Traditional dishes for an Italian Christmas

December, 19 2019 ( Updated December, 19 2019)

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Like elsewhere in the world, Christmas in Italy is a time for feasting and merriment. The 20 regions of Italy all celebrate the festive season with their own Christmas dishes. Although the ingredients vary, the main common thread running through all of them is that the dishes are cooked using top quality ingredients in a style that brings loved ones, family and friends together. And, it is this enjoyment for life which remains at the heart of all true Italian meals!

The Vigil (Feast of the Seven Fishes)

Christmas Eve dinner in Italy is traditionally known as The Vigil (‘La Viglia’). It was seen as a fasting day, before the extravagance of the Christmas Day feast, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ (which centres heavily around carbs and meat). So, what’s on the menu? You’ll find the staple Christmas Eve dishes brimming with fresh seafood. This Roman-Catholic culinary custom remains entwined in many Italian households, across the world. The custom originally began in southern Italy, where fresh seafood was plentiful, not to mention delicious!  Likewise, the American-Italian community observe this pescatarian feast, affectionately nicknaming it the ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes’. The simplest way to observe an Italian Christmas Eve is quite simply, to abstain from meat and tuck into a festive seafood stew instead.

A table of seafood dishes

A typical Christmas Eve dinner in Italy involves a series of courses. Usually to begin, there’s whiting in lemon, followed by a clam or mussel spaghetti dish, before the famous Italian classic dish of salted cod fish, known as ‘baccalà’ is served. Following on, many families will enjoy numerous seafood dishes, including sword fish, tuna, salmon, deep fried calamari, baked stuffed lobster, octopus’ salad, sea snail salad and mixed seafood linguine, to name a few. Accompanying the tasty seafood selection will be vegetables, pasta dishes, baked delicacies and wine.

 An Italian Christmas day – the feast of feasts!

Once Christmas Eve has passed, the real feast can begin…The regional Christmas Day dishes are guaranteed to tempt your taste buds! An Italian Christmas Day meal typically begins with an Antipasti course of cold and hot appetizers, followed by a first course (usually pasta or meat based). The grand affair of the main second course then commences (usually an extravagant meat or fish dish), accompanied by tasty side dishes of fried-fried artichokes, cauliflower, fennel gratin and roasted potatoes. For the sweet course, (or ‘La dolce’) nuts, dried fruit, soft or hard ‘torrone’ (nougat) are offered, alongside a selection of local puddings and the famous festive cakes of Panettone or Pandora. These are all washed down with a digestive liqueur, or a freshly brewed black coffee.

A festive Panettone

If you’re away in Italy this yuletide, there’s no reason to get bogged down with initiating operation ‘turkey search’. Simply eat like an Italian and try one of these ravishing regional Christmas Day dishes for yourself!

Lombardy & Northern Italy

Capon (or rooster) is the traditional Christmas bird in Italy, and in Lombardy this is no exception! The classic regional version of Capon is stuffed, with walnut or chestnut stuffing. Steeped in tradition, the capon would appear on all the court tables of the land. Today, grand dinner parties usually serve a boiled version as a pre-lude to the roasted version. The capon also happens makes the best meat stock, so there’s no wastage! Indeed, the capon stock is used to make the traditional Lombardian first course for Christmas Day, known as ‘Risotto Giallo’ (a vibrant saffron risotto dish).

A roasted capon on the table

In the Veneto region, polenta makes a festive come-back, with seasonal cod. In Liguria, the ancient dish of ‘Cappon Magro’ is a real show-stopper! This elaborate Italian Riviera salad is made using colourful vegetables and an array of fresh seafood. This iconic dish has long been a popular Catholic fasting dish for Christmas Eve, whilst its elaborate display also sees it adorning many a table on Christmas Day. Finished in magnificent fashion, no two ‘Cappon Magro’ are the same. The multi-layered salad comprises of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, lettuce, olive oil, tuna and hard-boiled eggs, carefully decorated with fresh seafood ranging from white fish and prawns to crayfish and lobster. The mixed ingredients are layered up high into a pyramid shape, with an eye-catching piece of seafood (such as a king prawn or lobster) as the centre piece.

A Ligurian dish of Cappon Magro

In Emilia Romagna, the traditional dishes of the season are ‘Cotechino’ and ‘Zampone’, which are served side-by-side, as a duo. The ‘Cotechino’ is considered to be the father of cured meats, being made from the rind and finest parts of the pig. The ground meat is flavoured with festive herbs and spices before being encased in a natural animal intestine. Accompanying the ‘Cotechino’ is ‘Zampone’, a stuffed pig’s trotter, seasoned with festive herbs and spices. These Christmas delicacies are accompanied by a flavoursome dish of lentils and mashed potato.

And for dolce? There’s ‘Panettone’! Originating in the 1500s’ from the Lombardian capital of Milan, this celebratory cake-like bread can be enjoyed throughout the day. Rich in sweet candied fruit and raisins, it’s a real hit with families, of all generations. In the northern city of Verona, the locals prefer a lighter, sweet version known as ‘Pandoro’. This version is generally fruit-free and decorated on top with a dusting of icing sugar. Accompanying the typical festive dishes of Liguria, is the traditional Genoese version, ‘Pandolce’ (or Genoa cake). This delicious Christmas cake is baked using dried fruit, sultanas, pine nuts and marsala liqueur. It’s a year-round treat too!

Lazio & Tuscany (mid Italy)

As is customary in Rome, the Christmas Day meal begins with a ‘Stracciatella’ soup or ‘Tortellini’, followed by a classic pasta dish (such as ‘Cannelloni’ or ‘Lasagne’). Following on is a main meat dish, with vegetables. The champion here is Roast lamb braised with garlic, rosemary, vinegar and anchovies, with a healthy dose of roast potatoes.

A roman dish of roasted lamb and potatoes

Accompanying the main meal are artichokes and a unique ‘Puntarelle’ salad, or ‘Misticanza’ salad (traditional mixed green salad). Another favourite regional dish is a heart-warming meat and vegetable broth, known as ‘Minestra Maritata’ (wedding soup). As festive ‘dolci’ goes in Rome and Lazio region, the typical ‘Pangiallo’ version of panettone adorns the table everywhere, making it one of Italy’s most famous Christmas cakes.

A dish of 'Minestra Maritata' soup

In Tuscany, the first course for Christmas Day is traditionally ‘Crespelle alle Fiorentina’ (layered ricotta and spinach pancakes in bechamel sauce) or an egg pasta dish, stuffed with either potato or spinach and ricotta, followed by a main dish of roasted Tuscan-style ‘Arista’ (pork) with apples. To finish, the regional dolce of choice is ‘Panforte’ (a sweet, chewy nougat tart). Strong teeth are a must!

A traditional Panforte from Lazio

Southern Italy

The main festive dish for Puglia is Baccala (salted cod), which is either roasted, oven baked or fried. In Campania and Apulia, the key ingredient for a festive family feast is female eel, the largest of the eels, making it perfect for sharing. The eel is grilled in Apulia, whilst Campanians enjoy it deep fried and roasted. Indeed, the oilier quality of the eel makes it ideal for grilling and frying. Similar to the north, the southern region of Campania also serves up a wholesome ‘Minestra Maritata’ (wedding soup). On the southern Italian island of Sicily, a crusty baked pasta dish such as ‘Baked Anelletti’ is the order of the day. The Calabria region presents the festive table with traditional homemade pasta in a ragù meat sauce. The Basilicata region enjoys a tasty festive dish of Cod with fried sun-dried Senise peppers, which grow in abundance here and are ripened to their full sweetness, in the sun.

A selection of fresh fish

Wherever you’re celebrating Christmas, we hope you bring the flavours of Italy with you.

Buon Natale!”

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