Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Sicilian Ghost Story for Halloween!

>>  Update: Due to popular demand, I have created an article about the homes for one euro in Sambuca di Sicilia - click here to read :-) Enjoy your ghost story! <<

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!

>> Click here for your free guide to homes in Sambuca di Sicilia for one euro <<

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

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Buona Pasqua!

Buongiorno a tutti i miei amici!! I hope that you are all well and finally enjoying some Spring sunshine :-)

We are now in Easter week which is one of the most significant periods in the Sicilian calendar. Every year, the atmosphere in Sicilian towns changes considerably throughout the week according to the day and its religious implications. Even the weather usually changes accordingly, with the week prior to Easter being dark and miserable only to give way to glorious sunshine on Easter Sunday. My own personal experiences of the week's events have mostly been in the town of Adrano, which is situated at the foot of Mount Etna, in the province of Catania. The processions are so elaborate and moving in this town, and they attract thousands of devotees.

Today the procession of 'Cristo alla Colonna' takes place from 6pm until 3am tomorrow morning, when the statue of Christ on the cross is carried throughout the streets of Adrano, calling in at each of the town's churches in order for the men carrying the statue to kneel at each altar. This is so emotional to watch as the statue is carried very slowly, three steps forward then two steps back, and sways from side to side.

On Good Friday from 7am until 2pm the statue of the Virgin Mary, l'Addolorata, is carried through the streets visiting each church looking for her son Jesus, and at 8pm there is the procession of 'Cristo Morto'. In dialect, this is 'U Lizzanti' and is the statue of the body of Jesus which makes four stops around the town, each time accompanied by a marching band playing the funeral song 'Canzoncina a Gesù morto'.

On Easter Sunday the sun shines bright in the sky and hundreds of families head towards the town centre to see the procession of 'Cristo Risorto' (Christ Resurrected), the Angel and of 'Maria Annunziata' (Virgin Mary).

The happiest time of the day is when the statues of Jesus and Mary finally meet and this is known as 'A Paci'. The statues are made to dance and kiss and the atmosphere in the piazza is so happy and uplifting. Adrano is renowned for 'la Diavolata', which is a theatrical production held outside in the piazza on Easter Sunday and depicts the fight between good (symbolised by angels) and evil (the devils). In the evening the town holds an incredible fireworks display.

I wish each one of you a 'Buona Pasqua' and leave you with a video in Italian showing the highlights of Easter in Adrano -

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 :-)


Monday, 4 March 2013

My Interview with Joe Zarba - Renowned Sicilian-American Photographer

Buongiorno a tutti! I recently interviewed a friend of mine, Joe Zarba, who is a very talented photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Joe's parents were born and raised in Italy and 10 years ago he started to research his ancestral town of Leonforte in Sicily. I would like to share some of this interview with you as it gives a great insight into his photography and is an inspiration to those researching their own Sicilian ancestry -

Good Morning Joe. Please can you tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in photography?

First, may I thank you for the privilege of this interview.

I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and grew up a very happy child in Union City, NJ. As a child the saddest thing was that my father, who grew up in Sicily, died when I was 13. This event has coloured and shaped my entire life.

I spent the major part of my adult life teaching photography in a middle school here in Brooklyn, NY. It was something I always wanted to do, but never thought I’d have a chance to do, so I never gave it a second thought and then it was dumped in my lap so to speak. There were two cameras and two enlargers at the school and I proudly say I developed (no pun intended) a very reputable program over the course of 20 years. Ironically, I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 26, which was quite a while ago!

As far as instruction, I am completely self -taught, having gotten my first camera from my father-in-law of my first marriage. The camera had no light meter so I wrote down every exposure and under what conditions I shot until I really learned light.
I read everything I could get my hands on and I still have the major periodical that taught me everything. It was an issue of a magazine called Modern Photography and the article was entitled, “Everything you Need to Know about 35mm Photography” Even though we are in the digital age, I consider it still to be a classic of basic fundamental photography.

While the technology changes, the science remains the same. A special thanks goes out to Jim Marsh, who needed a place for his enlarger and used my basement. It was Jim who taught me how to print.

My photography now is really relegated to my images of Sicily, many of which can be found on my blog

I have ideas for lots of projects but four grandchildren happily fill up a major part of my life.
One project in particular, is finding, interviewing and photographing people who were born in Sicily, emigrated and then went back, a story in reverse so to speak. We’ll see what happens with this, but if anyone knows of people in this category, I would be forever grateful to speak to them.

San vito.jpg

Can you please explain to us your connections to the island of Sicily?

I grew up in an Italian culture. My mom was born here, also in New Jersey of parents from Campobasso on the mainland and my father was raised with his three brothers and two sisters in Sicily before he and two brothers separately emigrated to the U.S. I used to sit and look over my dads’ shoulder as he wrote letters home every week. Phone calls were out of the question.

My mother who passed away in 2002 was as wonderful as any child could ask for but I was always a daddy’s boy. My mom was the disciplinarian and he always protected me! When he died, there was a hole in my heart which I carried with me, mostly unconsciously, until 1988 when I made my first trip to Sicily with my wife Susan whom I credit with being the driving force in my finding my father’s family, connecting, building a relationship and giving me the closure I never had.

On that trip, we happened to drive to Nissoria (EN) where my two aunts and uncle lived. Fortunately, there was a guy from Queens NY staying with them who did all the translating as I knew only American-Italian which was just a combination of Italian words, real or imagined. I never got the story of why this guy was there or his connection but this was a beginning.

It wasn’t until about 15 years later, when my wife Susan noticed that most of my photos, whether here or there, were of older men. She stated the obvious; “Joe, you are looking for your father”. After having been to Venice to photograph Carnevale three times, she said, it is time you went to Sicily to find your family. The obviousness of this statement changed my life. Fast forwarding, In October of 2003, I believe it was, I wrote an e mail to the ‘comune’ in Leonforte where I knew my cousin was (the aunts and uncle had all passed away by this time). I was almost glad they didn’t respond because of my language fears and the thought of having them believe I was a relative.

Bar vitelli - landscape.jpg

Anyway, the following February I went to Carnevale in Acireale, Sicily “armed” with a photo book of our entire family including my cousin Angela when she was a child. One Friday it poured and all the events were cancelled for the day. I said, what the heck, and I decided to drive to Leonforte trying to time my drive so the ‘comune’ would be closed for ‘pranzo’ and maybe for the weekend! Well, they were open! I took a deep breath, walked in and introduced myself. All of a sudden I was mobbed and apologies were given for not having gotten back to me. They remembered the email as soon as I introduced myself!

We chatted, they took all my information again and promised to do a search and get back to me. This being the town where my dad grew up, I did not want to leave so I just walked the town looking for the oldest people I could find to ask if they knew anyone with the last name Zarba not knowing that in Sicily it is pronounced differently as Zarba`. After a few hours of ‘No, mi (or ci) dispiace”, I decided to return to Acireale.
As I was going down the hill, a little old fiat cinquecento pulled in front of me, motioned for me to get out of the car. The man inside was the same man, Gianmaria, I met in the ‘comune’. He handed me a post it with information and told me to, “Go back into town, go to a bar and ask for help. THIS IS YOUR RELATIVE”!

I reluctantly did just that and a man in the first bar I went into KNEW my cousin so we walked to her apartment, (which is the same apartment my father and his siblings grew up in) rang the bell and this woman and her daughter came down. He told them, “This gentleman is from New York and SAYS he is a relative of yours”. I showed her the book and she knew it was true because there she was with her mother, aunt and well as those who emigrated. The story goes on and on but I could feel the hole finally closing.

How did it feel to finally visit Leonforte, the town that is so important to your family?

It is one thing to visit the town but can you imagine going to the same home your father or mother grew up in? I still get goose pimples thinking of it! Of course it has been renovated but walking the three floors is a journey in my father’s mind and shoes. I imagine conversations he may have had with his parents, brothers or sisters. I imagine what it may have looked like one hundred years ago as he was born in 1902. It is something so personal that trying to describe it takes away from the actual experience.

I hope you enjoyed this extract of the interview. To see the rest of the questions please go to -

A selection of Joe Zarba’s Sicilian photography is available to buy at

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 at the top of the blog page. Grazie mille for your support!!


Friday, 15 February 2013

The Festival of San Corrado - Noto, Siracusa

Buongiorno amici! I hope that many of you, even if you are not in Italy, have had the chance to enjoy some 'Carnevale' celebrations, or at least had the pleasure of enjoying some of the delicious Carnival food sold around the world!

Next week, on the 19th February, the Siracusan city of Noto will celebrate its Patron Saint and protector, San Corrado. Corrado Confalonieri originated from 14th century Piacenza and chose to leave all of his possessions behind to become a Franciscan monk and undertake a pilgrimage across Italy. He eventually retreated to a grotto in Noto and lived his life as a reclusive hermit. He was known as a kind, generous man who performed many miracles and when he died on the 19th February 1351, legend has it that the church bells started to ring of their own accord.

Church of San Corrado - Valley of the Miracles

Corrado was made a Saint on the 28th August 1515 and his mortal remains are carried through the streets of Noto in both February and August to commemorate his life and good deeds. These celebrations are renowned as being among the most poignant on the island of Sicily and thousands of Sicilians come to the town each year in honour of the Saint; many of the devoted followers choose to follow the procession barefoot. A marching band leads the procession and in the evening there is a spectacular firework display which can be witnessed from miles around.

The city of Noto is famous for its 18th Century buildings including the beautiful cathedral and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can read about Noto's annual flower festival which takes place in May in last year's blog post -

Enjoy this Italian video documentary about last August's San Corrado festival in Noto, made by a local news team -

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 at the top of the blog page. Grazie mille for your support!!

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Almond Blossom Festival - Agrigento

Buongiorno a tutti! As the evenings start to turn lighter and we head into February, many of us start to look forward to the onset of Spring. The winter snow was fun and Christmas was enchanting as always, but I, for one, am certainly ready for the first rays of Spring sunshine to make their appearance.

On that note, I would like to talk about one of my favourite events in Sicily - La Sagra del Mandorlo in Fiore or 'the Almond Blossom Festival'. This annual event takes place in the majestic city of Agrigento and celebrates the first almond blossoms of the season - one of the earliest visible signs that Spring is coming.

The main city of Agrigento lies on a plateau overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the southern coast of Sicily. It is the site of the ancient city of Akragas which dates back to around 580 BC and was described by the poet Pyndar as ''the most beautiful of mortal cities''. A great number of visitors come to the area to view some of the best-preserved Ancient Greek temples outside of Greece itself, which are situated in the 'Valle dei Templi' (Valley of the Temples) to the south of the city. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From the 1st until the 10th February, the city comes alive with colourful folk dancers from across 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 wonderful video which shows the festival's highlights from last year -

If you can't make it to the festival then why not enjoy some almond and honey cookies or 'Mastazzoli'. The recipe is at 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 the blog page. Grazie mille for your support!!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Buon Carnevale!

Buona sera a tutti! With memories of Christmas fading fast and the mountainous supply of panettone finally coming to an end, this can only mean one thing ....... it's Carnival time!! Carnevale in Italy is one of the year's biggest celebrations and towns throughout the peninsula come alive with music, parades and concerts. The word 'Carnevale' is thought to originate from the Latin words 'carnem levare' which literally mean 'to take away the meat', and this highlights the true reason for the festival which is to enjoy a final party before the restrictions of Lent.

Many towns, such as Venice, celebrate 'Carnevale' in February but, this year, the most famous carnival in Sicily will commence on Saturday 26th January in Acireale. On this day there will be a spectacular inaugural parade around the town at 5pm and then, until the 12th February, Acireale will be a flurry of amazing colours, embellished floats and, of course, mouth-watering Sicilian delicacies. The floats are enormous decorated platforms made by residents of the town and are judged throughout the competition for their design and originality. The winners will be announced at 11pm on the final day.

Other towns in Sicily which are renowned for their spectacular carnivals are Misterbianco, in the province of Catania, Sciacca in Agrigento and Termini Imerese in Palermo.

You can read more about the origins of 'Carnevale' on my carnival blog post from last year at

For a taste of what you can expect from the 'Carnevale di Acireale' enjoy this video of one of last year's finalists -

Buon Carnevale a tutti! I hope you get the chance to enjoy carnival time wherever you are in the world.  Be sure to share your photos and stories with us as always.

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 the blog page. Grazie mille for your support!!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

My Interview with Francesca V. Mignosa

Buongiorno mondo! I hope that you are all well and that you had a wonderful Christmas and New Year. I also hope that you received some delicious candy from 'La Befana' rather than a piece of coal :-) Today I would like to share with you my recent interview with the author Francesca V. Mignosa. Francesca was recently awarded the Italian Literary Award 'Sicilia Mondo 2013' and her first book is called 'My Sicily: Living in the Cusp of the Mediterranean Sea'. I hope you enjoy it! -

Good Morning Francesca. Please can you start by telling us about your book ‘My Sicily’ and what inspired you to write it?
‘Though we left the island, the island never left us’….. I write in my book. “My Sicily” is a collection of personal memories, stories, emotions and favourite destinations as I associate them with each individual place in my native island. It is a personal and educational story (240 pages long) through the island of a thousand scents and colours. I cannot really explain how this project came about – I can just tell you that over the past sixteen years, I have always represented Sicily in the USA (whether I wanted to, or was asked to). This was never my primary intention, neither did it immediately relate to my academic studies, but the more I spoke about my native island, presented events, researched and wrote about it, the more I discovered fascinating aspects of my culture that I didn’t know existed and was so drawn to attempt to describe them in depth and from a different perspective. Sicily is not “mine,” it belongs to all Sicilians and, very affectionately, all Sicilians abroad. The title is such because it describes “my” favourite people, places and aspects of our culture.
You recently won the 2012 Italian Literary Award ‘Sicilia Mondo’ for your writing and your role as Ambassador of Sicily in the world. How did it feel to be so honoured by your home country?
Debra, I was absolutely stunned to receive this news! Also because I had already won the award in 2007 and so winning a second time around was almost unthinkable for me. Through the years, I have always remained close with President Avv. Azzia and Marco Belluardo – they have always followed my professional progress and completely surprised me this year again. I’m so humbled, honoured and delighted to have received such a prominent recognition. I hope to never let Sicilians abroad, and back home, down. I am and can’t be anything else but myself: a Sicilian-American with the best and highest intentions always at heart.

Do you feel that the media has had a negative influence on the perceptions of Sicily across the world?
Perhaps in the past but having now lived abroad for the past sixteen years, I can honestly say that there is a greater fascination towards our island and a more educated approach to the portrayal of Sicily and all aspects of our culture.
How do you think that your book will influence your readers’ understanding of the island and its culture?
My book is a very personal story, but I also conducted a year and half of research and writing. I divided the island into geographical areas: Eastern Sicily, South Eastern Sicily, Southern Sicily, The Heart of Sicily, Western Sicily, Northern Sicily, and the Sicilian Islands. For each individual place, I not only share personal stories, memories and emotions but also the highlights of history, art, cuisine, language, spirituality, the essence of Sicilians from various corners of the island and the values and flavours that make each destination so vibrant and unique. The book is written in a very simple, almost colloquial way, so that anyone, with any background could relate and understand the heart of Sicily and perhaps enjoy the journey so much that they would want to travel to our island! Mine was simply a labour of love – to have 12,000 followers on my blog is almost a miraculous happening for me. All I wanted to do was share a deep passion and love for the beautiful island where I was lucky enough to be born and share the beauty and sweetness of its people.
How easy was it for you to settle into the US after being born and raised in Sicily?
My mom is Sicilian-American so we were raised in a bicultural, multilingual home (speaking Italian, Sicilian, English and French at all times). We lived most of our lives between Sicily and the USA so geographically it wasn’t a difficult transition because we were accustomed to travelling between the two cultures. Obviously, emotionally it was so hard for two teenagers to leave best friends behind but I believe that our destinies are already written and clearly marked. I know it was meant for us to move to the USA, otherwise I might never have written my book if I still lived in Sicily. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I’m so thankful to my parents for having raised my sister and I to embrace the best of both cultures simultaneously at all times.
What similarities did you see between the Sicilian culture and that of second and third-generation Sicilian families living in America?
The values, the food, the spirituality, family, and the hard work ethics.
You have spent a lot of time touring recently to promote your book. Which aspects of Sicily do you miss the most while travelling?
You know, Debra, I feel I am in Sicily every time I talk about my island. I’ve been so touched by the love and support of my readers – they are so sweet and share personal stories of immigration, identity, belonging, cuisine, family anecdotes with me. They make me feel so special. Every time I talk about Sicily, I am in Sicily. As I meet the Sicilian communities of America, I am in Sicily – their warmth and affection is almost overwhelming, but we – Sicilians – know nothing but that abundant love. Even Americans are embracing the book profusely as they wish to learn more about the island from the perspective of a young/recent immigrant with an international background. I’m so touched by their love for Sicily – it is truly contagious.
Which destinations on the island would you recommend to our followers looking to travel to Sicily for a short stay and why?
Taormina – It was built by the Greeks merely for its strategic location and beauty. The two remain constants today. It is truly a Sicilian gem.
The Aeolian Islands – My favourite destination in Sicily. Raw, essential, authentic Sicilian. They have indescribable natural beauty and a general sense of wellness.
Which Sicilian traditions or events are closest to your heart?
La Sagra del Mandorlo in Fiore – Agrigento
La Sagra del Miele – Sortino
La Festa di Santa Lucia – Siracusa
La Festa di Sant’Agata – Catania
Le processioni della Santa Pasqua – Augusta
La vendemmia – October in Augusta
La raccolta delle olive/preparazione per l’olio – Augusta
La Festa di San Nicola – Brucoli
La Festa della Stella Maris – Augusta
Do you plan to write any more books?
I’m working on my second book ……….and already started research for my third!
Thank you Francesca and good luck with your work in both Sicily and the USA!
You can follow Francesca’s reflections on Sicily, her book tour, photos and also purchase ‘My Sicily’ on her blog at
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 the blog page. Grazie mille for your support!!