When it is Christmastime in Italy, no one goes hungry. This is a season for feasts: sweet treats and savory dishes. It’s a time for sitting around the dining table with all of your friends and family. Unlike some countries, where there is a typical traditional Christmas menu that is eaten and enjoyed by most of the celebrating population, the country of Italy as a whole doesn’t have a “traditional menu”. Instead, each of the twenty regions of Italy tends to celebrate the holiday with their own local delicacies.
Winter Seasonal Favorites
During the late autumn and early winter, certain food items are ripe for the harvest and perfect for enjoying in this season. Italians love to eat seasonal foods, and will oftentimes skip ingredients altogether for particular dishes if the ingredient isn’t high quality and in-season. Some of the Christmastime favorites are favorites purely because they are ripe for eating during that time.
1. Roasted Chestnuts
Chestnuts are an old food that became a staple food group in ancient Roman times. Chestnuts were ground up to make a sort of flour in areas where growing grains was too difficult. Even in this modern age, chestnut flour is popular for making special dessert cakes. But at Christmastime, Italians love a bag of roasted chestnuts. Particularly in central Italy (more than anywhere, in Tuscany), street vendors in major cities make a living selling bags of chestnuts. The smell of the roasting nuts wafts through the piazzas and is oh-so-very enticing!
While Italy as a whole has not agreed upon one traditional Christmas menu, there is a general trend across all of Italy on la Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve). The dining table will be lacking in red meats. Instead, the table will be covered in a feast of seafood. Why no pork, chicken, or beef? This habit is based on an old Roman Catholic tradition in which worshippers would abstain from eating meats on the day before a holy day.
Baccalà is the Italian word for codfish when it has been cured in salt. It is a delicacy in both Naples and in Veneto, but in both zones the fish is prepared in entirely different ways. In Naples, baccalà is served with a tomato sauce, tossed with capers, olives, and pine nuts. In Veneto, it is simmer in milk until it reaches an almost mousse-like consistency. It can also be served in a butter or lemon sauce as a fillet, or fried in oil and enjoyed as-is.
3. Fish Fillets
Sea bass and swordfish are common fish to serve as a main course at an Italian Christmas Eve feast. Served whole, cut in half, or in small fillets, these fish are delicious and filling. Oftentimes, they are served with a sauce made from tomatoes, olives, and capers. Sea bass is common across the entire country, while swordfish is a specialty in the southern-most tip of Italy, namely Calabria and Sicily.
The capitone is a massive female eel, and is a commonplace dish in southern Italy, particularly in the Naples area. This dish, while hearty and extremely nutritious, is also extremely economical. The fact that even the poorest of families could afford to prepare capitone for Christmas dinner has made it a long- standing tradition in Naples. The people of Naples are meticulous about the way they serve their eel: it is always deep fried, and sometimes marinated in vinegar, and served with a pleasant garnish. Outside of Naples, however, the eel is typically served grilled, baked, steamed, or stewed.
Scattered across the Italian dinner time on Christmas Eve, you will likely find a mixture of fish and frutti di mare (seafood). These non-fish dishes from the sea are incredibly varied and prepared in thousands of different ways. Common on the dinner table, you may find scallops, mussels, shrimp, prawns, clams, and likely also squid or octopus.
Lunch on Christmas Day is a multi-hour ordeal. The lunch can last for upwards of six hours, leading right up to dinnertime (as if anyone would still be hungry for yet another meal). Unlike the day before, this is a day for indulging in hearty meats, anything and everything baked in the oven, and sweet bready desserts.
6. Antipasti & Taglieri
The grand Christmas meal will typically start with a wide spread of antipasti (appetizers). Depending on the region, this will typically consist of cold cut meats and salami, slices of local cheeses, and perhaps a spread of olives, roasted peppers, and artichokes. Another favorite are crostini: little slices of bread, often dipped in broth, and then topped with varies spreads and pates, like chicken liver, tomato, or even a mousse made from salted cod fish.
7. Tortellini in Brodo
Tortellini, stuffed little ring-shaped pasta, are a common first course in central Italy, more specifically, in Emilia-Romagna. Depending on the region, and the cook’s personal preference, tortellini can be filled with ground meats, spinach, cheese, or mushrooms. The pasta is often served in the form of a soup, served in a bowl of warm, homemade brodo (broth).
8. Pasta al Forno
Further south, Italians prefer a heartier, oven-baked first course. Southerners will often prepare pasta al forno (baked pasta), like lasagna. As a sauce, a homemade ragù (a slowly simmered sauce usually made
with a meat like beef, cinghiale (wild boar), or deer, and cooked in tomatoes or wine) is a favorite. Otherwise, a decadent béchamel sauce is a popular choice – especially for lasagne.
9. Carne Arrosto
What is more succulent and decadent than a hunk or roasted meat? The Christmas feast usually features more than one meat-based dish, but the pride of the table is typically a roasted meat: roasted veal, roasted lamb, or roasted chicken (whether that be chicken breasts or the entire bird (served not unlike the American Thanksgiving turkey). The roasted dish is served with potatoes, and seasoned with garlic and fresh herbs.
I’ve said before that Italians cannot agree on one Christmas dish. But, they are in agreement on the most delicious Christmas dolci (desserts). These desserts are sold in every bakery, specially made by artisans, and in every supermarket, usually mass-produced industrially. It doesn’t matter, however. They are beloved Christmas treats just the same.
This Italian variation of fruit cake is sweet and well-beloved. The dessert bread is usually filled with dried, candied fruits and almonds. It originates from Milan and comes in the shape of a deep, cylindrical dome.
Similar to the panettone is another sweet bread called pandoro. It is a sweet, buttery bread that has a melt-in-your-mouth texture. It comes in many varieties, like those filled with mascarpone, Nutella, dried fruits, chocolate, and pistachios. Pandoro has a unique pyramid shape that makes it very quickly recognizable from the kitchen counter.
Originating from the central Tuscan region, but beloved all throughout the country, is panforte. The name quite literally means “strong bread” and is made with a strong flavor. It is a truly ancient dessert, dating back as far as the 1200s. Back then, the loaves of bread were spiced up with pepper and honey. Nowadays, it is made with sugar, honey, flour, almonds, candied fruits, and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. The end result is a dense, spicy, flat cake that requires a tough bite. Paired with a dessert wine (like Vin Santo, the favorite sweet wine of the Tuscan area), this cake is a Christmas favorite.
While the previous three desserts are all of a similar vein, struffoli offer a completely different texture and flavor. They are not spongy cakes, nor are they densely filled with dried or candied nuts or fruits. Struffoli are deep-fried balls of sugary dough! They comes from the southern portion of Italy, specifically the city of Naples. The fried dough balls are usually tossed in a coating of honey and then formed into a ring shape, or piled into an aesthetically-pleasing mound. For additional sweetness, the final plate is