The famed cookbook author continues the Italian Christmas traditions she learned from her grandmother.
- Posted on Nov 26, 2018
When I was a teen I worked at a German bakery in Astoria, Queens. We were always busy, particularly around the holidays. That was when I really missed the Christmas treats I’d had as a young girl in Istria.
Our Christmases were usually spent at my grandparents’ home in Pola on the Istrian peninsula. The town had only 30 houses, all along one road. Our Christmas tree was a juniper bush my brother, Franco, and I had chosen ourselves from the woods nearby. We’d tell our grandfather, and he would go back and get the exact one we picked out.
We put the tree in the kitchen. The warmth of the kitchen fire would carry a delicious scent through the house—juniper mixed with the scent of orange peels that my grandma, Nonna Rosa, left drying on the stove to make tea.
Our ornaments were homemade, most of them edible. We baked cookies from pignoli, pine nuts, and hung them on the ends of the tree branches. We strung together dried figs and bay leaves to make little wreaths. And we tied fresh fruit right onto the tree: tangerines, small apples and Seckel pears, all with the stems on. We put tiny candies all over the tree to mimic colored lights; the cellophane wrappers shone like little gems along the branches.
The cookie ornaments were always my favorite. For every one that hung from our tree, there was a missing cookie that found its way into my brother’s stomach or mine.
However, for all our idyllic Christmases, we were living under Communist rule. In 1947, the Italian region where my family lived was ceded to Communist Yugoslavia. Many ethnic Italians in Istria headed across the Adriatic Sea. We stayed put because my mother, Erminia, was eight months pregnant with me. Soon the border was closed. By the time I was nine, my parents had devised a plan to get us out. My mother convinced authorities she had to visit her gravely ill aunt in Trieste. Franco and I were allowed passports, but my father, Vittorio, was not. He escaped by foot weeks later.
In Trieste, we lived in a refugee camp. My courageous parents kept our spirits up. They assured us we’d have a good future in America one day. Finally, in 1958, we emigrated to the U.S.
It was a whole new world, exciting and unsettling all at once. My parents got jobs and we settled in a top-floor walk-up in Astoria. Sometimes my mother worked overtime and didn’t arrive home until well after 6:00 p.m. I was happy to start dinner. My mother would prepare the ingredients and leave things half-cooked, and write a note on how to finish the meal. Eventually I planned the menus. I even incorporated something quintessentially American: a Duncan Hines cake. Nearly every night, my parents came home to its delightful smell. On weekends, I was a typical teenager, dressed in bobby socks and a poodle skirt, listening to Elvis Presley and Frankie Avalon.
During the holidays we continued our old ways of life. On Christmas Eve we made the traditional baccalà, salted cod. And Mom and I whipped up the batter for frittelle, round yeast-risen fried pastries rolled in sugar, a warm sweet before midnight Mass. I knew our relatives in the Old Country were doing the same.
I worked my way through college, mostly waitressing at a pizzeria. With my husband, Felice, I opened my first Italian restaurant, Buonavia, in Forest Hills, Queens. Ten years and another restaurant later, we opened Felidia in Manhattan.
One day Julia Child dropped in for dinner and asked about my risotto, which later resulted in my being a guest on her PBS TV show. What an honor! That eventually led to my own PBS show called Lidia’s Italian Table and many cookbooks filled with the dishes, especially the sweets, I loved.
People are always talking desserts this time of year. “Who has the best recipe for tiramisu?” Or, “This cookie recipe belonged to my great aunt.” I think it’s because sweets—more than any other dish— celebrate an attachment to where we come from. La famiglia, family.
My mother, now 97, lives with me. When my family gathers on Christmas Eve and I heat the oil for the frittelle, I think back to how long we’ve been doing this. Our Old World faith and food traditions are such a big part of us.
“Tutti a tavola a mangiare!” is how I close my cooking shows. “Everyone to the table to eat!”
On Christmas Eve when I serve dessert this request is all the more sweet.
Check out more about Lidia, considered America’s grande dame of Italian cooking, in her book, My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family and Food.