Expressions of Italian heritage this time of year are usually not subtle. It’s the heaping helping of pasta and sauce, the zooma-zooma music of Louis Prima, the St. Joseph’s Day parade filling the streets.
In such bold and bodacious company, the traditional Italian cookie that’s so much a part of the season can seem plain, humble and maybe even homely.
These are cookies, after all, flavored with clove and fennel, figs and dates. Many are crumbly and dry by design. They’re worlds apart from the delicate creations of the French patisserie or the carefully engineered indulgences of the modern candy industry.
For those who love the old-fashioned Italian cookie, however, none of that matters. For them, traditional Italian cookies hit a sweet spot that goes beyond sugar, and they come with their own particular rituals and rewards.
“They’re not fancy-looking. I overhear people saying they don’t want them because they don’t look exciting. But that’s not the point,” said Arthur Brocato, proprietor of Angelo Brocato’s Ice Cream & Confectionary (214 N. Carrollton Ave., (504) 486-0078), the Mid-City font for Italian desserts.
“It’s not a cookie that’s going to burst in your mouth with all these chocolatey flavors, and it’s not really something to have on its own,” he said. “You want something to accompany it, your coffee, your wine — you want to dip.”
Dip that biscotti Regina into your coffee in the morning and this sesame seed cookie instantly absorbs the liquid for a soft, toasty-flavored bite. Dunk the little clove-and-cinnamon flavored dollop of Catalani cookie in your Marsalla and you have a two-bite digestif to finish off a hearty meal. Some of Brocato’s older customers dip their cookies into granita, the seasonal Italian ices his shop has made for more than a century.
“Back in Sicily, there’s a way to do every little thing, just like these cookies,” said Brocato.
Most of the Italian cookies that New Orleanians recognize as symbols of the season come from Sicily, and the cookies themselves tell tales of the Sicilian homeland. Pignoli cookies are made with the pine nuts and almonds for which Sicily is renowned. Sesame seed cookies are often linked to Middle Eastern flavors brought during the Arab conquest of the island, along with the North African staples of figs and dates and clove.
Today, they’re part of Christmas celebrations, weddings and christenings, and they’re so entwined with the St. Joseph’s Altar customs that they’re sometimes called “altar cookies.” The altars make the baking and sharing of these cookies a family tradition with a uniquely public outlet.
Nick Scramuzza grew up eating Italian cookies, and not just at the holidays. He once lived blocks away from Angelo Brocato’s original location on Ursulines Street in the French Quarter, and cucidati fig cookies and biscotti were regular nickel-and-dime treats.
Now, Scramuzza builds his own altar in the back room of his Marigny bar, the Lost Love Lounge (2529 Dauphine St., (504) 949-2009) with all the traditional altar dishes (viewing, from 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday; from 11 a.m. Saturday, food in the late afternoon). Of course there are cookies on the altar, and bagged bunches of cookies for visitors to bring home. Most of these are contributed by relatives and friends, part of the interwoven network of mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers driving the cookie-making craft across New Orleans.
“When people bring you Italian cookies, you know exactly what to expect,” Scramuzza said. “On the altar, you have all the cakes, the pasta, the fish, and yeah, those cookies are just sitting there, not too exciting. But it’s a style. They’re always there, and they always disappear because people expect them. Without the cookies, the altar would be naked.”
In the past, some of those cookies came from the kitchen of Lisa Saia, who for years has led cookie-making sessions. This year has been a little different, because Saia is preparing cookies for a new family St. Joseph’s Altar installed at the restaurant of her son, Nick Lama.
Lama opened the Sicilian restaurant Avo (5908 Magazine St., (504) 509-6550) in May, and on Saturday he’ll host its first altar (viewing at 11 a.m., food at noon).
But as usual, her baking sessions started by gathering her friends and family around kitchen tables, working through piles of sesame seeds, anise and clove, and partaking in a process that is every bit as important as the cookies it produces.
“To me, the cookies are delicious, but it really is all about the community,” Saia said. “We bake cookies together, we’re rolling cookies, we’re telling stories about the old people, sharing our memories. It gets loud. It’s like quilting bees, but Sicilians make cookies. It’s about being together. I don’t think I’ve ever made cookies on my own.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.