Natale is one of the few occasions of the year in which ancestral traditions are revered above all else; skills, memories and team work all come together to create very elaborate banquets and fabulous dishes. What will be eaten during the feste is a kind of ritual; very often each portate (that is, each single course) is prepared more or less in the same way it has been for generations. Days are spent in the kitchen—everyone pitching in—with lots of long, languorous hours between meals, spent relaxing and digesting and chatting—the long-awaited family conversations punctuated by the sound of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts being cracked open and the shells tossed into the fireplace.
If we consider only le feste di Natale (the Christmas festivities)—excluding for now the long and rich Veglione di San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve feast) and the wonderful pranzo di Capodanno (New Year’s Day lunch)—there are three important meals.
December 24: Christmas Eve Dinner
Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally a light meal with no meat. This dinner precedes the Midnight Mass. In the colder and more rural regions, the Mass is often followed by hot chocolate at home with cookies or a slice of panettone. In my childhood in Venice, this tradition was a joy for my siblings and me—a reward for behaving for nearly two long hours in church.
Antipasti are normally based on fish; for example, Carpaccio di pesce spada, tonno or salmone(sword fish, tuna fish, or fresh salmon carpaccio), and/or insalata di mareordi polpo (seafood or octopus salad). As a first course, in regions like Lombardia, Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna, agnolotti filled with ricotta and spinach, potatoes or pumpkin are served. These are usually served with butter, sage and Parmigiano-Reggiano. But the originality of some traditions can go to extremes like the cialson prepared in Friuli, which are ravioli filled with ricotta, raisins and/or dried figs, spinach, chocolate and candied citron! In Veneto, we love bigoi in salsa, which are a sort of thick, buckwheat spaghetti seasoned with a delicious cream of anchovies and onions. In Piemonte, the glorious bagna caudais often served. Anguilla (eel) orcapitone is very traditional, and is cooked in many different ways all over Italy. In parts of Sicily, they prepare involtini (roulade) of swordfish made with breadcrumbs, orange juice, pinoli, dried raisins, tarragon, ginger, garlic, parsley and basil. This last dish is an example of how Italian regional cuisine can reach an almost stratospheric level!
December 25: Christmas Day Lunch
This is the most important of the three meals associated with Natale and can last for hours. The table has to be beautiful and big to accommodate the many guests; the relatives with the biggest table usually host the party. The best tablecloths are chosen, together with grandmother’s antique dishware, and of course the English silverware. Precious crystal glasses are brought out, and if you break one, you will be reminded of your clumsiness for years to come.
On Christmas day lunch, the first course is often preceded by a classic antipasto with cuts of cured meat, garnished with olives and cheese. When the pasta course is brought out, it is just about impossible for any Italian to refuse a second serving of nonna’s wonderful Pasta or Pasticcio al forno—a baked pasta full of surprises. This type of baked pasta is more common in the central southern regions of Italy. In the north, Lasagne verdi alla Bolognese reigns supreme, along with a huge variety of filled pastas. Cannelloni with different fillings, baked with besciamella and ragù, are also popular. Though today’s young families have their own alternatives to these classic choices, most Italians prefer the traditional to the new for the holidays.
As a second course, meat is de rigueur: roasted veal, braised beef or roasted chicken with potatoes—which in my childhood was really an event. We say in Italy that court birds and little animals are the sacrificial victims of our lust for meat at Christmas.