Articles by: K. P.

  • by Chiara Ezechia
    Life & People

    Saint Lucy's Day in Italy

    Throughout the country, Italians celebrate La Festa della Santa Lucia (The Feast of Saint Lucy) annually on December 13. While Santa Lucia is most popular in Scandinavia, she was born, lived, and died a martyr in Sicily. Therefore, special devotions for her take place up and down the peninsula, specifically in the north, but also in her home region of Sicily.

    Patron Saint of the Blind

    Lucia was persecuted for her faith around 300 C.E., making her one of the earliest recorded Christian martyrs. Various legends narrate that she would wear a candle-lit wreath as she carried food and aid to Christians hiding in catacombs. According to the traditional story, the saintly virgin refused to marry a powerful pagan man, who fell in love with her legendary eyes. Raging from rejection, he sent soldiers to blind her, but her eyes were miraculously restored. In another version, she plucked them out herself and sent them to her suitor on a platter. Roman authorities then ordered Lucia to work in a brothel, but she refused to go. As not even a fire set under her feet could get her to budge, one of her persecutors ultimately killed her by stabbing her in the throat with a sword.

    She has been venerated as the patron saint of the blind and is frequently shown holding her eyes on a golden plate. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lucia’s name derived from the Latin lux or lucis for light (luce in Italian). Her feast day once coincided with the Winter Solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year before calendar reforms, and has accordingly become a festival of light. As it falls within the Advent season just 12 days before Christmas, Saint Lucy’s Day also points to the arrival of Christ, the light of the world. 

    Famine in Siracusa, Sicilia

    Lucia is also the patron saint of her hometown, Syracuse, Sicily. In fact, she gained greater fame here when the great Sicilian famine of 1582 ended on her feast day, thanks to the ship loaded with wheat that entered the harbor. Rather than processing the wheat into flour, the starving people simply boiled and ate it. Now, Sicilians honor her memory by abstaining from anything that is made of wheat flour on December 13. Traditionally, they eat whole grains, which usually take the form of cuccia—a dessert of boiled wheat berries sweetened with ricotta and honey.

    Today’s Celebrations

    Typically on this day, Italians gather together, burn candles and torches, and enjoy an abundance of food and drink.  Of course this is a different year and the pandemic has canceled all initiatives, but we want to remember them so that we are all ready to celebrate next year.

    However, traditional celebrations of Santa Lucia usually vary according to region.

    In northern Italy, specifically in Trentino-Alto Adige, Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Emilia-Romagna, Santa Lucia is celebrated similarly to the Saint Nicholas tradition. But instead of traveling on a sleigh, she rides on her donkey and visits homes on the eve of her feast day, baring gifts for the good children. And rather than milk and cookies, families leave out coffee and cake—sometimes biscuits and oranges too—for the saint and water and hay for the donkey. However, the children cannot watch her visit, or she will throw ashes in their eyes, temporarily blinding them.

    In Milan in particular, you will see St. Lucy represented in the Cathedral, as she is considered the protector of the sculptors of the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, who processed marble every day, continuously at risk of being hit in the eyes by splinters or blinded by the dust. Of the many important events that take place in her honor in the area, every year the Chiesa di Santa Maria Annunciata in Camposanto has a Mass to thank her and to distribute "St. Lucy’s bread."

    In southern Italy, Santa Lucia is honored with more traditional religious parades and feasts. The most important celebration takes place in Siracusa, of course. Festivities begin the night before when they move her silver statue from its chapel to the high altar of her candle-lit cathedral. The next morning, a procession of 60 men with green berets carry her silver statue throughout the entire city, making stops at the most important cathedrals and the Ionian Sea.

  • Photo. Courtesy of Italian Sons and Daughters of Amercia
    Life & People

    Italian-American Christmas from One Generation to the Next

    As Italy boasts 20 different regions, all home to countless provinces and smaller cities and villages, Christmas customs differ from north to south, beginning with when to open presents and ranging to what/how dishes are served. When all of these unique traditions make their way over the Atlantic, even more variations come into play.

    While it’s no doubt that Christmas is a major holiday in Italy, many celebrate on different days. Some start early on December 13, the Feast Day of Saint Lucy, when Santa Lucia brings gifts for the children. Others have grand affairs on Christmas Eve and simply rest on Christmas Day. However, many wait until January 6 for the Feast of the Epiphany, more commonly known as La Befana. Though some Italian-Americans have adapted certain aspects of these Christmas customs, generally here in the US we celebrate on the 24th in preparation for a larger festivity on the 25th.

    But one guarantee is that Italians and Italian-Americans alike celebrate with family and enjoy an abundance of food. We broke down some of our favorite Christmas culinary traditions so you can enjoy your festivities the Italian-American way.

    The Feast of the Seven Fishes

    A staple in Italian-American homes is the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. The ancient tradition stems from the Roman Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on the eve of certain holidays. The number seven is also rooted in Catholicism; there are 7 sacraments, 7 days of Creation, and 7 deadly sins. However, there are no hard-and-fast rules about what fish should be included or how they should be prepared. In fact, some families are ambitious and choose to make twelve dishes instead, in deference to the 12 apostles. Regardless of the number of dishes or fishes, as you can also choose to select one or two types and then prepare it several ways, everyone who partakes in this dinner can agree that seafood on the 24th is a must and preferably with wine.

    Start with baccalà, or salted cod, and whip it into a creamy spread to top crunchy bread. Then make a simple salad with greens and grilled squid. Shrimp cocktail, spaghetti alle vongole, and any hearty seafood stew are some options to follow. If you want a main course, try salmon or bass and play it up with vegetables or legumes. Then you only have one more seafood dish to go!


    Typically, Italian-Americans simply munch on cheese with a nice glass of wine while dinner is in the works, but on Christmas appetizers get a chance to shine. Outside the conventional hors d'oeuvres, like olives, stuffed mushrooms, and prosciutto, one of our favorites is Spinach Torta. This flavorful starter originates from the beautiful port city of Genoa and has sailed through generations. Savory, salty, flaky, and dense, it's prepared like a pie and cut into bite-sized pieces. With each mouthful, the pungent cheese, sweet spinach and onion, and creamy rice flavors melt perfectly together. We modified a recipe to suite everyone's tastes, but the best torta always starts with a good crust.

    To make the dough, combine flour, olive oil, baking soda, salt, and water. Wrap the mixture into a ball and set aside for a half hour. For the filling, cook spinach and sauté an onion until sweet. Then in a bowl, mix the two with rice, minced garlic, eggs, grated Parmesan, salt and pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Press part of the dough into a pie pan, pour in the filling, and cover the top with the remaining strips of dough. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes and wait until cool before cutting it diagonally—don't be tempted by the nostalgic aroma sure to take over the kitchen.


    Just as in Italy, dinners vary from house to house. Generally, it’s served as a late lunch or early dinner either in courses or all at once family-style, but most will start with a salad in any case. Naturally, there’s pasta, whether lasagna, gnocchi, or ravioli, and chicken either alla parmigiana, alla milanese, or alla marsala. Other meats make their way to the table too, like meatballs, lamb, or pork chops. Common side dishes include artichoke hearts, broccoli rabe with sausage, and arancini (rice balls).


    No Italian holiday is complete without dessert. Depending on your origins, or your preference, pandoro, which hails from Verona, or panettone, first created in Milan, are a must. Both of the sweet cakes can be easily found in any Italian grocery store or bakery and pair perfectly with whipped cream, fresh fruit, and a sweet wine. And with cake comes cookies. Of course, most Italian Americans have rainbow cookies, pignoli cookies, and cantucci, or biscotti. But you may also find Milanese hazelnut almond meringues, known as brutti ma buoni, which translates to ugly but good, and pizzelle, thin and crisp waffle cookies from Abruzzo. Two last essential sweets to have on deck are struffoli, a Neapolitan dish made of deep fried balls of dough coated in honey, and cannolis, a Sicilian pastry filled with a creamy filling, usually ricotta.

    Buon Natale!

  • Courtesy of Francesco Isgro
    Facts & Stories

    NIAF Mourns the Passing of Founding Member Pino Cicala

    Born in Italy, Pino Cicala immigrated to the United States in 1955, earning a degree from Catholic University’s School of Architecture in 1960. In 1958, while still a student at Catholic University, Cicala became producer and host of the “Italian Melodies Hour” – an Italian music program founded four years earlier by his brother Carmelo Cicala who felt Washington’s Italian American community needed an Italian voice. Over the years, not only has “Italian Melodies” provided the community with classic and new Italian musical recordings, it has kept listeners informed with news from Italy. The program has also broadcast Cicala’s insightful interviews with Italian and Italian American VIPS, notables and community leaders.

    “The entire NIAF family is deeply saddened by the loss of one of our organization’s founders and a man who for 60 plus years has been a pillar of the Italian community in Washington, D.C.,” said John M. Viola, NIAF president and chief operating officer. “I am very glad that I was able to share in Pino’s 2014 Community Leadership Award at our Annual NIAF Gala. It was certainly a well-deserved acknowledgement of a man who gave so much of his life to our community.”

    After a 30-year career in architecture, Cicala retired as president of Watergate Architectural Interiors, but he continued his unofficial role as Italy’s Cultural Ambassador to Washington, D.C. In 2001, Cicala founded AMICO, the information website and “key to Washington Italiana,” devoted to spreading the Italian culture within the Italian community in the nation’s capital and throughout the United States. Today, recent editions of the “Italian Melodies” hour can be streamed on the AMICO website at

    Cicala was a fervent supporter and leader of several Italian American organizations including: the Lido Civic Club, where he served as president; the Italian Cultural Society of Washington, where he oversaw the creation of the Italian Language Program; Friendship Heights Rotary Club; and the Roma and Fiumedinisi lodges of the Sons of Italy.

    The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the Italian American heritage and culture. To learn more about the Foundation and become a member, please visit