Mostaccioli: The Calabrese Christmas Gingerbread

Mostaccioli: the Calabrese Gingerbread
Mostaccioli: the Calabrese Gingerbread
Here in our home, one of our Christmas traditions is making gingerbread cookies and one gingerbread house each year. I often wondered if there is something similar in Italy and in fact, I discovered something very similar to gingerbread in Calabria... the Mostaccioli, a shaped, honey and spiced, unleavened hard cookie.
Some recipes even contain red wine. With it's roots deep in Italian history, perhaps from the time of the Romans when they were placed on temple alters as offerings to the Roman gods, the tradition of Mostaccioli was continued by 15th century Dominican monks. These shaped, edible works of art are very hard and longlasting--just like gingerbread! (We have a gingerbread ornament that Lucas made in pre-school that we hang on the tree each year... still smelling nice and spicy.)
You might see Mostaccioli under other names in local dialects throughout Southern Italy: Mastazzola, Mustazzoli, Mastazzuolu, 'Nzuddha, Mustazzuali, Mustazzolus (in Sardinia). Those dialects in the south can change from village to village! Regardless of the name, this spice cookie is considered by most historians to be the oldest cookie recipe in the world.
The name comes from the Latin mustacea, a cake made out of “must” (un-fermented, pressed grapes, including skins, seeds and stems) that has been made since at least 300 BC. In the 1st century AD, the ancient Roman philosopher, Cato, wrote about mustacea being made with rye flour, cheese, cumin, anise, cheese, eggs and wrapped in bay leaves. Modern recipes are very different from 2000 years ago, but Mostaccioli have been made throughout central and southern Italy for hundreds of years--maybe more. The recipes for creating the most intricate shapes contain no leavening and create a dough that can be shaped by sculpting tools or pressed into molds.
While most versions contain honey, others might contain chocolate, but in all cases they are very spicy, similar to a spice cookie or gingerbread. There are simpler, non-sculpted Mostaccioli, in either a round or diamond shape, that are covered with a chocolate icing, which are more common--especially with home bakers. Some may even contain various nuts like almonds, hazelnuts or pignoli and might be shaped into a traditional biscotti shape.
One version in Puglia even adds a special ingredient: a sweet wine with sugar added that has been reduced over heat into a syrup... adding a hint of the cookie's ancient past when grape must was used. And believe it or not, there are also recipes for Mostaccioli pasta, typically in a penne shape. 
Food historians tend to agree that the current recipe gained popularity in 1653 after Saint Domenico--the patron saint of the Kingdom of Naples--distributed Mostaccioli cookies after a devastating earthquake in Sariano, Calabria. Every since then, on August 16th (my birthday and the Feast Day of St. Domenico), people in Calabria celebrate by baking Mostaccioli cookies and auctioning them off to benefit charity.
The traditional shapes hearken back to temple offerings: a parma (the palm), a sirena (the siren), u panaru (the basket),  u pisci spada (swordfish), and a grasta (the heart)... all real items that historically might have been left as an alter offering.  
The other shapes--saints, goats, roosters, horses, pigs, lambs and birds--reflect Roman Catholic holidays and the desire to please children around the holidays. Besides Christmas, Mostaccioli are also gived as gifts at Easter, weddings and on special saint days. The intricate shapes are made even more decorative by the addition of colored foil "jewels".
Some of these cookies have been elevated to a fine art form and were the subject of a special exhibit at National Museum of Applied Arts in Rome with 36 ancient shapes being displayed.
During the holidays, you will often see Mostazzolari (vendors) selling their cookies at Christmas festivals and markets throughout Italy, but especially in the South. Many display their cookies in a traditional manner--in wooden treasure chests. After all, these do resemble precious bejeweled treasures. 


Support L'Italo-Americano Foundation through its fundraising efforts that allow us to promote and preserve the Italian culture and heritage in the US. Enter to win fantastic prizes Including a vacation in Florence. (20% will be donated to the “I Love Norcia” association to support the reconstruction of the town, dramatically hit by the recent earthquake).

Receive More Stories Like This In Your Inbox


Ciambelle make a great snack on their own but make the perfect accompaniment to cured meats, cheeses, and antipasto. Photos copyright Nonna’s Way

Ciambelle di Pane - Charcuterie’s Best Friend!

You hear the word ‘ciambelle’ a lot in Italian baking. There are so many different types of ciambelle, ciambellette and ciambellini! Sweet, savoury,...
Cannoli siciliani have a huge identity-defining power: Italian bakeries all over the world make of their presence on the shelves a symbol of “italianità” and heritage associated with only a handful of other products. Photo by siculodoc

The sweetest thing: cannolo siciliano and its amazing history

Cannolo siciliano: is there any other Italian dessert this popular in the world? Tiramisù may be one of its more glorious competitors, but cannolo...

Cooking with Nonna: Chiacchiere alla Barese

It's almost Carnevale, and Carnevale, in Italy, means chiacchiere! Learn how to make these delciious treats with Nonna!
The art of Naples' pizza -making could become a patrimony of the world. Photo:

The art of making pizza to become part of the UNESCO Intangible Patrimony

Pizza finds a place on every country's table and is topped with countless delicacies, each country creating its own - more or less - orthodox version...
Escarole soup with sizzling olive oil croutons, parmigiano-reggiano DOP shavings. | Photo copyright Nathan Hoyt 2017

What To Do With Escarole? Make Soup!

Escarole has always been a mystery to me. Not that we didn’t eat it when I was growing up, but as far as I could tell, no one else ever did in the...

Weekly in Italian

Recent Issues