Christmas week in Italy means one thing: feasting.
Like any other country, Italy has its own Christmas traditions. Italian Christmas foods are predictably distinguished by their variety and richness, though.
Christmas is a time for abbondanza, literally, “abundance.” Italians sit down for long (we’re talking six or seven hours) feasts of many courses, even more extreme than on Easter or other holidays. What they eat depends on the region, as well as on the family, as Christmas is also the holiday for which every family has its own recipes.
Here, we’ve put together a little guide for the 24th through 26th of December, so that you can see all the typical Italian sweet and savory foods at Christmas, and maybe try to eat a few of them yourself this year.
1. La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve)
Catholic tradition prohibits the consumption of meat on the evenings before religious holidays. Most Italians, therefore, eat a fishy feast on Christmas Eve, one so abundant that the lack of animal flesh is hardly noticed. If you go to a fishmonger on the morning of the 24th in any Italian city, you’ll see hundreds of plastic bags on ice, each one with someone’s surname on the outside and a dozen species of fish on the inside.
The emphasis is on freshness and variety, both of seafood type and cooking method, and of course, it varies by region. One might begin with a frittura di pesce (fried fish), which could include calamari, baby octopus or a paranza (mixed tiny fish). In the north of Italy, you’ll definitely find baccalà (salt cod), and further south, capitone (eel)
Then, of course, there’s pasta. Linguine with lobster, spaghetti with clams, paccheri ai frutti di mare (short pasta with mixed seafood)…you name it. Whole roasted fish with potatoes as a secondo, and then Christmas cookies before the midnight mass.
NB: The “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is an Italian-American tradition in which families eat seven types of fish on Christmas Eve. It is not typically found in Italian families (even though they may eat seven or more types of fish)
2. Natale (Christmas)
Over the years, I’ve asked many of my Italian friends what precisely they eat on Christmas, for the shock-pleasure of hearing the number of dishes they rattle off.
Historically, especially in southern Italy, Christmas was one of the few days of the year where poor people could eat rich, expensive dishes made with meat, sugar and exotic spices. The motives may have changed, but the tradition hasn’t, and most Italians sit down for a table-splintering, gut-busting, wallet-shredding Christmas lunch that could be a dozen or more courses.
The antipasti almost always include cured meats and cheeses. Many regions, in fact, have special “Christmas salamis,” which are meant to be cured until the holidays. More elaborate dishes are also common, like vitello tonnato (cold roast veal with a tuna-spiked mayonnaise sauce), or infinite variations on frittata.
Then, pasta, often several courses of it. Christmas pasta almost always has some sort of meat in it. Throughout Italy, but especially in Emilia-Romagna, one finds the incomparable tortellini in brodo—meat-stuffed circles in a golden broth of beef and capon (more on that later).
In the south of Italy, there’s pasta al forno, or baked pasta. A true “everything but the kitchen sink” celebration of abundance, pasta al forno might have long-simmered ragù, fried tiny meatballs, salami, hard-boiled eggs, chunks of cheese and a rich bechamel sauce, all baked together until the top is crisp and the inside gooey and impossibly rich.
We’re not finished. Normal Italian meals usually don’t include much meat—maybe one sausage a person, or a thin cutlet. Christmas is an exception. Many families eat multiple carnivorous courses. From the tortellini broth, there’s succulent boiled meat, called bollito, traditionally served with salsa verde (piquant green sauce) or mostarda (candied fruit in spiced syrup). Some type of roast is very common, like roast baby lamb in Rome, or a baroque faraona ripena (guinea fowl stuffed with ground meat and spices). And even after that, some families will have grilled sausages and chops.
And, of course, there are desserts. We don’t have the space to delve into the hundreds of traditional Italian Christmas sweets, but the two most common are panettone and pandoro. Both are sweet, bread-like cakes, boxes of which can be found stacked high in shops in the weeks before Christmas. The former originates in Milan, and is a fluffy cake, shaped a bit like an oversized muffin, dotted with dried fruit and raisins. The latter (literally, “golden bread”) is from Verona, star-shaped, with a moister, denser texture, usually served with powdered sugar.
3. Il Giorno di Santo Stefano (Boxing Day)
You’d think that after the marathon of eating on Christmas Day, Italians would use the following day to relax by themselves and have a nice lunch of raw fruit and Alka-Seltzer. Nope. Saint Stephen’s Day often involves yet another family lunch, maybe not as big as the previous days’, but a serious lunch nonetheless.
On the 26th, many Italians show off their prowess with avanzi, the leftovers from the previous day. We’re not talking about reheating in a microwave, though. The remaining food from Christmas lunch is reworked, repurposed and re-enriched. Leftover pasta will get mixed with eggs and cheese to make a frittata di pasta. Boiled meat will be shredded and stewed with tomatoes and vegetables. The leftover cured meats and desserts from the previous day will be put out to round the meal, because more than enough will have been bought for Christmas.
Along with leftovers, some families also have new dishes for the day after Christmas. My friend Mario, from Calabria, always has leftover broth with pasta and leftover boiled beef, but then makes grilled sausages and broccoli rabe as a second course, and in the evening, crespelle—fried dough that can be stuffed with cheese or rolled in sugar.