries in Milan were allowed to bake wheat bread for Christmas gifting it to their customers. Certain phases of this long evolution are documented. In 1606, according to the first Italian-Milanese, the “Panaton de Danedaa” (Panetone – big bread) was mentioned.

One of the architects of the modern panettone was Paolo Biffi, who supervised the creation a huge cake for Pius IX, in 1869. The current Panettone was introduced by Angelo Motta who proposed the dome and the “paper baking cup”.



This is a typical sweet cake of Verona. Delicate, soft, and tall, the Pandoro stands with honor on the Italian Christmas tables.

Its history is full of anecdotes and legends. The current version of the Pandoro was created in the 19th century as an evolution of the “Nadalin”, the typical 13th century sweet cake of Verona. Its name dates to the Venetian Republic (prosperous thanks to maritime trade with the East) when a sweet conical shaped cake was made and covered with a gold leaf and called “pan de oro” (gold bread).  October 14, 1884, sanctions the birth of Pandoro when Domenico Melegatti deposited the patent for the truncated 8 pointed star cone mold.

Served with a Chantilly cream is a great way to end the Holiday affair!



Panforte is a traditional dessert from Siena comprising fruit and nuts, honey, spices and almonds. The earliest records date back to the 12th century and over time has evolved to become an IGP (protected geographical indication).

Panforte nero or panpepato is the classic version covered in species. The ancient recipe used fruit (oranges, figs, and melons from the Tuscan Rosia plains) mixed with almonds, walnuts, honey (later replaced with sugar), flour and spices. It was prepared in convents or apothecaries were the necessary spices to flavor and preserve food were sold.

Panforte Margherita began in 1879 by the spice merchant Enrico Righi, when Queen Margaret of Savoy visited Siena. She was offered a white panforte coated with vanilla flavored powdered sugar coating with a lighter dough so to see the candied fruit.



Delicious sweet fritters are also known as Turdilli or Turdiddri are a favorite festive dish of the Calabrian Christmas tradition. The recipe uses flour, eggs and wine with the addition of orange zest and cinnamon.

Alcohol is used in the preparation of Tordilli dough – notable examples include Marsala, vino bianco moscato and sherry. The end product is a fantastic sweet that’s suitably intoxicating: Once you have one, you won’t be able to stop!



This is one tradition that continues in many Italian-American households. Struffoli is one of the most famous Neapolitan sweets, together with sfogliatella, pastiera and baba al rum.

Struffoli, are fried balls, drizzled with honey and garnished with candied fruit and its name derives from the Greek “strongoulos” or “stroggulos” (round-shaped).

Their diffusion occurred in modern times when in a Neapolitan convent nuns prepared them to give as Christmas gift to the noble families who had distinguished themselves for acts of charity.

A strong Neapolitan tradition consists of many small balls of dough “softly crunchy”, made with flour, eggs, sugar, butter and flavorings. The dough is fried in hot oil or lard and, once cooled, “wrapped” with honey and “assembled” in a donut-shaped or “pyramid decorated with candied fruit, silver and colorful sugar sprinkles.



A typical cake of Friuli. Snail-shaped and made with sweet yeast dough filled with walnuts, raisins, pine nuts, sugar, liqueur, lemon peel. Gubana represents a bridge between the Italian and Slovenian culinary traditions. The origin of the word “guba”, in Slovenian means “fold”, the shape of twisted sweet. Its history is ancient and was one of the foods served at the banquet in honor of Pope Gregory XII during his visit to Cividale in 1409.



The word is very old and comes from the Latin “mustaceum”, which indicated a sweet focaccia made with grape must cooked on laurel leaves. “Mustacei” were described by Cato, Cicero and Juvenal. Mostacciuoli spread throughout the national territory as they were offered to guests upon their departure as the hosts sign of appreciation.

Today, practically every Italian region has developed its own recipe mostacciuoli recipe. The people of Abruzzo stick closer to the ancient recipe and traditional  mostaccioli made with flour, honey and well-cooked must?? .  In Puglia baked figs are used instead of the must and in Ragusa (Sicily) the “mustazzola” are made with flour, cooked wine and then sprayed with molten honey and ground almonds.


This typical Christmas sweet is found in many regions of Italy in various forms. It seems that the term comes from the Latin “Torreo” (toast) or “torrere” (toast) with reference to the toasted almonds and hazelnuts. There are different theories on its origin. Most likely it is the result of a preparation of honey, egg whites and almonds found in Ancient Rome as shown by some of the writings of the historian Livy.

Many link the recipe to the Arabs who spread it in Southern Italy and the Mediterranean, as it was “Turun” was mentioned in the 11th century De medicinis et Cibis semplicibus.

In Lombardy Cremona, the first traditional torrone is the special dessert of almonds and honey tower-shaped prepared by chefs of the court for the wedding between Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza.

Today the different regional variations of the recipe can be made with a dough more or less soft, enriched with dried fruit, figs, herbs, spices, citrus peel or chocolate.



In a manuscript of the 18th century, the “celteno” recipe can be found. This fruit bread of medieval originates from the mountain culinary tradition, using only readily available ingredients.

The name celteno, then turned into Zelten, comes from the German adverb “selten” (seldom) used to emphasize the preparation of the cake for the Christmas festivities.

It is difficult to encode a recipe as the elements change from valley to valley. Trentino has a richer fruit paste. South Tyrol has various shapes: round, oval, oblong or heart. A common basis can be traced in the presence of flour, eggs, butter, sugar, yeast, nuts, dried figs, almonds and pine nuts.

According  to popular tradition zelten was packed for the winter solstice (Christmas) with the help of the community. A large one was prepared for the whole family.



The IGP Siena Ricciarelli is a confectionery product obtained from processing roasted almonds, sugar and egg whites. These cookies are characterized by a particularly soft white dough.

In ancient times they were called “marzapan biscuits of the Sienese” or “morzelletti” and they were baked in convents or apothecaries where the spices and flavorings could be found.

This tradition is visible still today. The ancient apothecaries near Piazza del Campo preserve frescoed ceilings with gold writing praising Ricciarelli, Panforti and other local sweets prepared in these shops.

The Sienese novelist and playwright Parige tells in one of his novels, a Sienese character, Ricciardetto Gherardesca (whence the name Ricciarello) who returning from the Crusades to his estate near Volterra, introduced the use of some Arab sweets that recalled the curled shape of the Sultan’s slippers.

A first specific reference to the term Ricciarello has recovered from a long list of Tuscan pastries published in 1814. Here we read” the wolf Ricciarelli ‘, referencing its origin in Siena where the she-wolf is its symbol.

Pitigliano & The Bonfire of St Joseph


Pitigliano & The Bonfire of St Joseph

Italy’s Father’s Day March 19th

The traditional Torciata di San Giuseppe (the Bonfire of St. Joseph) in the inland of Tuscany Maremma on the night of Saint Joseph recalls an ancient pagan ceremony where an auspicious purifying bonfire marks the arrival of the new season.
This ancient Etruscan ritual was later Christianized and connected to the feast of Saint Joseph. Religious traditions and folklore are intertwined, creating a moment of joy and happiness in the streets of the village of Pitigliano, culminating on March 19 with the big bonfire.
The village come to life with historic reenactments, illuminated by torches and candles: three trumpets kick off the march of forty “torciatori”, racing in the dark of night. The yellow stone buildings and the arches of the Medici Aqueduct are illuminated by the flames. Flag wavers perform in Piazza del Comune with the ” invernacciu “, a large stick snowman lit on fire symbolizing the death of winter. St. Joseph is invoked to protect the land. The coals from the fire are collected by the women and kept in the homes as a good omen.
Pitigliano is a stunning medieval town in the Maremma of Tuscany, dramatically perched atop a tufa ridge of Etruscan origin. The town is also known as Piccola Gerusalemme, or Little Jerusalem. This part of Tuscany sees far fewer tourists than central Tuscan hill towns and should not be missed. For several hundred years Pitigliano was a frontier town between the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States. For this reason, the town was home to a flourishing and long-lived Jewish community, mostly made up by people fleeing from Rome during the Counter-reformation persecutions. Jews of the town used one of the Etruscan caves for their ritual Passover matzoh bakery. The beautiful  Synagogue built in 1598 still officiates from time to time and was restored in 1995.
A must see in Tuscany!

Dr Keys – An American -Father of the Mediterranean Diet

Ancel Keys, the inventor of the Mediterranean Diet

Bread, pasta, fruit, vegetables,  extra-virgin olive oil, fish and very little meat. Here are the ingredients of the Mediterranean diet, a UNESCO “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. The reason of the award is the positive impact that the Mediterranean diet has to health. But you know who was the first to demonstrate its effectiveness in a scientific way? An Italian? No, the American Ancel Keys.

Born in 1904 in Colorado Springs, he was a biologist, physiologist and nutritionist at the University of Minnesota. Sent to follow the troops during the Second World War he was responsible for the nutritional and ration program for the US Defense Department.

During the early 1950s he participated in the first “Conference on Nutrition” held in Rome with top international experts. Dr. Keys was fascinated by the low incidence of cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders of the inhabitants of the Campania region and the island of Crete.

He thought it was a correlation that must somehow be explained scientifically. For this reason he was the promoter of the first pilot study to clarify the mystery.

In 1962, he moved to Pioppi, a village in the municipality of Pollica, Cilento –a hidden treasure and considered the other AMALFI COAST became the headquarters of his studies. After decades he concluded that the supply of bread, pasta, fruit, vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, fish and very little meat was responsible for the extraordinary beneficial effect on the local population.

This type of power was called “Mediterranean Diet”, the Mediterranean Diet precisely. All the results of his studies were translated, in popular form, in the famous book “Eat Well and Stay Well”   a revolution from the United States, his home country.

Dr. Keys lived  in Pioppi for over 20 years. He died in the USA in 2004 at the age of 100 years!