Biscotti : A Christmas Tradition

The story of a beloved Christmas tradition, the love of family, and one very special cookie.


The scent always lingers. It permeates the fabric of the pillows on the couch, fills every crevice in the cabinets, clings to the air, sitting heavy on each atom. It’s unmistakable, unforgettable. Sweet, a bit like licorice. And for me, completely and wholly synonymous with Christmastime. It’s not gingerbread, or eggnog. It’s biscotti.

Every year at Christmas my grandfather, Papa, and my grandmother, Nana, dedicated a weekend to baking batches on batches of biscotti for the family. But perhaps, the story doesn’t start there. It starts decades earlier when Papa bought an Italian bakery in Southern California.

There, he learned how to make everything. Cookies, pastries, even wedding cakes. He’d spend hours sitting at the kitchen table practicing his piping techniques to get it just right. And it was there, at Masielo’s Bakery, that Papa learned how to make biscotti.

Eventually, the bakery was sold and new businesses bought — a lodge in Tahoe, a used furniture store. But the biscotti remained. The cookies, traditional, the recipe top secret, became like another member of our family. Paying homage to Nana and Papa’s Sicilian heritage, the product of Papa’s hard work and dedication, to be passed down from generation to generation.

Biscotti could be described as the exact opposite of an American cookie. They are hard, crunchy, packed with whole almonds and the bittersweetness of anise. Traditionally, biscotti are dipped in wine. I learned to dip them in a glass of milk, and eventually, at breakfast with a cup of coffee.

There’s an art to eating biscotti, and the key is the dipping. Biscotti are not a cookie of many ingredients. The biscotti Papa made, the biscotti Nana taught me how to make after he passed, consist mainly of whipped eggs, sugar and flour. Baked twice, they can become as hard and crunchy as a piece of overdone toast. And that’s exactly the way they should be.

See, the dunking is the secret. Once the biscotti hits that glass of milk, that cup of coffee, all those lovely air pockets fill with liquid and the cookie softens on impact. That’s how you must eat them, when they are at their peak.

Perhaps what was always so magical about Papa’s biscotti was that they came around only once a year. The process is involved, it’s time-consuming and made ever the more special as an annual Christmas treat. I’ve never known Christmas without biscotti. So when Papa passed, I knew the tradition must carry on. The prospect of a Christmas without Papa, without his joy and his light, was dim.

And, I suppose, that’s how I came to be the biscotti baker. For as you may have guessed, the biscotti are not just a cookie to us. They’re a symbol of our family, our tradition, and the love that Papa shared with us. Making biscotti is not something you do for fun. It’s something you do out of love.

So with Nana as my director, I learned how to make them. I tried and failed and tried again. I learned how 10 degrees difference in the oven affected the cookies, the temperature of the eggs, the amount of anise. With the chicken-scratch short hand of Papa’s recipes and Nana as my official taste-tester, I learned. I felt under-qualified for the responsibility. But somehow, I felt Papa cheering me on, guiding my hands and I knew I must persist.

Making biscotti is messy business.

Yes, I may have cried over a batch of cookies. Whether it was the fact that the cookies came out wrong, or more that I missed Papa, I can’t say. Grief will do that. I pushed on.

Until I presented a batch of biscotti one day to Nana, who sat down to test it with her omnipresent cup of coffee and she said, with a smile, “This is just like Papa’s.” In that moment, it was all worth it. The tradition of the biscotti would not fade, Papa’s legacy would continue, and I vowed to myself, every year to make these not only for my family, but for him.

We all have our own holiday traditions. And while we enjoy the fruits of our labor (with a glass of wine, milk or cup of coffee) who we really do it for is the people we love. From my family to yours, I wish you Buon Natale, a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year.

Nana and Papa on their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrating with a cake Papa made and decorated.

La Locanda Restaurant Review | San Luis Obispo, CA

all images via lalocandaslo.com

Off a quiet side street in downtown San Luis, La Locanda provides a quaint and relaxed dining experience.

The restaurant is small and leaves you feeling you’ve had an incredible meal at a close friend’s house.

We visited on May 12 (Mother’s Day) as a family outing. The pizza oven was in need of repairs and was inoperable for the night. Initially we were disappointed (we love pizza!) but as we browsed the menu and heard the multiplicity of nightly specials, all was soon forgiven.

To start: the burrata caprese, beef carpaccio and escargot. The burrata cheese was extra creamy with a hint of tang. Peppery arugula and sharp Parmesan cheese served as the classic complement to beef carpaccio. On a personal note, I do not eat escargot, however, those in my party who did highly recommend it!

Dinner was a mix of classic Italian pasta (Lasagne, Gnocchi and Cacio e Pepe) and French-influenced entrees (Duck L’Orange, Rack of Lamb with mustard sauce and Baked Salmon).

The pasta at La Locanda is fresh and handmade. You can truly taste the difference! Cacio e Pepe is a simple dish, and when done right like at La Locanda, simply irresistible. Sharp pepper, smooth cheese and fresh al dente tagliatelle. A delight!

The gnocchi is served in your choice of sauce, in this case a Gorgonzola cream. The pillows of gnocchi were impossibly fluffy. Lasagne is served with a whipped bechemel and bolognese sauce adding a layer of depth and richness. I recommend an order to share for the table, just to try it.

The special entrees were well-executed and equally delicious. For a first time visit, I highly recommend the pasta dishes.

Dessert was, like dinner, a mix of Italian and French influence. The chocolate mousse towered above all else, soft and rich.

For something out-of-the-box, try the poached pears for dessert.

We are looking forward to going back to La Locanda to try the rest of the menu — and a pizza or two!

La Locanda + 1137 Garden Street + San Luis Obispo, CA + 93401 + 805.548.1750 + http://www.lalocandaslo.com

Flour House Restaurant Review | San Luis Obispo, CA

Authentic Italian with a Coastal Vibe.

all photos via http://www.flourhouseslo.com

Flour House is unassuming — it’s name and decor is simplistic, sleek and modern. A stark contrast to the food, which is, as a whole, vehemently steeped in Italian tradition, executed with compassion, care and obvious knowledge of the cuisine.

This place does not look like your run-of-the-mill ‘upscale’ Italian eatery, because, simply put, it’s not.

There is a bar complete with sports TV, where you may sit and enjoy a cocktail, and a fair-sized floor for table seating as well as a heated back patio. I recommend eating inside, primarily because of the two glass-paneled sections where you can watch the creation of pizza and the fabrication of pasta, respectively.

Yes, you can literally watch your pasta being made, pressed and carefully cut all before you eat it. Pizza making on display is not uncommon — but the making of pasta is a different story. The fact that Flour House takes the time to handcraft their pasta is something they should, rightfully, be proud of.

I recommend ordering like you really should at any Italian eatery — family style. Share everything, that way you can try more.

For four people, we ordered the Pane al Forno (pizza bread, basically), Arancini to share and the Carpaccio di Bresaola salad for starters. The Arancini was crispy on the outside and luxuriously cheesy inside, just as expected.

The Carpaccio di Bresaola salad was a highlight. Thin slices of Bresaola (wine-cured beef) topped with arugula, tomatoes, Parmesan and a light lemon pesto dressing. Refreshing, salty and absolutely delicious!

For Napoletana pizza, we ordered two: the Americana and the Capricoisa. Both were great, though I favored the Americana, with sopressata and basil. The pizza selection is generous, and there is something to satisfy everyone’s appetite.

A note on Flour House’s pizza: as the menu explicitly states, it is in the style of Naples pizza. That means fired in a 1,000 degree oven. The fresh mozzarella — a prerequisite of any pizza on the menu, clearly sitting at the edge of the pizza prep table, slowly draining in a giant colander — is left melty and moist, so the bottom of the pizza is not firm. It may not be what you are expecting, or used to, but it is how traditional Naples pizza is made. And in Naples, they are dead serious about pizza.

On to the pasta. You can try whatever you fancy at Flour House, but please, you must order the Paccheri. Handmade pasta stuffed with crispy cured meats (mortadella), a decadent cream sauce and topped with pistachio crumble. It is possible one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had — ever. Yes, I’d rank it next to the handmade gnocchi I ate in a back alley of Florence, Italy. It was that good.

In general, the pasta dishes at Flour House have a creative edge. Not your standard meatballs and marinara, Flour House balances Italian tradition with culinary creativity.

But wait, dessert! The tiramisu was moist, with a perfect balance of espresso bitterness and sugary sweetness. The Millefoglie with pistachio and Chantilly cream was equally delightful.

Overall, Flour House was a worthy experience. The waitstaff was friendly and cheerful and the experience of watching our food made by hand was at the same time fascinating and familial.

One last note: order a Chinotto (Italian Coke). It’s a San Pellegrino beverage with hints of orange and anise. Palate cleansing and complimentary to the heavy cheese-laden Italian dishes, it’s as unique as the experience Flour House offers: classic Italian cuisine, prepared with respect for antiquity and just a dash of modern experimentation.

Flour House + 690 Higuera Street + San Luis Obispo, CA + 93401-3511 – (805) 544-5282 + flourhouseslo.com