Sign in | Log in

Pitta ‘Mpigliata: A Calabrian Christmas Pastry in Diaspora

Pitta ‘Mpigliata: A Calabrian Christmas Pastry in Diaspora

Joan L Saverino (December 18, 2017)
Author's photo
Pitta 'Mpigliata made by the author, 2012

Pitta ‘mpigliata is an example of an iconic Calabrian Christmas pastry’s evolution and its persistence into a global diasporic network.


Another Christmas is almost here, and my thoughts turn to baking pitta ‘mpigliata  (or pitta ‘impigliata; plural pitte ‘mpigliate), a raisin nut pastry. Each December, I recreate particular holiday food memories of my childhood from recipes my Calabrian maternal great grandmother Anna Guarascio and her daughter Catarina, my grandmother, made annually. 


Author's Pitte 'Mpigliate, 2011

Anna left San Giovanni in Fiore, in the mountainous Sila area of Calabria, in 1915, with two small children in tow to join her husband who was working in a coal camp in Marion County in north central West Virginia. They were part of a large San Giovannesi chain migration to work in the mines. 

Anna Guarascio seated with her two children, Catarina & Tommaso, her brother, Vincenzo, and her paternal aunt, Anna. c. 1912, San Giovanni in Fiore.

San Giovanni in Fiore, historic center with view of Abbazia Florense, far right and Santa Maria delle Grazie, left. Summer 2017. 



For peasants such as Anna’s family, their diet was often meager and simple at best. The two biggest religious holidays of Christmas and Easter were times when a family would scramble to buy ingredients to make a sweet or two. The one pastry Anna made at Christmas was pitta ‘mpigliata, which every San Giovannese must have to mark the holiday. Italian cuisine, like language, is regional and even village specific. Pitta ‘mpigliata (or pitta ‘nchiusa as it is known in nearby towns) originated in the Sila region.

Transnational Connections – Calabria to Appalachia

The aphorism “we are what we eat” has become the foundation for serious study of the intersections of food, culture, and history. One of my interests in looking at transnational connections between San Giovanni in Fiore and West Virginia is to examine dishes that are recognized as part of a diasporic heritage. Immigration scholars know that language maintenance is the first to be lost while traditional foods are one of the most persistent aspects of culture. This doesn’t mean that cuisine remains static; on the contrary, it changes due to various factors. Pitta ‘mpigliata is an example of how one pastry has endured and evolved over time between the home village and the adopted place of settlement.

Oral Transmission of Culinary Knowledge

I learned to recreate my great-grandmother’s version by literally sitting next to her. She had no written recipes. I learned how the dough should look and feel to know when it was ready to be rolled out. Anthropologist David Sutton’s work with Greek cooks certainly held true for my grandmother when he writes of “cooking memory as residing not in our heads, but in our hands.”  The dough she made was a simple mixture of flour, red wine, olive oil, yeast and salt which was rolled out thinly into an oval.  Then she spread a mixture of coarsely broken walnuts, raisins and a bit of orange peel over the dough. Lastly, warm honey was poured over it all, the dough was then rolled up, formed into a circle, and baked.

Author mixing the dough

Rolling out

Filling mixture


When I did research in San Giovanni in Fiore in 1991, I had the opportunity to help my landlady Lina Iaquinta make pitta ‘mpigliata. From her demonstration and our discussion, I watched Lina incorporate a few more ingredients than I used. I realized then that my great-grandmother’s recipe was a simpler less refined version. According to Lina, with modern times and a rise in income, people had access to expensive ingredients that would have been unaffordable to the peasants prior to World War II. 


For example, for the wet ingredients that are added to the flour, Lina added costly ingredients which made the pastry itself both sweeter and more flavorful. She used a mixture of moscato which is sweet as well as the red wine to which she also added orange juice, sugar, and some cinnamon. For the nut mixture, she used almonds in addition to walnuts, golden raisins, and more cinnamon.  

Cuisine is never static and recipes often changed with migration. For instance, Lina added an espresso cup of a homemade local grappa called paisanella.  Since it was unavailable in West Virginia, I suspect Anna just left it out without substitution. Sometimes, substitutions are made that can serve the same purpose as ones from the home paese. For instance, turdilli, a San Giovannese cookie that is made for Christmas in West Virginia, incorporates American whiskey in the dough.

Turdilli made by author

Other differences, Lina said, were the prerogative of the individual baker or familial preferences. Recently, someone wrote in an online discussion, that their family from Fantino, a small village near San Giovanni, always incorporates eggs, an addition I have never heard of. Some, like my great-grandmother, use yeast and salt. Lina did not. Some trickle honey only over the top of the pitta not in the filling itself.

Some changes point to a refining of technique. Lina chopped her nuts more finely than Anna. Instead of the circle forms I had learned to make, Lina made “roselli”, a time consuming but aesthetically beautiful method. For these, Lina cut individual strips about one and one-half inches in width, put filling along each, and then rolled the rosellini up placing them tightly together on a flat circle of thin dough.

Roselli made by author

That circle is then pulled up and tied to hold the rosellini in place as the pitta bakes. Some San Giovannesi simply fold the long roll in half.

The sign of an accomplished baker is that when the pitta emerges from the oven, it should be somewhat flaky but moist rather than too wet and heavy. In times past, the pitte ‘mpigliate were baked in the old bake ovens that dotted every neighborhood in San Giovanni in Fiore. In 1991, I was able to experience a functioning oven (at that point they were illegal supposedly due to sanitation and fire concerns).

On December 4, I delivered my landlady’s pitte to her sister-in-law Marietta’s oven which she stoked now only for the two most important religious holidays, Christmas and Easter, for her neighborhood. Into the oven first went the pizza, then the white loaves, and finally the pitta

Marietta's bake oven, San Giovanni in Fiore, December 1991

My memory of the pizza topped only with tomato sauce and alici (anchovies) that emerged from that oven is of the most delicious I have ever eaten. 

Pizza with alici, Marietta's bake oven, 1991

The caramelized exterior of the pitta that emerged was beautiful and its flavor was one I have never experienced since.


Since my return from San Giovanni, I have adapted my recipe to follow Lina’s version more closely than my great-grandmother’s. I am an example of one cook’s preferences and also adaptations resulting from the lack of availability of ingredients. For instance, I don’t have access to paisanella so I substitute Grand Marnier. In memory of my great-grandmother, I still trickle honey over the filling before rolling up the dough. And I always make a few roselli in memory of Lina and because I find them beautiful.

Familial Tradition and Global Networks

The familial tradition of pitta ‘mpigliata continues in some homes in West Virginia and in San Giovanni. With the popularization of cucina povera and instantaneous global communication, the pastry has flourished in new ways on both sides of the Atlantic.

Author's pitta 'mpigliata sliced

It has become a commodity in Calabria. Beginning in San Giovanni about 15 years ago, merchants began to sell it as symbolic of the town’s culinary heritage. In 2016, the town released a 10 minute video which includes a culinary demonstration of its preparation and an appearance by the celebrated Calabrian Chef Caterina Ceraudo. In it, the simple version that Anna made is referred to as the old way. In recent years, pitta ‘mpigliata is being sold in tourist areas as a regional Calabrian dolce giving no indication of its relationship to the Sila. These pitte, of course, are commercial productions that bear resemblance in form but little in taste to the homemade ones. 

In the tri-city are of Fairmont, Clarksburg, and Morgantown, West Virginia, pitta ‘mpigliata has become known beyond the Calabrian communities. As the traditions of the immigrant generation have faded and many younger descendants haven’t continued the home baking tradition, the pastry has been incorporated into community and church events.

There have been demonstrations in how to make them at the recently invented annual Feast of the Seven Fishes festival which occurs in early December. This year they were sold there in Nonne’s Italian Pastries and Pita Pitatas vendor booth. It is worth noting that pita piata is an incorrect spelling. Since regional languages were spoken, not written, during the immigration period, many descendants write the words phonetically as they heard them pronounced. A newspaper article reported that in Clarksburg, hundreds were made by the women in at least two local Catholic churches to be sold as a holiday fundraiser. The newspaper quoted a baker at the church: “A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, my grandmother used to make these, and I haven’t had them since she died.’ People love them and wait on them.”

Anthropologist Sidney Mintz has suggested that the global may actually reestablish the local rather than supplant it. There is nuance here; it depends on how one defines local. What has occurred with pitta ‘mpigliata in Calabria, as I mentioned above, is a commodification of it as a symbol of a pan regional identity. This sort of embrace of a food as regional has also occurred recently in West Virginia with the pepperoni roll. That simple bun with pepperoni stuck in the center, once the hallmark of an Italian coal miner’s homemade lunch, is now sold in just about every grocery store in north central West Virginia. It has become a representation of a more generalized West Virginia and even Appalachian rather than only an Italian American identity. 

Farimont, West Virginia, Italian American bakery long known for its pepperoni rolls.  

Anyone today can attempt to make pitta ‘mpigliata and Calabrian cookie recipes (such as mustazzuoli, turdilli, scalille) with the step by step instructions that can be found on both Italian and English web pages and in the recent cookbook My Calabria. In perusing public comments on the internet, Calabrian Americans express great enthusiasm for reviving recipes that were lost to their families often because no one learned from the women who made them.

Mustazzuoli made by author

With instantaneous communication, all kinds of sharing occur so that culinary knowledge of these special pastries can be gained in other ways than through familial transmission. I suggest, however, that without the embodied memory of a grandmother’s hands, something profound is lost and it is more than gustatory pleasure. Pitta ‘mpigliata is a seasonal example of one iconic Calabrian pastry’s evolution and its persistence into a global diasporic network.

DISCLAIMER: Posts published in i-Italy are intended to stimulate a debate in the Italian and Italian-American Community and sometimes deal with controversial issues. The Editors are not responsible for, nor necessarily in agreement with the views presented by individual contributors.
This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission.
Questo lavoro non può essere riprodotto, in tutto o in parte, senza permesso scritto.