I recently accompanied my mom down to Filitalia International’s Italian American Heritage Museum (1834 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia), where she was one of three demonstrators of pizzelle making, teaching how to make this traditional Italian treat.
On the second Saturday of each month down at the museum, the local television show, Ciao Bella Living Italian Style, presents the “In the Kitchen with Family and Friends” cooking series. Several generations of “real” people—as opposed to professional chefs—come into the museum’s kitchen to demonstrate the art of making a traditional Italian food. Last month, the series kicked off with a lesson on making Taralli, those bagel-pretzel-breadstick-like cookies that some like sweet, some like savory, some prefer iced, and others keep plain.
About 25 guests gathered on March 14 to watch the “real deal” of making pizzelles, one of the many traditional Italian desserts that are found on Easter and other holiday dinner and dessert tables. Joanne DiPierro Maturo of South Philadelphia, daughter Danielle Maturo Moore of Turnersville, N.J., and granddaughter Isabella Moore, age 6, skillfully demonstrated how to make a perfect pizzelle with an old-fashioned, handheld ancestral pizzelle iron over a gas stove. They showed how the iron was monogrammed with their family name, as was the custom “back then.” The three generations patiently made one pizzelle at a time as they explained the art of making these delicate waffle cookies, as well as the history of how their recipe was handed down through the generations of their family. A treasured photo of Joanne’s mother, Josephine DiPierro, rested nearby their bowls and mixer. The trio also made their batter from scratch, with everyone watching.
Next up was my mom, Onnie LaRocca Lafferty, who demonstrated how pizzelles are made on a modern, electrical pizzelle iron. Assisted by two daughters, two nephews and two granddaughters, she brought along her mother’s original handheld, over-the-fire cast-iron pizzelle maker, but only to show, not to use. She told how she remembered making the cookies with her own mother over the stove in South Philadelphia and how she now makes the pizzelles for Easter, Christmas and other special occasions and holidays, sharing the recipe and tradition with the next generation.
“Pizzelles require patience to make,” Lafferty reminded those in attendance. “People say you shouldn’t make them on rainy or snowy days, but I think that’s an old wives’ tale. I always make mine on bad-weather days, when I have a lot of downtime.”
Paula Iacovelli Wholey also donned an apron and made some batches of her mother’s recipe. Now in her 60s, Wholey said she has been making pizzelles since she was 8 or 9. When a pizzelle came out in a less than desirable shape or size, Wholey would roll it to use later as a cannoli shell. She, too, used modern equipment, and her ingredients, batter and methods were slightly different than the other two demonstrators’ recipes.
In fact, all three demonstrators used different recipes for the same pizzelle. Some dusted them in 10x sugar, and some did not. Wholey’s batter was thin; her pizzelles were light and airy. My mom used both anisette extract and anisette seeds, while Joanne used anisette oil, extract and seeds. It was amazing how many variations of the same end product there were.
When sampling time came—absolutely the best part, especially paired with Grandmom Lucia Acciavatti’s freshly made espresso—those gathered in the kitchen were divided on whose pizzelles they liked best. When comparing pizzelles, I overheard words like “flavorful,” “thinner,” “lighter,” “perfect consistency,” “sweet, but not too sweet,” “crisper,” “delicious” and “scrumptious”—to name a few. When all was said and done, I have to admit, I literally OD’d on pizzelles. Plus, we all got to take samples home with us.
I learned a lot that afternoon, not only about baking pizzelles but also about history, culture and all kinds of other things. By watching and listening, I discovered that making traditional holiday foods together in the kitchen can truly foster intergenerational family bonding.
During my day at the Italian Immigration Museum, I also met a lot of new friends in the kitchen, always an intimate gathering spot, conducive to good conversation and camaraderie. I asked a new acquaintance, Livia Cristella of South Philadelphia, how she liked the day. “Magnificent! I couldn’t have spent my Saturday doing anything more fun,” she exclaimed. “Being together with others who enjoy the same Italian traditions was very heartwarming.”
When I asked Gene LaGreca of Charlestown, Chester County, what he thought of the afternoon, he said that he not only enjoyed the cooking presentation but also loved the Italian Heritage Museum. “I will be back,” he assured me.
Stephanie Malloy, age 12, was at the cooking presentation with her mom. They are newcomers to the Philly area, having moved recently from New York. She told me her family has a pizzelle iron in their basement, but they weren’t sure how to use it. After their day “in the kitchen,” she and her mom were going to head home, dig it out, and use it. They seemed to really like the intergenerational bonding that traditional food making creates.
The fun afternoon—full of learning, tradition and good conversation around the “kitchen table”—included a tour of the museum led by Michael Bonasera, the exhibit creator, and a break to enjoy a lunch of Anne Acciavatti’s potato and macaroni salads and some hand-braided fresh mozzarella, plus other Italian cheeses and lunch meats from Lucio Mancuso and Son’s Food and Grocery, located across the street on Passyunk Avenue.
Parts of the day’s pizzelle-making adventures were filmed for the new Ciao Bella Living Italian Style show, which debuts May 3.
Ciao Bella Living Italian Style will present more traditional Italian cooking in its “In the Kitchen with Family and Friends” series. Coming up next is stromboli making in May and pasta and ravioli making from scratch in June, using an old-fashioned “guitar” to make spaghetti. Other classes beyond that may include Christmas cookies, traditional “gravy,” tiramisu, and limoncello and orangecello.
Ciao Bella founder Barbara Ann Zippi said she is able and willing to take her “In the Kitchen” traditional cooking classes on the road to other locations and is looking for places in Delaware and New Jersey. For more information on upcoming classes or to sign up, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Later that day, when I returned home from my lovely afternoon “in the kitchen,” I had the chance to go and see Blackthorn perform in a free concert at the Ridley Township Marina in celebration of St. Patty’s Day. My sister, who had been at the pizzelle-making extravaganza with our mom and me, was game to switch our Italian hats for Irish ones and come with me. We were having such a great time when I smiled—with Irish eyes, of course—and told her, “We are so lucky and blessed to be children of a mixed marriage, Italian mother and Irish father. Thanks to Mom and Dad, we truly get to enjoy and immerse ourselves in the best of both worlds!”
The next day, I sat down with my cup of coffee, turned on the St. Patrick’s Day parade on TV, and tried to decide if I wanted a few pizzelles or a few Irish potatoes. I’m not lying—I opted for the pizzelles and wondered why I didn’t think to ask my mom to add a drop or two of green food coloring to the batter. Maybe next year.
The following recipe for pizzelles made on an ancestral handheld pizzelle iron over a gas stove is by Joanne DiPierro Maturo and was passed down from her mother, Josephine.
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
1/2 lb. butter (melted and cooled)
4 tsp. baking powder
2 tbsp. anise extract or anise oil
Sprinkle of salt
2 shots anisette
Sprinkle of anise seeds
1. In a mixer, beat eggs, adding sugar gradually; beat until smooth. Add melted butter, anise extract, anisette, salt and anise seeds.
2. Mix flour and baking powder together, and slowly add to the mixture. Dough should be sticky enough to drop from a spoon. Keep in the refrigerator for about a day.
3. When ready to make pizzelles, warm the stovetop iron until hot, then coat with butter on each side. Put one teaspoon of dough, press, and begin. Two hours later: 80 pizzelles.
Peg DeGrassa is a reporter for the Delco News Network. Email her at email@example.com.