Story by Carol Stigger
Photos by Lauren Birmingham-Piscitelli, Cooking Vacations

Tree in Sorrento

An Amalfi Christmas

Lauren Birmingham-Piscitelli, creator and owner of Cooking Vacations (www.cooking-vacations.com) left her public relations career in the U.S. and moved to Italy’s Amalfi Coast. She welcomes guests from around the world who are eager to learn hands-on cooking while soaking up the beauty of Italy. An Italian-American, she grew up in the kitchen learning family recipes passed down through the generations. While in Positano developing her tours, she met her husband Rino Piscitelli – a former race car driver. The couple spends half of the year in Positano and the other in Boston. 

She launched her business in Positano on the Amalfi coast with her one-of-a-kind Lemon Lifestyle™ (www.cooking-vacations.com/tour/positano-cooking-on-the-amalfi-coast) cooking program and now has more than 200 tours throughout Italy. In addition to hands-on cooking, programs include culinary tours and wine tours as well as excursions that celebrate the food and culture of sunny Italy.

During the off-season, Lauren and Rino develop tasty new tours from Venice to Rome, along the rolling hills of Tuscany, to Sicily and Sardinia. After a season of rest and reflection, she is ready to put her new ideas in motion and prepare for another busy year.

She is enthusiastic about the Amalfi Coast’s festive holiday vibe, which is a treat for all senses. Italy’s unique traditions play a large role along the Amalfi Coast, particularly the presepe, meaning creche, and holiday recipes passed along the generations.

Positano nativity scene close up

Presepi Everywhere

Decorated Christmas trees, centerpieces of holiday decorations around the world, are displayed in homes and village squares, but in Italy, the presepe is more important than the tree. These special nativity scenes, were the inspiration of St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th Century. The tradition flowed South and became more than the Holy Family, shepherds, angles, and wise men. A whole village grows around the central manger scene complete with homes, shops, streets, tradesmen, and families strolling through town, most unaware of angels flying overhead. Some have streams of running water, and many are lit with twinkling lights.

Naples has the largest nativity scene in the world, which is housed in the city’s Museo Nazionale di San Martino, a former monastery. Called Presepe Cuciniello, it includes more than 160 characters, 80 animals, 28 angels and at least 400 miniature objects. It was crafted in the 1800s by the architect Michele Cuciniello. He worked with museum experts on the impressive setting and then donated his presepe to the museum.   

Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples is commonly known as “The Street of Nativity Scenes,” and popular with tourists year-round. Small shops line both sides of the street, most of them dedicated to crafting and selling nativity scenes. Visitors can observe skilled craftsmen carve and paint figures and assemble them in presepi, which they are pleased to sell to tourists from all over the world. The completed nativity sets range from $40 to $4,000 and more. Shoppers may also buy individual pieces to create or to add to their family’s presepe.

Positano nativity scene in ancient fountain

The Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, is an ideal location for hand crafted presepi. They appear in rock crevasses, in home gardens, in village squares, as well as in nearly every home. In Positano, one of many presepi is placed in an ancient fountain. The Christ Child is placed in the manger on Christmas Eve so children wake up to the Biblical miracle and residents are reminded of the “reason for the season.”

A Taste of the Amalfi Coast

Lauren shares her holiday scenes from Positano and Sorrento and a family recipe with LuxuryWeb readers. She wishes you a Buon Natale.

Positano cookie selection

Susanna dagli Occhi Neri (Brown-Eyed Susan) courtesy of Lauren’s mother, Marie Lucia

This sweet and delicious Italian butter cookie takes its name from Susanna dagli Occhi Neri, a wildflower with a brown center and corn-yellow petals. It grows in Amalfi’s green fields and adds the promise of the coming warm seasons to the cooler holiday weeks. 

Makes 3 dozen

Ingredients

For the Biscotti Batter:

3 tablespoons of sugar
1 cup of butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon of vanilla
2 cups of flour
½ teaspoon of sea salt

For the Frosting:

1 cup of sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
2 tablespoons of hot water
½ teaspoon of vanilla

Merthod

Cream the butter.  Add sugar and vanilla, then mix.  Add flour and salt.  Mix until it becomes a medium-textured dough.  Spoon out tablespoon-size amounts, roll each into a ball, then flatten.  Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 350°F until golden brown.  Remove from oven and let cool.  Once cool, frost each cookie in its center only, leaving the edges white. Shake sprinkles on top.

 

 

 

© January 2023 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.

 

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