Looking for a holiday meal worthy of the Old Country or of your own new traditions? Here’s where to start.
Homesick for Heidelberg or missing Milan?
“Sometimes I feel like we’re a little public service,” says Robert Tramonte, whose father founded the Italian Store in Arlington. “Somebody remembers [a holiday food], and we want to bring back that memory. We’re happy to accommodate them.”
Tramonte, like other restaurateurs and proprietors whose families hail from around the globe, makes it his business to re-create hard-to-find favorites. If Tramonte doesn’t carry a holiday specialty, he tracks it down and imports it for homesick customers. For many Italian families, that means stocking ingredients for the traditional feast of the seven fishes as well as the harder-to-find cookies and cakes his parents and grandparents made.
“The holidays in Italy, they take more time off than we do, and it was time to spend with your family, and the big traditions were to showcase the foods,” Tramonte says. “It’s time to bring out the recipes from your grandmother and your great-grandmother.”
If you’re not much of a baker, however, the store is full of such sweets as the pyramid of honey balls known as struffoli ($15.99 a tray) and torrone (99 cents for a small piece, up to $25.99), a nougat confection from Naples that is the final dessert in a traditional Italian Christmas dinner. Panettone ($13-$30), or Italian fruitcake, is a big seller; Tramonte has more than 1,000 in stock in dozens of varieties.
Elsewhere in Arlington, it’s not panettone but stollen, the German take on fruitcake, that’s being faithfully re-created. At Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe, named for founder Wolfgang Buchler’s home town, the buttery fruitcakes with a sugar crust ($12.95-$29.50) are prepared with a ridge on top, said to resemble the swaddling on the baby Jesus. The bakery also churns out hundreds of springerle ($5.95 a bag), an anise-flavored cookie printed with holiday designs created with a special press Buchler brought from Germany.
Making the springerle is very time-consuming, says Buchler’s wife, Carla, who adds that the bakery gets requests for the rare cookies from across the country. “Mostly [our customers’] grandmothers made them, but no one has the time now. But it’s not Christmas until they get their special cookies.”
For chef David Guas of Arlington’s Bayou Bakery, candy ushers in the holiday season. His shop sells one type in particular that evokes childhood memories: Heavenly Hash ($7 a bag), a fudge with roasted pecans, marshmallow and a hint of salt and vanilla that Guas remembers being sold in every department store in New Orleans when he was a boy.