There should be a volcano named after Morena. She is the quintessential earthy, boisterous and passionate Italian woman, full of vim and vigor.
Even in her 50s Morena is such a life force and so self-assured that heads turn when she walks down the street (like in the old Italian movies of Sofia Loren)!
Things have not been easy for Morena. As a survivor of both an abusive marriage and lung cancer, she has had to draw on inner strength not only to ‘start over’ multiple times but also to re-invent herself in order to gain independence.
Morena left her husband about 10 years ago and started a small business taking care of villas for tourists. She supervised the cleaning and cooked meals upon request. Her incredible cooking skills soon evolved into a full-blown catering business – meals for tourists and catering for Italian celebrations of baptisms, communions, weddings and business meetings.
I met “Hurricane Morena” when I took my first tour group to Italy. She looked after and fed us, just like an Italian mamma. Although Morena speaks little English, everyone understands her passions of cooking and taking care of people as well as her pride in the work she does.
Tom, a Toscana Mia reader currently living in Jordan, takes his stove-top espresso maker wherever he goes and he has moved around a lot! Tom’s family comes from the enchanting region of Puglia (in the ‘heel of the boot’) where life is till slow and wonderful.
Tom makes his own Italian liqueurs (limoncello and Liquore di Caffe) at home. He has generously sent in his Italian grandmother’s recipe for Coffee Liqueur.
Liquore di Caffe della Nonna (Grandma’s Coffee Liqueur)
- Make a cup of very strong espresso with a stove-top macchina – stove-top coffee maker (of course).
- When it is done, pour the coffee into a measuring cup.
- Clean la macchina and re-pack it with espresso and ready it for another pot of coffeeBUT, do not use water the second time, use the coffee from the previous pot thereby making it very, very strong — too strong to drink.
- Pour into 50%/50% alcohol and water (pure alcohol is too strong to drink but diluted with water is a good base for liquore (I don’t know if you can get pure alcohol in the U.S. but it is sold in Europe). Or use vodka and sweeten to taste.
When I was living in Viareggio, Tuscany, I did everything possible to maintain both my Italian and American traditions. I wanted my two young sons, who were born in Italy but had dual Italian/U.S. citizenship, to learn about both cultures. Besides, Tuscans welcome any excuse to celebrate, especially when food is involved.
Italians are aware of Thanksgiving predominantly from this famous, all-American holiday being portrayed in movies, books and television. They are very curious about a celebration that seems exotic to them.
I remember one year in particular when I invited two other Italian families to our home to help us celebrate Thanksgiving. Both families had small children like ours which made the gathering very fun and festive.
In preparation for this dinner, I needed to find all the necessary ingredients for a true American feast. Among many things, my list included:
- A fresh, free range organic turkey (is there any other kind in Italy)
- Sweet potatoes
- Fresh Pumpkin
- Fresh Spinach
- Corn meal (substitute polenta flour)
- Whole Wheat bread
- Cranberry sauce: Oh, no!
- Sour cream: Oh, no!
These last two ingredients were not available. I contacted someone from an American military family who often bought me American supplies at the Camp Darby U.S. Army base in Livorno. I was sure she could find me some Thanksgiving goodies at the base. She triumphantly returned with cranberries and cranberry sauce but alas, no sour cream.
My Tuscan creativity and determination kicked into gear. I decided to try combining fresh yogurt (sour) with mascarpone cheese (rich and creamy). After a few attempts getting the right proportion and balance, I was rewarded with an amazingly delicious result.
With all the makings for a great meal now in hand, I prepared turkey with bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, Thanksgiving sour cream fruit mold, vegetables, salad and pumpkin pie. I was a bit on pins and needles as these were all new flavors for the Italian guests. I should not have worried – the meal got rave reviews and we had a grand time. The little kids were fascinated by the turkey. And we will always have the memory of that Italian Thanksgiving meal.
Historically, our house has always been open for friends and family to join us at Thanksgiving. This has led to some very interesting international guests over the years, including Pemba, a Sherpa from Tibet. What a sweet, wonderful and appreciative guest addition to our holiday gathering!
One of our most memorable Thanksgivings was when four young, Italian Alitalia student pilots from the airline’s Bakersfield training center joined us for Thanksgiving supper. One was our young cousin Gian Luca who had seen Thanksgiving portrayed many times in movies and television. He was very excited to be in the States in November so he could take part in this famous celebration. In fact, he talked about Thanksgiving so much to all the other young Italian pilots in his class that three of them decided to accompany him to our home.
So, on Thanksgiving Day, joining our other guests were four aspiring Alitalia Airline pilots in their mid to late twenties. They arrived bringing several bottles of good Italian wine, cameras to capture the moments and great attitudes. They said that any occasion that celebrated gratitude together with friends and family while eating delicious food was fine by them!
Being typically curious Italians, they had many questions about the origins of Thanksgiving and wanted to know what the pilgrims might have realistically eaten as opposed to what everyone serves today. The young men were truly interested and involved in everything that we were doing.
We wanted to give them an authentic experience. Unlike some other Italian families, we have always tried to make traditional American food for Thanksgiving from turkey to cornbread to sweet potatoes to cranberry sauce. We have never added ravioli or pasta as many other Italians do so it is the one day we truly try to “Cook like Americans.” Well, except maybe for one thing: our turkey stuffing.
My mother first got her turkey stuffing recipe from an Italian-American lady when we celebrated our first Thanksgiving in California. This stuffing includes whole wheat bread, turkey livers, broth, onion, carrot, celery, dried porcini mushrooms and lots of parmesan cheese. I guess it’s impossible to get away altogether from Tuscan tastes that are so engrained!
Our young pilots thoroughly enjoyed the entire meal from soup to the delicious pumpkin pies made by my husband. The meal was finished off with espresso and limoncello.
The young men declared themselves officially stuffed, tired and thankful and said they felt like “Real Americans” after a Thanksgiving meal.
Halloween in Italy? Although absolutely not a traditional Italian holiday, Halloween has been catching on in Italy where American movies and marketing have a strong influence.
In Tuscany, where people are very curious about new things and love to celebrate, Halloween is quickly becoming popular. Places like Florence, Borgo a Mozzano (near Lucca) and Viareggio are celebrating Halloween with increasing zeal each year.
The beginning of November is already a long public holiday week-end in Italy: November 1 is “All Saints Day,” November 2 is the “Day of the Dead” and November 4 is the “National Unity and Armed Forces Day”. People are off work.
On “All Saints Day,” practicing Catholics attend church mass to celebrate all the saints. On the “Day of the Dead,” families and friends head for the cemetery where most graves have been cleaned and decorated with flowers to honor loved ones who have passed away. This is also a time for people to gather with family.
Typically, people take a “bridge day” between November 2 and 4 to have 4 or 5 days off work. This is the perfect set-up for an additional festivity.
Italian children have caught on to Halloween very quickly; they dress in costume and walk from store to store asking, “Scherzetto o Dolcetto?” (Trick or treat)? The treats in questions are not limited to candies but may also include traditional pastries.
Adults have jumped on the bandwagon as well with costume parties, night club events and pumpkin carvings.
In my home town of Viareggio, site of one of Europe’s largest 3 ½ week winter carnivals or Carnevale celebrations, Halloween has really taken off; store windows are decorated, pumpkin pies are baked and Halloween is being fully embraced. It will be interesting to see whether Halloween merchandise sales surpass carnival sales.
The bottom line for Tuscans is this; the more celebrations, the better!
Cantucci di Prato (Almond cookies)
Biscotti in Italian refers to cookies in general. The word biscotti (biscuits in French and English) means ‘twice cooked’ and refers to the Italian cookies that are now widely sold all over the world.
The city of Prato (a famous textile center near Florence in Tuscany) is famous for its Cantucci or mini biscotti. These are traditionally served at the end of a meal with a small glass of vin santo (Tuscan dessert wine) for dipping. Some people also dip cantucci in their espresso, cappuccino or tea.
This recipe for cantucci is a classic. Our family enjoys these all year long. For the holidays, a brightly wrapped package of home-made cantucci makes a lovely and thoughtful present either on its own or with a small bottle of imported vin santo!
Oh, and if you’re wondering about butter, the classic cantucci are made without butter.