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

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Viva Sant' Alfio & Recipe for 'Granita di Mandorla'!

Buongiorno a tutti! I hope that you are all well and enjoying this lovely Spring sunshine. Today I want to write about one of my favourite festivals in Sicily which is the 'Festa di Sant'Alfio' in the town of Adrano. This festival will take place on the 26th May 2013 and features a parade of beautiful Sicilian carts being pulled through the streets by intricately adorned horses.

The first parade will take place on the 25th May at 6.30pm and the second will be at 10.30am on the Sunday the 26th May. The horse's riders are all in traditional costume and play Sicilian instruments whch makes for a very festive atmosphere. At 5.15pm on Sunday there will also be a procession of the three Saints - Alfio, Filadelfo and Cirino, the three young brothers who were martyred in the nearby town of Lentini in 253 AD.

Programma 2013 Sant'Alfio Adrano
Now that Spring is here it is also finally 'granita' time on the island of Sicily! This is one of my favourite Sicilian delicacies and is similar to a sorbet. Here is the recipe for Almond Granita which is my all-time favourite flavour! -
Granita di Mandorla
600 ml Water
250g Blanched Almonds
125g Caster Sugar
1) Put the almonds, sugar and the water in a blender and process until as smooth as possible.
2) Pour the resulting almond milk into a large sieve lined with a clean J-cloth or muslin set over a bowl. Leave to drip overnight. Help it along every so often by gripping the cloth and squeezing the liquid through. Squeeze as much liquid as you can from the almonds.
3) Pour into a shallow container and freeze, roughly forking the crystals 4 or 5 times during the freezing process. Serve.
When you have made your Granita di Mandorla, you can watch this video of last year's Sant'Alfio celebrations in Adrano while you enjoy it. Now you can truly feel that you are in the midst of the Sicilian springtime! -


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

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Villabate Pastry Shop Advances Historical Novel Set in Sicilian Hometown

Buongiorno a tutti - I hope that you all had a wonderful Easter! Today I would like to share with you a recent article from our website written by the New York Arts and Business Consultant Roberto Ragone. It is about the most famous Sicilian pastry shop in New York - Villabate Alba in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Villabate have been involved with the recent 'Trinacria' campaign and this article gives some interesting insight about their 'Sicilian Connections'.

Villabate Pastry Shop Advances Historical Novel Set in Sicilian Hometown
Villabate is the name of the New York Metropolitan area’s finest Sicilian bakery and pastry shop. It is also the name of the ancestral town of the Alaimo family, who have owned and operated this Bensonhust institution for 35 years. For family and historical reasons, their hometown of Villabate, Sicily is now the primary setting for Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily, a novel that the Alaimos are helping to support and promote.
“This may be a case of the Princess and the Pastries, or of the Bourbons come to Brooklyn,” said author Anthony Di Renzo, whose roots also extend to Villabate. Inspired by a town legend, popular when patriarch Angelo Alaimo was still a boy, Di Renzo’s novel pays tribute to their common heritage.

The author’s great-grandfather, Antonio Coffaro, supposedly smuggled food and supplies to Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose troops invaded Sicily as part of the Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement of the mid-1800’s. Garibaldi and a hand-picked retinue came to Villabate and personally thanked him in the municipal square.

Di Renzo’s thanks, however, acknowledges the Alaimo family’s literary patronage. For contributing “dough” towards the book’s production and distribution, the Villabate-Alba Bakery and Pastry Shop will appear in the novel’s acknowledgment section.

Di Renzo’s collaboration with Villabate-Alba honors Sicilian family, Sicilian history, and Sicilian craftsmanship. “After all,” he said, “the Alaimos are artists, too.”
“Corporations aren’t the only ones who support the arts,” Di Renzo noted. “Small businesses are just as important.” His collaboration with Villabate-Alba honors Sicilian family, Sicilian history, and Sicilian craftsmanship. “After all,” he said, “the Alaimos are artists, too.”

For three generations the Alaimo family has created the finest Sicilian pastries, cakes, cookies and breads, whether in or in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn or back in Villabate, Sicily. The author’s mother, Maria Coffaro Bilo, and Angelo Alaimo, the founder of the Brooklyn pastry dynasty, were distant cousins and childhood playmates.
When the economic recovery from World War II proved too daunting, Angelo and his son Emanuele immigrated to America. For over a decade, the two worked hard as simple breadmakers in bakeries all over Brooklyn, earning a reputation for quality and craftsmanship. Encouraged by their neighbors and customers, father and son in 1979 started their own place: Villabate of 18th Avenue. On opening day, Di Renzo’s 48-year-old mother, who had moved to America several years before Angelo, drove in from New Jersey to be among the first customers.
Since then, Villabate-Alba has passed from Emanuele Senior to Emanuele Junior, Anthony, Lina, and Angela. As the family explained in a 2010 feature on Brooklyn Independent Television, Manny, “the quiet one,” runs things in the back; Anthony, “Mr. Personality,” entertains customers and handles the advertising and public relations; and Angela “basically bosses everyone around.” The new generation is proud of its Sicilian roots and visits Villabate almost every year. However, Trinacria became a rich source of knowledge, providing the Alaimo family a whole new perspective on their roots and their ancestral town’s actual history. 
From the days of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Villabate, a suburb of 20,000 people, has been an important agricultural center in the Conca d’Oro, or Golden Conch, the fertile plain surrounding Palermo. In 1700, Antonio Agnello, an aristocratic abbé and an amateur botanist, founded a commune to develop the hardy strands of olive and citrus that became the area’s chief crops. Most of the town, not incorporated until 1858, would be parceled from the abbé’s huge estate; hence came the name Villabate, a contraction of Villa dell'Abate (Abbot’s Villa).

This land forms the heart of Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily. The book’s title derives from the ancient Greek name for Sicily. Trinàcria refers to the island’s triangular shape and the three-legged gorgon on its regional flag. It is also the nickname of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Zita Valanguerra Spinelli (1794-1882), Marchesa of Scalea, who moved from Bagheria to Villabate to grow prized blood oranges. Her turbulent life mirrors Sicily’s rocky transition from feudalism to capitalism.Guernica Editions, an independent literary press in Toronto, Canada, plans to release the novel by November.

The Alaimo family played a key role in the book’s online campaign and live fundraising event, both sponsored by the Italian Cultural Foundation and Casa Belvedere and organized by consultant Roberto Ragone. The Villabate-Alba Bakery and Pastry Shop not only contributed money but supplied a large tray of ossi di morti for the November 29th reception at Umberto’s Clam House in New York’s Little Italy. Shaped like human bones, these traditional almond-paste cookies are served throughout the month when All Souls Day falls. They seemed a fitting symbol for a book whose narrator speaks from beyond the grave.

“We’re pleased to do whatever we can to move this book forward,” said Antonio Alaimo, “but we’re just as pleased to reconnect with a long-lost relative. Cousin Anthony and I share the same heritage. Sicilian stories and Sicilian sweets: who can get enough of them?”

Di Renzo agrees. “It’s about the tasting the past. I think of that passage in Proust, where he bites into a madeleine and remembers his childhood. A slice of cassata or a pistachio cannolo has the same effect on Sicilians and Sicilian Americans. It unlocks memories and brings back the dead, whether in Palermo or Brooklyn. In fact, I hope this all inspires post-St. Joseph's Day orders for zeppole and sfingi from Villabate-Alba.”

Readers may sample authentic Sicilian pastries at the Villabate-Alba Bakery and Pastry Shop, 7001 18th Avenue, Brooklyn.
Business hours are: Monday through Saturday, 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM; Sunday, 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM; Holidays, 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Villabate-Alba also ships practically anywhere. Order through their website at and taste the past
I hope that you enjoyed this article! A presto :-)
Debra Santangelo