Traditional Christmas Food for an Italian Feast
Are you fancying a change this Christmas holidays? Do you plan on creating an Italian Christmas feast? Well this guide to typical Italian Christmas foods in Italy will help break it down for you and give you lots of ideas on what to cook.
With my husband’s family being Italian, I’ve spent a few Christmas’ in Italy. With no turkey in sight, Christmas in Italy can be very different to the UK and US. Let’s start at the very beginning…
The Feast of the Seven Fishes
Known as la vigilia, Italians start the celebrations with a large feast on the eve of Christmas. This meal is meant to be meat-free as is traditional in the Catholic faith, so you can fast before the bigger feast the following day. Fish is the theme for most Italian families although it’s more common in southern Italy (or coastal parts) where fish is a lot fresher.
For starters, you’ll find dishes such as: fried fish such as calamari, octopus salad and mussels in broth. For main you might have baccala (salted cod), seafood linguine or zuppa di pesce (fish soup). If you head to Northern Italy, you are likely to have a stuffed pasta like ravioli or gnocchi. Italians like to serve lots of sides dishes or ‘appetisers’ with a main, so you might also have pepperonata (usually homemade from the summer harvest!) or spicy stuffed cherry peppers known as le bombe.
In the past, however (and what was common in my family’s part of Italy, in the North, a Christmas Eve feast was less common. The family would attend midnight mass at their local church (catholic tradition) and maybe go as far as having some vin brulee (mulled wine) and panettone, if the family could afford to.
Christmas Day (Il Giorno Di Natale)
Traditional Italian Christmas food is going to vary from place to place, so I’ve tried to give an insight into what could be eaten in the North, Centre and South of Italy. Of course, every family has their own Christmas traditions too.
A Christmas day lunch is usually meat-based unlike Christmas Eve where you’ll usually only eat fish. Most families have large family gatherings on Christmas day so the feast has to be fit for a crowd!
Cheese and salami for antipasti is pretty standard now in Italy. It helps keep hungry family members from complaining about being hungry before the main event! There’s usually an older family member slicing up affeti (slices) of local cheese and salami to display on a wooden board, for grazing from until the main dish (es) are ready. This is usually more elaborate since it’s Christmas, so the cheese might be that special one they’ve been saving in their cellar!
You may also have vegetables kept in brine, such as artichokes and olives. In northern Italy (Piedmont region) you may also find bagna cauda on your Christmas table. Bagna cauda is a sauce made from anchovies, butter and garlic. It’s served with raw vegetables to dip with, like celery, cauliflower and peppers. What’s also traditional is vitello tonato which are veal fillets sliced thinly covered with a tuna sauce.
Il primo corso (first course)
The first course is going to vary from region to region and in the present day, there will be some overlaps due to most things being available in supermarkets. In the north you’re likely to eat stuffed pasta, like ravioli, capelleti or agnolotti del plin. In the past you may well have eaten fagioli (beans) too. In central and southern Italy, a baked pasta dish would be more common.
Il secondo corso – il pranzo di natale (the main course – Christmas dinner)
If you find yourself in the north for Christmas, you’re likely to eat a bollito misto – a feast of mixed boiled meats. There might be chicken, beef, veal, some sliced salami and a pate of some sort. This was a real treat in the past when money was tight.
A roasted or boiled cappone (rooster) was also common in the past in Northern Italy. In Lombardia (lombardy) it’s common to eat anguilla cotta al cartoccio, which means baked eel. In central Italy you might eat spaghetti and some sort of fish, like tuna or mackerel.
Of course, lasagne bolognese is also traditionally eaten too. In the southern regions it’s common to see orechiette con cima di rapa (orechiatte pasta with broccoli stalks) and n’duja salami. There may well be lots of fish dishes too, like grilled eel, mussels and calamari.
If you find yourself in Tuscany, you’ll come across liver pate crostini and roasted guinea fowl as part of your Christmas dinner. Nowadays it’s also common to have roast lamb for your main course in Italy.
The main course is usually served with lots of red wine and white wine, of course! There’ll also be a bottle of prosecco chilling in the fridge for a pre-dinner apperitivo.
Il dolce (dessert)
The most common Italian Christmas desserts in Northern Italy is of course the panettone (a light and airy fruit cake) or the pandoro (a light and airy star-shaped vanilla sponge cake dusted with icing sugar). It’s the one that is well-known all around the world. In central Italy you may have panforte (a hard, chewy dessert filled with fruit).
And of course, in the South of Italy you’ll find the cannoli (cones of flaky pastry filled with a flavoured cream) or the famous struffoli (deep-fried honey balls).
Across the whole of Italy there will also be biscotti of all different variations to serve with il cafe, from amaretti (almond cookies) to pizzelle (thin biscuits flavoured with aniseed) and baci di dama (Nutella sandwiched between two hazelnut cookies).
26th December, Santo Stefano (Boxing Day)
Like most places across the world, it’s common to eat leftovers on boxing day. You could see chicken broth made from the chicken carcass (or even capon broth) served with pasta noodles or pumpkin tortelli (pasta filled with pumpkin). In Emilia Romagna it’s common to eat duck breast. In Campagna you’ll often find pizza fritta (fried pizza).
New Year’s In Italy
It’s traditional to eat cotechino con lenticcie (cotechino sausage with lentils) on New Year’s Eve as they are a symbol of abundance, which is what most people wish for the following year. The sliced sausage resembles coins and this symbolises wealth. In the Piedmont and Friuli regions, you would eat risotto and in the South you’ll find fish dishes like spaghetti with clams.
You would definitely find panettone on the menu again as it’s tradition to eat seven dried fruit and nuts. Doing so is thought to bring wealth and fertility.
New Year Traditions
A humorous tradition in Southern Italy is throwing pots and pans out of the window to ‘ring in the year’. The loud sounds are meant to ward off evil spirits. In Bormio (lombardy), there’s a tradition where the locals ski down holding lanterns which look magical, lighting up the night sky.
A lot of areas in Italy also like to set off fireworks and have bonfires to see the New Year in. There is a tradition to set a light a straw figure called la vecchione (the old one). Out with the old, in with the new!
Traditional Christmas Decorations
The most popular since it’s a religious tradition is to put up a presepe (nativity scene) in your home. This is usually done on the 8th of December in Italy, though most families might not observe this tradition anymore.
Of course an Italian home will also have a Christmas tree decorated with baubles and fairy lights. Some houses may have a wreath on their door and lights in their window. You may find houses are decorated a bit more understated than in the US and UK.
A Taste of Italy in Your household
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‘A true Italian food hamper experience! Enjoy a bottle of top-quality Italian sparkling prosecco, smooth primitivo Italian red wine or a refreshing Menabrea beer. Enjoy preparing an authentic and delicious Italian meal, with tarallini snacks and truffle crisps to nibble on whilst you wait for your main course. There’s two pastas to choose from, along with a black truffle sauce, traditional arrabbiata sauce, or a spicy tapenade to pick from as well! Use oregano for seasoning, and exquisite balsamic vinegar or organic rosemary olive oil to perhaps dress a side salad. There’s even dessert options of traditional panforte, cherry nougat and chocolate pralines. Don’t forget the porcini mushroom risotto rice to create another alternative meal. A true Italian feast with endless options!’