There was no doubt for Domenica Iovinelli.
“I want a Santa boot!” said the 4-year-old, peering into the pastry case at Civitello’s Italian Pastry Shop in Schenectady.
Seconds later, both Domenica and her brother Gianni, 2, had sugar-covered, boot-shaped cookies in hand.
The kids’ mom, Jen Iovinelli of Scotia, was shopping inside the Jay Street bakery. She knows it’s almost time for Italian-style Christmas cookies.
“It’s tradition,” Iovinelli said. “You have to have Italian Christmas cookies around Christmas time.”
Roie Angerami and her sister Angela, who own Civitello’s, couldn’t agree more. So does Bobby Mallozzi, who runs Schenectady’s Villa Italia Pasticceria on Broadway.
“I think it’s all about tradition,” Mallozzi said. “And I think as times change and the traditions become a little diluted — as that generation that came from Italy becomes more and more separated from the young people — I think people are starting to look for that nostalgic, traditional type of thing.”
At Villa, that means people will be ordering boxes and platters full of cannoli, apricot-glazed and multi-colored fruit tarts, chocolate and vanilla pasticiotti, almond crescent cookies and other dessert-style snacks.
Mallozzi said December is the pasticceria’s busiest time of the year. And a week from today will be one of the busiest days of the year, as people spend part of their Christmas Eve picking up trays of pastries and cookies.
“We try to make the experience of coming in here on Christmas as enjoyable as possible,” Mallozzi said. “We have free hot chocolate, we give away coffee on Christmas Eve. For all the guys who are sent out that day to go pick up things for their wives, we try to make the wait time as little as possible.”
Eight hundred pastry and cookie trays will be sold for Christmas. Last Thursday, the business filled one of its largest corporate orders of the holiday season: 300 trays for Mohawk Ambulance.
Philip J. DiNovo, founder and president of the American Italian Heritage Association and the American Italian Heritage Museum in Albany, believes the tradition goes past the cookie tray.
“Italians have wonderful Christmas traditions and one of them is being with family,” he said. “Families have a lot of recipes for cookies, they’re passed from one generation to another. Cookies bring back memories, they’re a way to keep alive what your mother or grandmother did. It’s a way of honoring their memories.”
The museum recently hosted a Christmas market, and cookies and pastries were among the big sellers. “People may not bake them, but they buy them for the holidays,” DiNovo said.
He added that Italian appetites for Christmas cookies might last longer because the Christmas season begins early.
“It starts December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception — that’s when the Christmas season starts in Italy,” he said, adding that celebrations last into early January. “It’s a lot more time for eating.”
Macaroons, amaretto cookies, coconut cookies, figs and butter cookies are on the Civitello platters, Roie Angerami said.
Anginettes, also called rosettes, have also made the holiday team. They’re small, white- and pink-frosted cookies covered with multi-colored sprinkles. Christmas and New’s Year’s also mean that morzettes are in production at Civitello’s.
“It’s a soft biscotti, where the biscotti are toasted,” Roie said. “They’re still a dunking cookie, you can still dunk them in milk or coffee.”
Cut-out cookies — while not an Italian recipe — are popular with kids this time of year, with liberal shakes of colored sugar. “Christmas trees are green, our bells we do in green, red, orange,” Roie said.
The ball-shaped butter cookies, rolled in confectioner’s sugar, get a different name in December. “At Christmas time, we call them snowballs,” Roie said.
Angela Angerami said she and her sister grew up with the assortment of cookies now sold at their business. Mom Anna Marie Angerami made the recipes at home before they became menu regulars at the bakery.
“The 21⁄2 weeks of Christmas is equal to one month in the summer,” Roie said of her cookie and pastry business. During the summer months, the small restaurant is popular for its lemon ice.
Mallozzi said the pasticceria’s new torrone — an almond nougat bar — is available in Schenectady and is now shipped to two dozen gourmet markets across the country. They’re big during the holidays, along with almond crescents and the seven-layer “rainbow” cookies that appeal to kids.
“There are some we bring out just for the holidays,” Mallozzi said. “We bring out a pecan shortbread cookie for the Christmas season.”
He said that while the pasticceria is an Italian food store — Villa Italia also makes pasta that is served at the Mallozzi family-owned Johnny’s restaurant — not every recipe is Italian. Joseph Mallozzi employed more than Italian bakers when he opened his first shop in 1965.
“We had a really diverse background,” Mallozzi said. “We had Jewish, Hungarian and German bakers, so a lot of the products that we have been influenced by these old-time bakers who worked for us for many years. They’re long since gone, but we’ve now carried on those traditions.
“So something like a rugelach cookie, which is probably our number one selling dry cookie we make, that’s a Jewish cookie. And that was brought to us by Al Rose, an old German baker who used to own Capital Bakery in Albany. After he retired, he was recruited by my father and he spent the last 10 years of his life working for us.”
Lynn Willey of Rotterdam shopped at Villa Italia last week. He bought a small box full of green sprinkled Christmas cookies.
“It’s just the taste, I guess,” he said. “It’s just the season.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]