An Italian-American Christmas Story

Long lines at the bakery, and hours in front of the oven are always worth it in the end.

By: Dina Di Maio, ISDA Contributor

The week before Christmas was the most exciting time of the year. The entire family got in the car and drove to all the Italian markets in the city.

The stores were crowded with other Italians getting the same foods for their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals. Double-parked cars lined the streets, as we circled the blocks searching for a spot.

At the fish market, we got all the Christmas Eve fish—capitone (eel), baccalá, stocco, octopus, shrimp, lobster, etc. At the salumeria, we got meats for the antipasto—capocollo, soppressata, prosciutto.

We got mozzarella and ricotta at the cheese store.

There’s no substitute for traditional mozzarella cheese.

But the stop I couldn’t wait for was the bakery. The glass cases of multi-colored cookies beckoned me.

Red and green leaf cookies sandwiching chocolate inside, spritz cookies with candied cherries of green and red, jam-filled sandwich cookies chocolate-dipped on one end and decorated with sprinkles, pignoli cookies, butter cookies with a drop of chocolate in the center or half-dipped in chocolate, red-white-and-green rainbow cookies, spritz cookies that were brightly colored green or red, sesame cookies, fig-paste filled cookies, cookies with icing and sprinkles, cookies covered with chopped nuts.

The irresistible appeal of Italian-American bakeries during the holidays.

We would get a few pounds of cookies and pastries to have at the house for guests.

Of course, in an Italian house at Christmas, a few pounds of cookies and pastries is not enough. We also made our own.

An essential holiday favorite were chiacchiere, the fried bowknots that have a few aliases, such as cenci, galani, bugie, frappe, donzelli, crostoli, or farfellate. (They are sometimes known as “wandi,” which I think is “guanti,” or “gloves” in Italian, or “vanti,” or “boasts,” with the “gu” and “v” pronounced like a “w” in Neapolitan dialect.)

Another holiday classic: struffoli, the fried dough balls draped in honey syrup. Popular cookies in my family—and most Italian families–are anginetti, or anise cookies. This cookie with its festive sprinkles—was the star of every holiday cookie tray.

Can you ever eat just one? (Rhetorical question)

As I write in my book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, Italian Americans made the same cherished recipes as their grandparents and great-grandparents who came to the United States from Italy. We made our bows, our struffoli, and our anginetti for the holidays to honor our Italian heritage.

Dalla mia famiglia alla tua—Buon Natale!

Anginetti Recipe


For the cookies:

  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon anisette liqueur or anise extract
  • 5 cups flour
  • 5 teaspoons baking powder
  • Milk

For the icing:

  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 5-6 tablespoons warm water
  • 2 teaspoons anisette liqueur or anise extract
  • Rainbow nonpareils


  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Line an ungreased baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and anisette. Mix well. Add the flour and baking powder.
  3. Mix to form a dough. If the dough is too dry, add enough milk to make it workable. Shape into meatball-sized balls. Bake 13-15 minutes.
  4. Let cool. When cooled, ice the cookies. Decorate with nonpareils. Makes 3 dozen cookies.

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