A Sugar-Dusted, Liquor-Soaked Vestige of the Roman Carnival

December  1, 2016

Italy’s most famous Carnival celebrations take place in Venice, Viareggio, and Putignano—spread out over the “boot”—but the annual pre-Lenten festivities once drew thousands of pilgrims to Rome.

In the middle ages, the Roman Carnival was a two-day affair of feasts, races, and bull fights in Testaccio and Piazza Navona; when Paul II of Venice took the tiara during the Renaissance, the festivities were stretched to nine days. Via del Corso, the mile-long road then called Via Lata, hosted horse, donkey, and water buffalo races. Floats full of masked performers rode through the streets and lavish banquets accompanied theatrical performances. Shortly after the Pope was defeated by the secular Unification movement, Carnival was banned—a victim of vanquished Papal power.

You don’t skimp when you’re honoring a carnival.

But tiny vestiges of the defunct Roman Carnival survive: Children dress in costumes and toss fistfuls of colorful paper confetti (these will remain wedged in cobblestone cracks through Easter), and Romans of all ages indulge in seasonal sweets. In the weeks preceding Lent, we queue at bakeries and pastry shops for treats like castagnole. Though health-conscious Romans drive a market for a baked version, traditionally castagnole are chestnut-shaped fried dough balls rolled in sugar, soaked in liquor, or dusted with cacao. You don’t skimp when you’re honoring a carnival.

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Written by: katieparla

Author of Tasting Rome

1 Comment

chefrockyrd December 3, 2016
Thank you for the article and recipe. My grandmother would make these or something like them but they would be bigger and she included some yeast in the dough. Other than that they seem very similar with the orange juice and anise liquor. Although they were best freshly fried, we ate them anytime, and they got chewier. She would not have baked them. They were kept in a large fancy cut glass jar on her sideboard in the dining room. Next to it was a tall footed glass container of liars cookies, another light flaky fried dough with lots of confectioners sugar on them. When you ate them the sugar went all over your chin and shirt.