There are two things which mark the pre-Lenten days of Carnevale: masks and sweets specific to this time of year. These dolci are part of the climate of excess and partying that precedes the period of abstinence and repentance of Lent. Recipes tend to be from the popular tradition, that is, fairly simple with easily available and cheap ingredients. While there are a few sweets that are baked, such as the Tuscan schiacciata – a (usually) white cake, often orange-scented – fried dolci are really the symbol of this time of year. Every region has variations on this theme, from Alto Adige to Sicily. Throughout the country, similar sweets have different names. The two most common styles are rectangular-shaped dough that is fried and dusted with powdered sugar (frappe, chiacchiere, bugie, crostoli) and balls of dough, sometimes filled, that are then fried (castagnole.) Sounds dull, but when they’re good, they’re very, very good and worth every caloric bite!
In December most households in Italy set up their presepe, or nativity scene. The basic parts are the stable or manger, with figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the donkey and the ox. Many people expand the scene with depictions of village life, the shepherds and the three wise men. Traditionally the presepe is set up on December 8th and taken down after the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. The first recreations of nativity scenes date back to early medieval times with the “father” of the presepe commonly considered St. Francis of Assisi who set up such a nativity scene in 1223 in order to represent the Christmas story visually for the great majority of people who could not read. There are many carved nativity scenes that are famous in art history such as the one by Arnolfo da Cambio (1289) in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The city often associated with the presepe is Naples where artists and artisans have a history dating to Baroque times of creating detailed and fantastical carved representations of the nativity. Some examples of Neapolitan nativity figures can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum until January 7th.
The moka stove-top coffee pot is the standard in almost all Italian households for making coffee. It is instantly recognizable for its octagonal shape, usually aluminium, and black bakelite handle. It was first conceived of in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti who was inspired by watching his wife do laundry in a machine called a lisciveuse that used the same concept of heating water and forcing it through a tube. In the moka, water is put into the bottom of the coffee pot, then a filter, which fits into this bottom, is filled with finely ground coffee and the empty top is screwed onto the bottom of the pot. As the water heats, it is forced through the coffee filter and, under pressure, it slowly fills the top part of the pot with a strong brew similar to espresso, often also with a crema. The moka comes in different sizes, the two-cup pot probably being the most common. This common kitchen object is an icon of Italian industrial design and is featured in the collections of museums world-wide.
A recent New York Times article as a comic strip was a reminder of a classic Italian dessert – trite, ubiquitous, yet delicious – the tartufo. Tartufo means “truffle” and when you look at this chocolate and ice cream confection you can understand the resemblance. The article describes the tartufo as a maraschino cherry surrounded by a half chocolate, half vanilla ice cream ball, the whole of which is encased in a chocolate shell. There are of course many variations on the ice cream, including fruit flavors. My memory of the tartufo at the Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona is of a pure chocolate bomb. The original is said to be the tartufo di Pizzo, in Calabria. This is generally hazelnut ice-cream surrounding a core of chocolate ganache. The whole thing is then rolled in cocoa powder and frozen. In general if you can find a non-industrial, locally-made version, it’s a great treat and totally worth the caloric splurge!