How a Civil War and Great Arrival Sparked the Creation of Italian America

Southern Italians brought many of the tastes and traditions that define Italian-American celebrations and rituals today.

By: ISDA Contributor Dina Di Maio

In the 1860s, there was a civil war between the North and South of Italy.

The famous General Giuseppe Garibaldi led his troops through Southern Italy to liberate the people. However, revisionist history is showing that they didn’t necessarily want to be liberated.

Many felt their homeland was under attack, and they fought to remain part of what was known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. However, they lost, and the Northwestern region of Piedmont gained dominance and created a united Italy.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was an Italian general and nationalist. A republican, he contributed to the Italian unification and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy.

In subsequent years, conditions in Southern Italy deteriorated so drastically that the people sought refuge elsewhere—in countries like Argentina and the United States.

While some were from central and northern Italy, most of the immigrants to the United States were from the Southern Italian regions of Campania (Naples) and Sicily.

They brought their food ways with them, so Italian food in the United States is predominantly Southern Italian.

Their descendants, the Italian Americans, keep those traditions alive. The fact that many people are not aware of this Italian history and how it is tied to Italian-American food and culture compelled me to write my book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People

In my book, I discuss Italian-American foods and traditions.

Here are of some of the holidays Italian Americans observe and the foods that define those celebrations:

Carnevale and Lent

In Italy, Mardi Gras is called Carnevale, and the fanciful masquerade costumes of Venice are well known. But Southern Italians also observe this day of excess before the solemn time of reflection and sacrifice that is Ash Wednesday and Lent.

My family, from Naples, makes very large meatballs with pine nuts and raisins to top a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce.

During Lent, Italians do not eat meat on Ash Wednesday, Fridays, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. On these days, pasta, bean and egg dishes are essential, such as the eggs with tomato sauce my family makes.

Other popular Lenten dinners include pasta fagioli, a bean and pasta soup, or pastina, an egg and pasta soup.

Sanguinaccio is a chocolate pudding made with pig’s blood that is sold at Italian bakeries during Carnevale/Easter season. The pig’s blood is a thickener, and it is nourishing as well as traditional to use all parts of an animal when butchering it.

Pasta e fagioli

Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19

St. Joseph’s Day is a Roman Catholic holiday, the feast day of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. For St. Joseph’s Day, our family makes zeppole, fried doughballs you find at Italian street fairs. We also make fried calzones filled with mozzarella, ricotta and ham or salami. For dessert, we eat zeppole di San Giuseppe, similar to a cream puff with a custard filling. The Sicilian version, sfincior sfingi, has a ricotta filling.

Italian bakeries have both around St. Joseph’s Day. Italian Americans from Abruzzo make fried crescent-shaped sweet ravioli called calcionetti. Breadcrumbs are important on St. Joseph’s Day. Because St. Joseph was a carpenter, they are used to resemble sawdust. Sicilians make a pasta dish with mollica/muddica/mudrica, or breadcrumbs, and sardines. People from Marche make a sweet pasta with breadcrumbs, honey and fruit, and a stuffed squid with breadcrumbs.

The biggest St. Joseph’s Day celebration in the United States, however, is in New Orleans. Sicilians began arriving in New Orleans in the mid-to-late 1800s. One of their marvelous traditions is the St. Joseph’s Day altar. Families prepare elaborate tables of offerings to the Saint, including cakes, pastries, cookies, shaped breads, wine, grapes, fruit, fish, fava beans or lentils, and more, as well as statues, candles, and flowers like lilies.

The Sicilian tradition is one of charity and generosity, as the bounty of the table is shared with guests.

In honor of St. Joseph, who was a carpenter, bread crumbs are used to resemble saw dust.


Easter breads abound throughout the world, and Italy is no exception.

Italian Americans from the Marche and Umbria regions make crescia, either sweet with candied fruit or savory with cheese. Those from Lazio make both sweet and savory breads. We make casatiello, a peppery Neapolitan ring made with meat and cheese and hard-boiled eggs attached to the top. You can find sweet casatiello in bakeries.

Southern Italians make pizza chiena or pizza rustica, a dense savory pie with an egg-cheese-meat filling. Since pagan times, Neapolitans have made pastiera, a sweet wheatberry pie. People from Benevento use rice instead of wheat. Sicilians make lamb-shaped marzipan. Lamb is a popular dish for Easter.

My family makes it with peas and eggs. Some people also eat capuzzelle, lamb’s head. Not for the faint of heart. My grandfather’s favorite part was the eyes.

Pizza rustica, a traditional and savory Italian pie, is always served on Easter.

Day of the Dead, November 2

Day of the Dead is well known as a holiday in Mexico, but Italians celebrate it too. While it is associated with Roman Catholicism, it predates the church, and is, in fact, a form of ancestor worship. Sicilians make ossa dei morti, hard cookies that replicate bones of the dead, and fave dei morti, or beans of the dead, fava bean-shaped cookies.

A stack of Sicilian cookies intended to resemble bones of the dead. These cookies are especially popular around early November for ossa dei morti.

Feast of Saint Lucia, December 13

St. Lucia saved the people of Syracuse, Sicily from famine, so her feast day is celebrated by Sicilians. It is traditional to cook a wheat-based soup or custard.

The cuccia is a typical Sicilian sweet, made from boiled wheat and ricotta cream. It is garnished with pumpkin, cinnamon and chocolate chips, and is traditionally prepared on the Feast of Saint Lucia.

Christmas Eve

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a famous Christmas Eve tradition. However, we never called it that, and we never had a requirement of seven fish. From Southern Italy, this tradition is Roman Catholic in origin because meat is not eaten on Christmas Eve.

Families serve various seafood dishes or pasta with seafood, including but not limited to baccalá (codfish), either fried or in a salad with black olives; octopus; calamari (squid); and eel.

Although it is served on Christmas Eve, the eel symbolizes good luck for the new year.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes speaks for itself in Italian-American culture.

Christmas Day

During the Christmas season, Italian Americans are all about cookies. Some favorites that come from all regions of Southern Italy (particular regions are noted) include chiacchiere, fried bowknot cookies; struffoli, fried dough balls in a honey syrup; anginetti, knot-shaped cookies with icing; cuccidati, cookies with a fig paste (Sicily); sesame seed cookies; pizzelle, thin waffled cookies; pignoli, pine nut cookies; calcionetti (Abruzzo); and savory ringed taralli (Apulia).

That familiar-shaped box of panettone, a sweet bread from Milan in Northern Italy, may be a convenient grab in the grocery store, but the cookies from the Italian bakery are what the Italian Americans are eating.

Struffoli is served!

Dina M. Di Maio is a New York- and Tennessee-licensed lawyer with an MFA in creative writing from NYU. She has written and/or edited for Glamour, Family Circle, Time Out New York, the American Bar Association, and more, on many topics, including food and Italian culture.

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