When Christmas comes to Italy, it brings festive family gatherings, beautiful Christmas markets, and special feelings among family and friends. It also brings along a table full of scrumptious foods! These special dishes, often family recipes that have been passed down through generations, are a big part of Italian holiday traditions.
If you’re thinking about spending Christmas in Italy, you’re in for a treat! Let’s explore some of the traditional dishes that make this festive season so tasty.
Italian Christmas Eve Dinner
Before we talk about Christmas food in Italy, we need to address the night before: Christmas Eve!
On Christmas Eve, or la Vigilia di Natale in Italian, it’s tradition to not consume meat. Many families believe that abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve brings good luck and helps prepare them for the grand Christmas Day feast. So, they turn to the ocean to create a memorable and flavorful meal. The result is the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Known as “La Vigilia” or “Festa dei Sette Pesci” in Italian, the feast doesn’t always consist of exactly seven fish dishes. The number can vary, but it’s generally a multi-course extravaganza of seafood dishes. Why seven? The number seven is considered lucky in Italian culture. Some say it represents the seven sacraments, while others connect it to the days of creation. Even Rome was built upon seven hills! There’s no doubt that the number seven is special to Italians!
If you’re in northern Italy, perhaps Venice, you must try the famous Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia, or squid ink pasta. Not for the faint of heart, this dish is actually quite delicious. Just don’t eat it right before taking a special photo, because your tongue, teeth, and maybe even your lips will be black! (This is me after eating Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia in Venice!)
If you’re in Naples in southern Italy, you might consider Baccalà alla Napoletana instead. A hearty dish, this version of baccalà is made with salt cod, olives, tomato sauce, capers, and potatoes. Many would argue that Baccalà, or salted cod, is the one thing that the Feast of the Seven Fishes must contain.
The Christmas Eve dinner table may contain other special, meatless dishes too. Stuffed pasta, including gnocchi, are common, as long as they don’t include meat.
After Christmas Eve Dinner, it’s common for families in Italy to attend midnight mass at their local church.
Traditional Italian Christmas Dinner
On Christmas Day, Italian families gather for some of the most special culinary traditions to be found. The main meal on Christmas day is eaten midday, so this might be more appropriately thought of as Christmas Day lunch. But lunch implies a smaller meal, and there is nothing diminutive about this Italian meal! Christmas lunch is a typical large Italian meal that features multiple courses, as follows.
For a special meal, the very first course is called the aperitivo. Think of it like a warm-up before the big show! This part of the meal is all about getting your taste buds excited for what’s to come. Families and friends gather to enjoy small, tasty bites like olives, nuts, and little snacks. Drinks such as white wine or an aperol spritz are served, or for children, sparkling water or fruit juice. The aperitivo is a bit like a delicious teaser that makes everyone hungry and ready for the next courses of the Christmas feast.
Antipasti is what Americans would think of as appetizers, but it’s really more like finger food. Think olives, tomatoes, bruschetta with olive oil, salami and cheese. Arancini, which are Italian rice balls, are really delicious as well. You’ll also find grilled vegetables like artichokes or eggplant. In Venice, you mean hear this referred to as “cicchetti”, which is a similar concept of small plate food that can often be eating with your fingers.
For me, it’s hard not to fill up on these tasty treats, but as there are a number of other courses to follow, it helps to put on the brakes long before you start to feel full!
Let’s face it; pasta is a delicious staple of Italian cuisine year-round. Why should Christmas be any different? The second course in Italian meals is typically pasta.
Filled pasta such as manicotti or ravioli are popular, but unlike Christmas eve, now you may find pasta with meat sauce, such as Rigatoni Bolognese. For a somewhat lighter option, a family recipe such as cacio y pepe might be selected. Regardless of the pasta served, this is not meant to be the main course, so you still need to leave room while eating it!
The main course can be different in various parts of Italy, but one thing’s for sure: it’s the heartiest and most filling part of the meal. Many families’ traditional Italian Christmas food includes a tender, juicy roast, like roast pork, beef, or even a big, flavorful turkey. These roasts are often cooked with herbs and spices that make the whole house smell amazing! Alongside the main dish, you might find scrumptious side dishes like roasted vegetables, potatoes, or creamy risotto. For special occasions, the main course is where everyone’s appetite is truly satisfied, and it’s a moment to share delicious food and love at your family gatherings.
Italian Christmas Desserts
Now, after all those savory dishes and full bellies, it’s time for the grand finale – the dessert course! In Italy, they take their desserts seriously, and Christmas is no exception. This part of the meal is a bit like a magical wonderland filled with sweet treats that make your taste buds dance with joy.
On the dessert table, you’ll find a spectacular array of confections. One of the stars of the show is panettone, that delightful dome-shaped cake we talked about earlier. But wait, there’s more! There are also delicious treats like pandoro, a golden, star-shaped bread dusted with powdered sugar, and torrone, a sweet nougat loaded with honey and nuts. Each dessert is like a piece of art, beautifully crafted to end your Christmas dinner on a sweet and memorable note. And don’t forget to sip on a cup of warm cocoa or coffee, making this dessert course a cozy and heartwarming experience.
St. Stephen’s Day
After the excitement of Christmas Day, another special day arrives in Italy called Santo Stefano, or Saint Stephen’s Day. It’s like a bonus holiday right after Christmas, and it’s a time for families and friends to continue celebrating and spending time together.
Imagine waking up on the day after Christmas, still feeling the joy and happiness of the Christmas season. Santo Stefano is a day to relax, play games, and simply enjoy being together. Since it’s a public holiday in some places, many people have the day off from work and school, making it the perfect opportunity to have a special lunch.
For lunch on Santo Stefano, families often sit down to a table filled with delicious foods. While there isn’t a specific meal that everyone eats on this day, it’s a chance to enjoy leftover Christmas dishes or cook up something new. Since many people have already prepared big feasts for Christmas, Santo Stefano’s lunch might be a bit more casual but still very tasty.
Remember those yummy dishes you enjoyed on Christmas? Well, some families love to use the leftovers from Christmas dinner to create new meals for Santo Stefano. Maybe the roasted turkey becomes a tasty sandwich, or the mashed potatoes turn into potato pancakes. It’s a bit like a culinary adventure, using what you have to make something new and exciting.
Traditions for the New Year
In Italy, the joy of the holiday season doesn’t end with Christmas. New Year’s Eve brings its own set of tasty traditions, and one of the most delicious is the custom of eating cotechino and lentils. Cotechino is a type of sausage, and lentils are teeny-tiny legumes that look like mini-flat pancakes. On New Year’s Eve, these two ingredients come together to create a dish that’s not only yummy but also full of meaning. You see, Italians believe that what you eat on New Year’s Eve can bring you good luck for the year ahead.
Why cotechino and lentils, you ask? Well, they symbolize something very important: wealth and good fortune. Italians have a charming tradition of thinking that the more lentils you eat, the more money you’ll have in the coming months. It’s like planting seeds of prosperity with every tiny lentil on your plate. As for cotechino, it’s a tasty sausage that’s rich and flavorful, making it a perfect companion to the humble lentil.
Now, if you’re from the United States, you might be familiar with the tradition of eating black-eyed peas and greens for New Year’s. But let me tell you, many people who’ve tried both traditions often agree that the Italian version is much tastier! So, picture yourself at an Italian New Year’s Eve dinner, surrounded by friends and family, savoring each bite of cotechino and lentils. You’re not just enjoying a delicious meal; you’re also taking part in a beautiful tradition that’s all about hoping for a year filled with happiness, good health, and prosperity. It’s a wonderful way to start the New Year on a tasty note!
Italy’s Christmas table is a treasure trove of delightful foods that warm the heart and fill the belly. Each dish has a story to tell and a place in the hearts of Italians. So, if you’re dreaming of spending Christmas time in Italy, be prepared to indulge in these traditional treats that bring loved ones closer and create unforgettable memories.
Whether you’re marveling at the towering Christmas trees or strolling through festive markets, the flavors of Italy’s holiday foods will make your experience truly magical.
Buon Natale! (That’s Italian for “Merry Christmas!”)