Monday, 22 December 2014

Caltagirone Nativity Scenes and Sicilian Christmas Cookies!

Buona sera a tutti! I hope that you are all well and enjoying the run up to the Christmas festivities! In Sicily, preparations are well underway for the traditional Nativity scenes that appear across the island in the month of December.

One city in particular that attracts thousands of visitors each year to its Nativity displays is Caltagirone. This Baroque town in the province of Catania has long been famous for its beautiful pottery, in particular its ceramics and terracotta, and actually takes its name from the Arabic words for 'Hill of Vases'. The city's main landmark is the staircase of Santa Maria del Monte which was built in 1608 in the old section of the town. Each of the staircase's 142 steps is adorned with different hand-decorated ceramics using varying styles and figures from the town's ancient tradition of pottery making. To celebrate Caltagirone's Patron Saint 'San Giacomo', or St. James, on the 25th July the steps are lined with terracotta oil lamps which are lit simultaneously by hundreds of locals creating a spectacular effect.

For the month of December the town comes alive with beautiful Nativity scenes made entirely of terracotta which are displayed throughout Caltagirone. Some residents even open their homes to show their own intricate displays. One fine example of a Nativity scene is 'Il Presepe Animato in Terracotta' which can be found in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. This Nativity display features moving figures and extends over 80 square metres - the largest in Italy. On the 25th and 26th December and the 6th January there will be a 'live' Nativity scene in the town's historic centre featuring more than 200 local residents dressed in costume.

Throughout the month of December there will be Christmas markets and processions in the town such as that on the 'Festa dell'Immacolata' on the 8th December. For the two days prior to this feast day there is a delicious aroma throughout the town as bakeries sell the traditional 'muffulette' - a local bread made with fennel seeds.

Have a wonderful Christmas everyone - Buon Natale! I hope that all of you across the world are beginning to feel the festive spirit. Don't forget to use our recipe for Sicilian Christmas Cookies, or 'Mastazzoli' at -

A presto!


P.S. If you enjoy reading my blog please become a follower by registering at the Google 'Join this site' icon on the right of the blog page. Grazie mille for your support!!

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Ghostly Bridal Party of Cammarata

Buongiorno a tutti! I hope that you all had a wonderful Summer and are enjoying the beautiful Autumn colours that now surround us. The dark nights are drawing in and there is a distinct chill in the air which means the time has come again for me to write my Halloween blog - one of the blogs which I enjoy writing the most! This year I have a wonderfully spooky tale to tell; a tale which will take you deep into the heart of Sicily and to a time long ago - a time of noblemen and of tradition. Enjoy!

Deep in the woods of Cammarata, in the province of Agrigento, lies a lonely castle with a noble past. The imposing, picturesque castle lies in a beautiful location but the mystical woods that surround it have long believed to be haunted. The horror of the events that happened there makes a sad, romantic and tragic story.

Hundreds of years ago the Baron of Cammarata had a very beautiful daughter named Elisabetta, whom he adored. She was to marry a nobleman of rank and fortune. But, unfortunately, the bridegroom was the Baron's choice. He had forbidden Elisabetta to meet again the man she truly loved.

Despite all her tearful protests, Elisabetta was married in the castle chapel by the Priest of Cammarata. Afterwards the full bridal party set out to 'ride the bounds' - that was to ride in procession around the entire boundary of the estate, as tradition demanded. On their return to the castle, a magnificent banquet would be held in their honour.

Elisabetta's lover had heard of this, and with a party of his friends, he was waiting in ambush in a little wood nearby. His plan was to launch a surprise attack, rescue Elisabetta, and then they would make their escape together.

Back at the castle the feast was prepared and servants and minstrels waited with the Baron in the Great Hall to greet and serve the guests. Many hours passed without their return. The increasingly anxious Baron sent out men to search, but they could find no trace of the missing party. At last the servants were dismissed to bed, and only the Baron was left to keep a lonely vigil in the dimly lit Hall.

On the stroke of midnight he awoke from dozing to the sound of the castle drawbridge being lowered, and noises of horsemen in the courtyard. Almost in the same instance the bridal party filed silently into the Hall, and in the dead quiet took their places at the table. No-one spoke, not a single word.

Gazing in puzzlement at his guests, the Baron began to realise to his horror that the white and frozen faces of his daughter and friends belonged to their ghosts.With a terrible scream he fell to the floor in a faint, and as he did, the 'ghostly bridal party' vanished from sight.

According to the story, the poor Baron never recovered his speech, and remained paralysed for the rest of his life.

It was believed that when the bridal party was ambushed, a terrible fight had taken place, Elisabetta herself being accidently killed in the general confusion. No one survived the slaughter, and the blood from the dreadful carnage flowed into a hollow stone, which is known to this day as 'The Raven's Stone'.

Every year on the anniversary of the tragedy, the ghostly bridal party rides again through the woods near the castle. It is said that the sound of hoof-beats and the jingling of harness can be heard clearly. Strangely, although time has altered the landscape, the riders keep to their original route, passing straight through any walls or fences that now bar their way.

Have a wonderful Halloween .... and be sure to listen out for the sound of hooves and of jingling harnesses!

A presto,

Debra Santangelo

If you enjoy reading my blog please become a follower by registering at the Google 'join this site' icon at the right of this blog page. Grazie mille for your support!

Friday, 7 February 2014

69th Annual Almond Blossom Festival - Agrigento

Buongiorno a tutti! I hope that you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year wherever you are in the world. Here at Sicilian Connections we thoroughly enjoyed the festive period but are very happy  to see the evenings become lighter and the early appearance of the Spring sunshine! This also means that it is again time for the wonderful 'Sagra del Mandorlo in Fiore', or the Almond Blossom Festival of Agrigento.

This year will be the 69th edition of the International Festival and will take place from the 8th February to the 16th March. The annual festival takes place in the majestic Sicilian city of Agrigento and celebrates the first almond blossoms of the season - one of the earliest visible signs that Spring is coming. The city will come alive with colourful folk dancers from around the world exhibiting their traditional costumes and dances for the gathered crowds. Local restaurants and bars in the area serve delicious almond dishes and vibrant processions take place throughout the town.

Enjoy this video taken from an Italian news programme which shows last year's festival highlights -

If you can't make it to the festival why not enjoy some almond and honey cookies, or 'Mastazzoli'. The recipe is on my Christmas blog post -
A presto,
Debra Santangelo
P.S. If you enjoy reading my blog please become a follower by registering at the Google 'Join this site' icon on the right of this blog page. Grazie mille for your support!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Sicilian Ghost Story for Halloween!

Buona sera amici! Well the nights are getting longer and the dark evenings have taken on an almost mystical quality. This can only mean one thing - Halloween is approaching. Any of you that have been following my blog for some time will know that I love this time of year as I can write about one of my favourite topics: Sicilian legends and ghost stories. This year I am taking you all on a journey to a small town in the province of Agrigento called Sambuca di Sicilia. More specifically to a street there which in 1882 was given the official name of 'Via Fantasma', or 'Ghost Street'.

The legend starts way back in the year 830 when the town was still known as 'Zabuth' in honour of its founder, the Arab Emir Al Zabut. The town was enjoying a period of prosperity under the Arab ruling and was protected by a large Arab fort which dominated the town. A large staircase was built into the rocks around the fort for the Arab troops to utilise in times of conflict and attack. In fact, the town of Zabuth was continuously under siege at that time by the troops of  Federico II who was determined to convert the residents to Christianity. It was this conflict between Christians and Muslims (at that time known as Saracens) which led to a great war breaking out in the early thirteenth century.


Between the years of 1223 and 1225, the town of Zabuth was the location of horrific violence and hundreds of the town's inhabitants lost their lives, as did many of the Christian soldiers sent by Federico II. The legend states that bodies were constantly thrown from the high walls of the fort onto the rocks below.

The Arabs were defeated and from that day everything changed in the town of Sambuca. The Christian occupants of the town often awoke from their sleep to hear the tortured cries of the war's victims as their souls wandered through the tiny cobbled streets for all eternity. When there was a full moon, it is said that the shadow of an enormous Saracen warrior would appear on the steps of the stone staircase and throw his hands to the sky with a desperate, tormented wail. When commemoration ceremonies were held for the lives of the fallen Christian soldiers, the haunting cries coming from the streets would be heard even above the sobs of the gathered mourners.


This dreadful fear amongst the town's inhabitants lasted for many years. So much so that in the sixteenth century, a church was built in dedication to the 'Madonna del Rosario' by the Jesuit Gaspare Paraninfo to exorcise the town's lost souls. On the rock face next to the stone staircase where the apparition of Emir Al Zabut would appear, a large mural was painted of the Madonna (the Virgin Mary) to keep any Saracen spirits away. This mural became known as the 'Madonna della Scala'.

The painting was eroded away by nature's elements long ago but the church of the 'Madonna del Rosario' still exists, as does the cursed staircase ..... however even the town's worst sceptics are loathed to set foot upon it!

Happy Halloween!

A presto,

Debra Santangelo

Amici, if you enjoy reading my blog please become a follower by registering at the Google 'Join this site' icon at the top right of the page. Grazie mille for your support!!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

A Sicilian's Journey - Book Review

Buongiorno a tutti! This month we have had the pleasure of reviewing a wonderful book written by William V. Fioravanti. It is a truly captivating read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Sicily and in Italian immigration. For those of you who have not yet seen the article on our website ( here is the author's description of his book and our review -

William V. Fioravanti’s Book Description

This is a non-fiction account of the life of my grandfather. His life starts in Sicily and follows him through his arrival in New York and his experiences in the small colonial town of Johnstown and twin city Gloversville. Although it is not permeated with gangsters and violence, there is much action. Life for immigrants in these small upstate New York villages was not a simple transition and there are plenty of unusual happenings.

I wrote this story as a treatment for a screenplay and when you peruse the work you will see how it flows from chapter to chapter. Some chapters are short but still very visual. It is my sincerest desire that you will find a very unusual and exciting journey of a Sicilian immigrant striving to survive in a new and fast changing world.
History, love and passion are all prevalent in great abundance in A Sicilian’s Journey. This book is full of interesting information about the actual events of one family taken from all aspects. I have a great interest in Sicilian culture and the history of Sicilian immigration to America and gained much knowledge from reading this book. As soon as I had read two chapters I was engrossed to see how the story unravelled and to reveal the final outcome.

The story begins in Sicily in 1878 with Vincenzo Saviotti. Many villages at the time, although beautiful and historic, did not have an economy that could support families. Although the Saviotti family had lived in a small Sicilian village called Castelmola for many years, Vincenzo decided to take his trade as a cobbler to Messina. It is from this decision that the story of the Fioravanti and Andreana family begins. As Castelmola, close to Taormina, is a town that I visit often, I was very interested to read the differences between the Castelmola that I am familiar with now and that of two hundred years ago.

A Sicilian’s Journey moves between different points in time and focuses on different characters of this Sicilian family. It is written in such a way that is flows effortlessly from one section to another. I have found the family completely fascinating and I particularly enjoyed reading about Guglielmo Fioravanti, the author’s Grandfather, and genuinely cared about him. As I was reading the book, I constantly wanted to find out more about the journey of Guglielmo, and all of his family members, and what happened to them.

Sicilian Americans would relate to this book tremendously; I personally found it a truly emotional read. I experienced a wide range of feelings and became very involved with the story. It was easy to picture it all in my mind, making it very real and prompting me to learn more about the immigration of Italian Americans and the harsh reality of it; the dreadful conditions on the ships, the claustrophobia, the dysentery and disease... how did they manage to survive?

The fact that Italians changed their names from their own Italian birth names to American names highlights the prejudice felt by the immigrants and the measures that they were forced to take in order to be accepted. They faced terrible unemployment and difficult housing situations due to their Italian nationality and allegedly ‘lowly’ stature in America. It is easy to see why Ellis Island became known as the ‘Island of Tears’.

I was truly compelled by this book and by Guglielmo Fioravanti who, with great foresight, kindness, generosity and hard work for his family allowed them to prosper and to be blessed in his choice to relocate to the northern New York state of Johnstown. This lovely book is a must-read.

A Sicilian’s Journey can be purchased to read on your Kindle at the following link -
A presto,
Debra Santangelo

Monday, 9 September 2013

La Festa di Santa Rosalia - Bensonhurst

Buongiorno a tutti! I hope that you all had a wonderful Summer and had the chance to attend at least one of the wonderful Italian festivals that took place all over the world. One of these festivals was 'La Festa di Santa Rosalia' which took place in the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn, New York.

When hundreds of thousands of immigrants left Sicily in the late nineteenth century for the shores of America they took many of their traditions and customs with them. This made the transition slightly easier and enabled them to enjoy a piece of home in this new, unknown land. One of these traditions was the ‘Festa di Santa Rosalia’ which has been celebrated in Palermo for 389 years and has now become a long standing tradition in the Italian American community.

The feast has always been celebrated in Brooklyn but it originally took place in the parish of the Sacred Hearts and St. Stephen’s Church in Carroll Gardens, which was Brooklyn’s first Italian parish. The procession originally involved followers walking barefoot through the streets of the neighbourhood to show their devotion to the Saint. Since then the festival has been moved to the Bensonhurst area where it has existed for seventy years.

This year at 5pm each day from 22nd August to the 1st September, 18th Avenue was closed between 68th Street and Bay Ridge Parkway to allow local residents to enjoy the offerings of over 100 vendors. These Italian American merchants offer a wide range of delicious Sicilian specialities such as cannoli, zeppole and arancini and families from across the city came together to experience this time honoured tradition. Many Sicilian families have moved away from these tight-knit communities in recent years and the Feast of Santa Rosalia often provides the ideal opportunity to come together and share stories of their ancestry and heritage.

There was, however, some controversy surrounding the festival this year. It was originally thought that the feast may have to be cancelled, as it was in 2011, due to problems with street-closure permits and other paperwork issues. Thankfully these issues were resolved at the last minute and it is the wish of this loyal and devoted community that the ‘Festa di Santa Rosalia’ will continue to survive long into the future.
Amici, if you enjoy reading my blog please become a follower by registering at the Google 'Join this site' icon at the top right of the page. Grazie mille for your support!!
A presto!
Debra Santangelo

Friday, 28 June 2013

Interview with Professor Philip J. DiNovo

Buongiorno a tutti! This week I had the honour of speaking to Professor Philip J. DiNovo who is the Founder and President of the esteemed American Italian Heritage Association and the American Italian Heritage Museum in Albany, New York. He has also been knighted by the Italian Government and is a respected figure in America’s Italian community.

Mr. DiNovo agreed to provide our readers with further information about his organisation and about his own connections to the island of Sicily and here is our exclusive interview :-) I hope you enjoy it!


Good Evening. Please can you tell us about The American Italian Heritage Association and how it was originally founded?

I founded the American Italian Heritage Association in 1979. Our mission is to record and preserve our Italian heritage.

The Association has been involved in many projects throughout the Italian American Community. Can you tell us about some of these activities?

We offer many programs, events and classes to carry out our mission. We are a resource for all things Italian in the community. We publish a 20 page bi-monthly newsletter in English that goes to our members in 37 states and several countries.

 How did the opening of the American Italian Heritage Museum come about?

In 1985 I founded the American Italian Heritage Museum in Utica, NY and closed it in 1997. We then moved to Albany, NY and our campus has three buildings. Our museum is in a former church and there are ten rooms of exhibits, the Hall of History, the Donor Tree in the Reception Room, the Gift Shop and two offices. Our museum is the largest Italian American room in the Eastern part of the USA. On the second floor (1,900 sq ft.) will be our Italian Cultural Center.

Can you please give us some insight into what visitors to your wonderful museum can expect to see?

Our Museum has the following rooms: Immigrant (2), Italian Folk Art, Religious, Italian American Music, Old Photo, Hall of History, Contribution of Italian Americans, Art, Special Exhibit and Military.

The museum honors the Italian Immigrants; we tell their story and we tell of the contributions of Italian Americans.
File:Termini imerese bjs07-01.jpg
One of the museum's current exhibits is 'My Sicily, Lights and Color' by the Sicilian artist, Joseph Anastasio. Can you tell us some more about this exhibit?
'My Sicily, Lights and Color' Exhibit is by a member born in Sicily, Joseph Anastasio. The paintings are of Sicily and its people and his body of work shows a tremendous love for, and understanding of, his land. Almost all of his works are painted on ceramic tiles, illustrating scenes of Sicily with its beautiful landscapes, its people, its villages, but most of all the sea and the unforgettable sunsets. In his landscapes, you will find monuments from the ancient Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines and Normans. All of these people left a legacy of their cultures to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands. Through his art, Joe Anastasio shows us the Sicily that he will never forget and never stop loving.

Do you have Sicilian connections yourself?

Yes, both sets of my grandparents were born in Sicily.

Please can you tell us about where your Grandparents are from and how your family came to live in America?

Both sets of my grandparents came from Sicily and were born in Termini Imerese, a very beautiful place. My grandfather DiNovo was a truck farmer and successful in real estate (in Albany, NY). My grandfather Sgarlata was in the produce business but lost a great deal in the depression.

Have you ever visited the island of Sicily? If so, which are your favorite places to visit there?

I have been to Sicily twice. I loved all of Sicily, not only for its beauty and people, but for its traditions etc.
File:Termini imerese bjs07-04.jpg

Do you think that there are still many aspects of Italian culture evident in the current American society?

I am sorry to say we have lost so much and our mission is more difficult as we lose the older generation. Our mission is more important than ever!

Which places in New York would you recommend to visitors looking to experience true Italian American culture?

New York State has the most people of Italian heritage in the USA. We have many Little Italys, Italian institutions, organizations, churches, stores, restaurants etc.

What have been the highlights of your career so far?

I have been knighted by the Italian government (Cav.). I am the founder of the Association and Museum and this is my 34th year as a volunteer. I taught on the college level for 32 years and received many awards. I thank God for the gifts he has given me and the opportunity to serve.

Thank you so much for your time. Would you like to provide any extra information for our readers who would like to join the association or read more about the museum?
Association Membership is $25 a year (plus postage for those outside the United States). Mail a check to us and send it to 1227 Central Ave, Albany, NY 12205 (USA)
We also have a great website and a Facebook page and a free Email Newsletter. I hope all who read your article will pay us a visit or at least stay in touch by signing up for our free Email Newsletter.

Debra Santangelo