by Filippo Berio
Family, love and food: the essence of Christmas in Italy.


Family, love and food: the essence of Christmas in Italy. There is an old Italian saying that goes: “Christmas with your family, Easter with anyone you want.” It explains just how important traditions are for Italians, especially at this time of year.
Christmas is a festivity that brings families together, and it is celebrated in different ways because of the variety and richness of Italian culture. The one thing that Italians have in common at Christmas is that feasts last for hours, as they consist of several courses, enjoyed in a buzzing and joyful atmosphere with lots of toasts.


It is not easy to say what Italians eat at Christmas because every region has its own traditional Christmas dishes, each with a prominent role during the meal. Moreover, the menu varies not only depending on the region and its local flavours, but also on when Christmas is celebrated …

Don’t worry! Natale is always on 25 December, but there is a thin red line between two Italian celebrating traditions. In the north and centre of the peninsula, Christmas is celebrated mostly at lunch on 25 December whereas, from Rome down to Sicily, the feast is at dinner on Christmas Eve.
It is not set in stone and sometimes people celebrate both days so that they can see both sides of the family.


According to Italian Catholic tradition, people abstain from eating meat on Christmas Eve (la vigilia di magro or ‘lean eve dinner’), but the dinner is anything but lean! In fact, the occasion is also called Cenone, the “great supper”. As no meat is allowed, fish is the star of the show.


The classic menu is composed of several hot and cold appetisers (antipasto): chicken liver canapés (crostini ai fegatini), sometimes soaked in broth, in Tuscany; polenta with codfish (polenta e baccalà) in the Veneto region.

Then comes one or two first courses: egg-pasta filled with a meat-based stuffing served with broth (tortellini in brodo) in Emilia Romagna; in the Marche region you will be served a type of lasagne with minced beef, sausages, chicken, prosciutto and sometimes mushrooms (vincisgrassi).

The main dish is the second course, always meat or fish: a big female eel (capitone), which is served grilled in Apulia and deep fried or roasted in Campania; lamb braised with garlic, rosemary, vinegar and anchovies (abbacchio al forno) in Lazio; elsewhere you can enjoy a mix of boiled meat (bollito) served with mustard from Cremona, sweet and sour candied fruits immersed in syrup and flavoured with mustard oil; originally from Emilia Romagna is zampone, a pig’s trotter filled with minced meat flavoured with spices and herbs, and its close relative cotechino, a similar spiced stuffing cased in sausage skin.


What would a main dish be without some vegetables by its side? Mashed or roast potatoes, stewed lentils (often on the menu again at New Year’s Eve), but also sautéed broccoli, deep-fried artichokes and cauliflower or fennel gratin with Parmesan béchamel sauce.

The great supper ends with nuts and dried fruit, a piece of soft or hard nougat (torrone), sometimes covered with chocolate, and several typical local desserts, which always include the golden, rich and fluffy cakes Pandoro from Verona and Panettone from Milan. Christmas would not be Christmas without a slice of one of them, or preferably both!
Buon Natale to one and all!

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