The story goes like this: In the little town of Cocullo, in the province of L’Aquila, Abruzzi, there dwell the serpari. These charmed descendants of Circe may handle the deadly biting vipers of Abruzzi with absolute impunity.
Catholic tradition is overlaid onto ancient pagan rites in the annual Procession of San Domenico in Cocullo, which simultaneously honors San Domenico and the powers of the serpari in a weird melding of magic and devotion.
The townspeople and serpari gather to drape the statue of San Domenico with live snakes, parading from the church down the main drag, imploring for protection from toothaches, snake bites and the bites of rabid dogs.
The first recorded procession in Cocullo took place in 1392, and has traditionally been accompanied by pizzelle, the crisp, wafer-like sugar cookie native to Abruzzi.
Though the procession of San Domenico takes place in the first week in May, Italian-Americans generally associate the cookies with Christmas and Easter.
Pizzelle are typically flavored with anise or fennel seeds, vanilla or citrus zest, and are baked in task-specific irons held over a stove top or newfangled electric models. The irons turn out two or three thin cookies at a time and require a fast hand and grandmother-like patience and timing.
For those without the iron or inclination to bake their own, quality pizzelle are turned out by a number of local bakeries. In descending order of notoriety:
Termini’s Bakery (multiple locations, termini.com) sells stacks of 10 pizzelle for $8. Their classic version contains the tiny fennel seeds so delicious and irritating to those with closely-spaced teeth.
Follow your nose to Isgro Pastries (1009 Christian St., 215-923-3092, isgropastries.com) where stacks of anise flavored pizzelle are $6.50, as well as chocolate-drizzled individuals for 50 cents each.
BellaPizzelle (1-866-858-6384, bellapizzelle.com) of Morgantown is the only pizzelle maker who will ship their delicate sweet nationwide. A stack of 20 runs $24 and arrives packaged in a giftable, reusable gold round. The mother-and-daughter team also offers a wide array of flavors, including original anise, chocolate chip and ones spiked with Frangelico or whiskey.
Farther south and less famous, but just as desirable, are Cosmi’s Pastries (1221 Oregon Ave., 215-218-2000) pizzelles. A stack of 26 wafers is just $5, your choice of classic anise or nouveau chocolate.
Snap your way through a few of these, and the idea of handling the vipers of Abruzzo seems a bit less scary. Grazie mille Abruzzese e serpari!