By Lisa Abraham

Akron Beacon Journal


Whether or not you're Italian, chances are your Christmas cookie plate includes pizzelles, the classic wafer cookies that are intensely popular in Northeast Ohio.

"Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York — that's pizzelle country," said Patrick Dittoe , president of the Cleveland-based CucinaPro, which sells pizzelle irons and other specialty electric products.

Today, the cookies have proliferated beyond Italian families, he said. "I grew up loving pizzelles and wanting to make them," said Dittoe, who is not Italian but ate the cookies as a child at the homes of Italian-American friends and neighbors.

According to cookbook author and culinary historian Linda Stradley , who publishes the Web site What's Cooking America, pizzelles originated in the Abruzzi region of Italy, in the center of the country. Pizzelle comes from the Italian word pizze, meaning round and flat.

In that region, the pizzelle plays an integral role in the annual July feast in the city of Salle, to honor Beato Roberto , a 12th-century monk. "When the feast begins, people bring food to the town square and some people attach pizzelle to tree branches and proceed down the street with them," Stradley notes in her online History of Cookies.

Over the years, it became tradition to make pizzelles at times of festivals or holidays.

Pizzelles came to America with immigrants like Carmelina Paolucci of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, who is known as one of the best pizzelle makers at Akron's St. Anthony of Padua Church, where she worked for many years as cook at the rectory.

She's had years of practice — Paolucci turned 94 on Nov. 18.

Paolucci doesn't wait for a holiday to make pizzelles — she keeps her electric iron handy and makes a batch whenever the spirit moves her, which is often when her son John comes to visit. "He likes to bake," she said.

Paolucci likes to have some on hand in case company stops by. They go well with a cup of coffee or tea, she said, and they'll keep indefinitely when stored in a metal can.

Paolucci flavors her pizzelles with orange extract and orange zest, but said orange juice can be used if extract isn't available. Her recipe calls for baking powder, which helps to make her cookies puffy and thick. For thinner, crisper pizzelles, omit the baking powder.

Paolucci said she used to make her pizzelles with traditional anise flavoring and tried the orange flavor for something different. Her family liked the orange so well she never went back to anise.

Aric Ninni , a fifth-generation baker at Ninni's Bakery in Akron, Ohio, said vanilla is their most popular flavor for pizzelles. Younger customers want vanilla, but older customers still favor the less-sweet anise variety. Ninni's also makes lemon-flavored pizzelles.

This is the time of year when the sale of pizzelles are brisk. Ninni's will bake and sell hundreds of the cookies between now and Christmas, he said.

But, Ninni said, based on the number of pizzelle irons he sells, making the cookies at home is as popular as ever. "Pizzelles are pretty popular," he said, "They're nothing too fancy, just basic flour, sugar, butter and whatever the flavoring is."

Pizzelles were made in all parts of Italy, and flavors varied depending on what part of the country the recipe came from. Some areas used anise or vanilla, other regions favored lemon and orange, or even cappuccino and chocolate, Ninni said.

Ninni's recipes came over with his great-great-grandfather, who was a baker in Bari in southern Italy. The family moved to New York and operated a bakery there, before relocating to Akron about 70 years ago.

Paolucci was born in Carovilli, Italy, and moved to the U.S. when she was 12. Her family settled in Queens, N.Y., but she moved to Akron in 1939, when she married her late husband, Anthony Paolucci . (Today would have been their 70th wedding anniversary.)

Paolucci said she first learned how to make pizzelles from her stepmother, using a traditional iron. Pizzelle makers are typically called irons, because the first ones were just that — irons that were forged by blacksmiths. They resembled a hobo pie maker, but the plates were flat for pressing out the cookies.

"Women would go to blacksmiths and the blacksmiths would make them an iron and work in a design for them," said Jill McDaniel , a customer service representative for CucinaPro.

Both Dittoe and McDaniel previously worked for the Cleveland company Villaware, which held the patent for the first electric pizzelle baker. Villaware's former president, Gene Vitantonio , actually invented the electric pizzelle iron, Dittoe said.

The Vitantonio family sold Villaware in 2004 to Jarden Corp. and it is no longer in business in Cleveland, although Jarden still sells pizzelle irons under the Villaware brand label.

Through her time with both companies, McDaniel has amassed a wide body of knowledge about the history of pizzelle irons. Because the irons were made for specific customers, each one was customized and often would bear the family's crest or initials, she said. Many also were made as wedding gifts and included the couple's wedding date.

"They were handmade to your specifications. They could put almost anything on it. It was just limited by your creativity and your blacksmith's ability," McDaniel said.

The irons were placed in an open fire, or later over the burners of a gas stove, to bake the cookies. Stovetop irons are still available but are made of forged aluminum, not iron, McDaniel noted.

"People still want them. Every now and then we'll get a request for them," she said.

Paolucci still has one of her stovetop irons, an aluminum one she purchased after moving to Akron. Making the cookies on the stove was labor-intensive because the iron had to be flipped over and cookies had to be made one at a time, she said.

Like most bakers, Paolucci got an electric baker years ago. "When I bought mine, they were cheap. Now I understand they're very expensive," she said.

Most electric pizzelle irons sell between $40 and $60.

While his company sells pizzelle irons in all 50 states, Dittoe said most sales take place between Ohio and New York, areas that were heavily populated with Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. They're also popular in Florida, which Dittoe attributes to the influx of snowbirds from the north.

Dittoe said this is the time of year when sales of pizzelle irons are up as people get ready for the holidays.

Tony Ninni , owner of Ninni's, said irons that make four mini-cookies instead of two large ones are growing in popularity, and he expects to begin stocking them soon.

Locally, pizzelle irons can be purchased at Ninni's; at DeVitis Italian Deli & Market, 560 E. Tallmadge Ave.; and at some major retailers. Stovetop irons can be found for sale online and are less expensive, but are far more labor-intensive than their electric counterparts.



3 eggs, beaten

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup butter, melted

1 1/2 cups sifted, all-purpose, unbleached flour

2 tsp. baking powder

4 tsp. orange extract

Grated zest from 1 large or 2 small oranges

Beat eggs, add sugar and mix well. Add melted butter, orange extract and orange zest and combine. Sift together baking powder and flour. Add flour mixture to egg mixture and beat to combine.

Drop by spoonfuls on hot, greased pizzelle iron and bake until browned.

Makes several dozen cookies.

Carmelina Paolucci , Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio



3 cups sugar 1 lb. margarine, softened (4 sticks)

1 dozen eggs

10 cups all-purpose flour

2 tbsp. anise seed

1 tsp. anise oil

Beat together sugar, eggs, margarine, anise oil and seeds with an electric mixer, scraping down bowl as you go.

Fold in flour a cup at a time.

Roll batter into small balls and place one in each center of heated pizzelle iron.

Close iron and cook until light brown and crisp. Cool completely before stacking.

Makes about 100 cookies.

Ninni's Bakery, Akron, Ohio



3 eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened

2 tsp. ground coffee

2 tsp. cinnamon

2 tbsp. coffee liqueur

1 3/4 cups flour

2 tsp. baking powder

Mix eggs, sugar, butter, coffee, cinnamon, and coffee liqueur together with an electric mixer and beat well, scraping down sides of bowl as you go. Fold in flour.

Preheat pizzelle iron. Place a small amount of batter in the center of each pizzelle surface.

Close iron and cook until light brown and crisp. Cool completely before stacking.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Aric Ninni , Ninni's Bakery, Akron



3 eggs

3/4 cup sugar

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 stick unsalted butter, melted

1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest (or orange zest)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour 2 tsp. baking powder

Melt butter and set aside. Beat eggs and sugar until light yellow and thick ribbons fall from the whisk, 2 to 3 minutes. Add melted butter, vanilla and lemon zest. Beat until blended.

Sift together the flour and baking powder. Add half of the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, fold until just blended, add remaining flour and fold again until just incorporated.

Heat pizzelle iron. Place about 1 tablespoon of batter on grid, just behind the center of the pattern.

Bake until golden brown, about 30 to 60 seconds. Remove and cool on a rack. Repeat with remaining batter.

Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies.

For chocolate pizzelles: Follow basic recipe. Omit the vanilla and lemon zest. Add 3 tablespoons cocoa and 3 tablespoons sugar.

For almond pizzelles: Follow basic recipe. Omit vanilla and lemon zest flavorings. Add 1 tablespoon almond extract or 2 tablespoons amaretto. Add 1 cup finely chopped or ground almonds to the batter.

CucinaPro Inc., Cleveland, Ohio