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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2006 01:01 am

A taste of Italy

A visit to Angela’s is always a treat, especially at Christmas

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There must be Italian somewhere in my background. I’m sure of it, even though a cursory glance at my family tree reveals a mongrel mix of German, Irish, and Welsh. What else could explain my love for Italian food? Well, it’s more than just love. Italian food seems somehow right, feels like home — even if it’s an adopted home.

That feeling of home is never stronger than at Christmastime, when the Italian obsession with food and tradition is at its height. There really is not a single Italian cuisine. Italy was unified in 1861, making it — in spite of its ancient past — a younger country than even the United States. Before then it was a motley collection of small city-states and principalities with distinctively different dialects and customs — not the least of which are culinary. The north of Italy cooks with butter and lard, and some dishes have Germanic overtones. Farther south, it’s almost all olive oil. Some areas specialize in fresh pasta, others dried pasta, or polenta, or rice. Some use lots of garlic, some almost none. Because traditional Italian cuisine is home-based (as opposed to restaurant-based), the cuisine differs not just from region to region but also from family to family and even from cook to cook. For this reason, the “right” way to make something or whose version is best is often the source of endless discussion and argument. Of course, modern travel and communications have resulted in a lot of crossover, but most Italians still fiercely cling to their traditions, especially during the holidays.

One Christmas tradition that seems to cross all regional boundaries is La Vigilia, the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This Christmas Eve feast features seven different kinds of fish and seafood. Of course, even this tradition is subject to myriad interpretations. The fish and seafood are served in every form imaginable: baked, fried, in salads, tossed with or stuffed into pasta — and in some areas or families the tradition is to have 10 or even 13 fishes. The origin of La Vigilia is unclear, although until just recently meat was not eaten on Christmas Eve in Catholic Italy. Some think the reason for having seven fish dishes is because there are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church. Ten dishes may represent the 10 Stations of the Cross. Thirteen dishes may signify the number of apostles plus Jesus. Whatever its origins, La Vigilia makes for some delicious eating.

The Italian culinary epicenter of Springfield is unquestionably Angela’s Taste of Italy (1535 MacArthur Blvd., 217-787-7922). When owner Angela Fileccia Lichtenberger, a native of Sicily, moved here, she got quite a shock. “For the first year, I was miserable,” she said. “I couldn’t get the things I needed. If I asked for Parmigiano Reggiano, they’d give me a hunk of Pecorino Romano. When I said, ‘That’s not what I want,’ they’d look at me like I was crazy.” (Both are good grating cheeses, but Parmigiano Reggiano is mellow and nutty, whereas Pecorino Romano is sharp and salty.)

Angela’s solution was to open her own store. This will be her 11th Christmas in the converted house on MacArthur, whose selection rivals those of some Italian stores in large cities.

A visit to Angela’s is always a treat, but never more so than at Christmas. The little house is filled to overflowing with Italian specialties. A basket of fresh-baked breads sits on the counter, a tray of tomato-cheese focaccia on the refrigerated case. There’s a wide selection of ingredients for those who want to cook. There’s a deli case holding cheeses, salumi, and cured meats, including the hard-to-find San Daniele prosciutto and bresaola, an air-dried beef similar to prosciutto. Angela makes the marinated olives and salads that you’ll see in the case, as well as many of the pastas and prepared items available to take home for a quick “heat and eat.”

Then there are the sweets. Many countries have strong traditions of cookies and other baked goods for the holidays, and Italy is no exception. At Angela’s, boxes of pannettone, a light sweet bread studded with candied fruit, dangle from strings attached to the high shelves, and boxes and bags of a bewildering variety of Angela’s homemade cookies are perched on every available surface. There are candies and seasonal items such as panforte, a cake made of dried fruits and nuts, as well as a small selection of dishes and such things as pizzelle (waffle cookie) irons and pasta makers.

One of the best things about a trip to Angela’s is Angela herself. Outgoing and warm, she welcomes first-time customers as new friends and longtime customers as close relatives, often offering a cookie, a slice of salumi, or a cup of coffee. I can’t even imagine how she finds the time to make all the things she does, take such good care of her customers, and still remain so cheery. I’m just glad she does.

Buone Feste!

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

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