Popular Italian Christmas Foods & Desserts
Christmas is a convivial ritual, where families get together, exchange gifts, and above all celebrate at the table, where food and drinks abound. Every country and every region has its own traditions and recipes, and Italy is no exception.
So, what do Italians do at Christmas?
The first rule that unites the entire peninsula is to fast on December 24 (veggie pasta and fish are commonly eaten). In the South, they usually celebrate with Christmas Eve dinner, while in the north, Christmas lunch is a must. And what about the food?
Taking in curiosities and traditions, let’s now go on a culinary journey across the country to discover Italian Christmas foods.
Tortellini and Cappelletti in Broth
Homemade pasta, filled with meat or vegetables and cheese, triumphs on tables practically all over Italy. Tortelli and passatelli, anolini in broth and lasagna are the main dishes of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Liguria, Marche, Veneto, Umbria, Lazio and Campania.
Or the agnolotti del plin, from Piedmont, which are small ravioli with thin pasta, usually stuffed with meat and served with gravy.
The must of the every table in Trentino Alto Adige at Christmas lunch: the canederli. They are large ball-shaped dumplings prepared with stale bread cut into cubes and mixed with eggs and milk. Flavored with chives, onion, speck, and local cheese. They are cooked in broth or sautéed with melted butter.
In Naples, the main dish at Christmas lunch is maritata soup. Maritata means “married”, so-called because it indicates a variety of elements that blend perfectly with each other.
Seasonal vegetables including savoy cabbage, escarole, and borage, are boiled and then transferred to the meat broth. Some versions include the addition of a few pieces of chicken and sausage to give even more substance and flavor.
A triumph of Ligurian cuisine and ingenuity is the cappon magro, which combines products from the earth (vegetables) with those from the sea (fish and crustaceans) in a marriage of taste and color.
This dish was born on the boats of sailors and in the kitchens of the nobles, where it was eaten by those who went to sea or by those who worked for the important Genoese families. It was once considered a poor dish, today is a long and refined preparation.
Let’s go to Sardinia to celebrate Christmas with the traditional malloreddus, small semolina dumplings, very rough to the touch, shaped like a shell, of various lengths and widths, topped with different sauces.
The name of this dish derives from the term malloru, which in Sardinian means “bull”, therefore malloreddus means “little calf”. In the imagination of the shepherds, this type of pasta reminded them of the shape of a veal, with its particular potbellied shape.
Among the starters, the soup alla valpellinentze holds the title of the Typical Christmas Dish of the Aosta Valley. An age old recipe, it comprises a beef broth, flavored with pepper and nutmeg, then poured into a bowl that contains bread, blanched cabbage leaves, and fontina cheese, baked in the oven.
Pettole is a typical Christmas dish in Apulia, originating from Taranto. Legend has it that during the night of Santa Cecilia a woman, distracted by the music of the bagpipers, made the bread rise for too long. When she realized that the dough was unusable for baking, she turned it into balls and dipped them in boiling-hot oil. So the pettole were born with their typical golden glaze.
Unmissable in the Campania region as a Christmas starter par excellence, the pizza scarola is a delicious variation of the classic pizza. On top of its dough, it features a tasty topping of vegetables, pine nuts, raisins, black olives and some anchovies.
The most common fish in Italian Christmas recipes is cod. A constant on Christmas Eve, each region and city has its own cod recipes, dating far back.
Cod is usually mantecato (blended) in Veneto, fried in Campania, Puglia, Sicily, Lazio and Piedmont, and made into a salad, or incorporated into a sauce for pasta in Calabria. It is also cooked with peperone crusco, which is a type of pepper characterized by its crunchiness, or in spaghetti, in Basilicata, stewed with polenta in Modena, baked in Marche and Apulia or arracanato (gratinated) in Molise: made with bread crumbs, garlic, bay leaves, oregano, raisins, pine nuts and walnuts.
Eel is also common in different appetizers all over the nation, served fried or as a second course in Lazio, while in Campania it is traditional to fry, bake or stew the capitone, the female eel.
Salumi, Cappone, Bolliti and others Meats
Inevitable in all Italian Christmas recipes are beef, pork, lamb, and many others.
As appetizers, cold cuts reign supreme, where each region has its own variations.
The cappone (capon), used to give flavor to the broth, is eaten stuffed or seasoned with mustard or sauces in Liguria, Lombardy, Piedmont, Tuscany, Marche, and Emilia Romagna.
The roast lamb and abbacchio (young, suckling lamb), have been part of the Italian tradition for centuries in the central part of the country and are typical in Lazio, Abruzzi, and Molise. In Apulia it is cooked in the oven with Lecce-style potatoes, accompanied by stewed turnip tops.
Cotechino (pork sausage) and zampone (pork meat) are typical in Emilia Romagna, as are bolliti misti (mixed boiled meats), served in Piedmont, Veneto, Abruzzi, and Lazio with various sauces, such as green sauce.
Another speciality in Florence is bardiccio, a pork sausage with fennel, which is barbecued after midnight.
Panettone and other Italian Christmas Desserts
Let’s end the lavish Christmas meal with a roundup of the traditional desserts to be found on Italian festive tables. The first on the list is certainly panettone, one of the most famous sweets in the world. The cylinder of leavened dough with butter, raisins and candied fruit, came to life in Milan in 1600, among history and legend.
In addition to the classic Verona pandoro and torroni, are very popular desserts made of candied fruit, dried fruit, and spices, which go very nicely with Italian sparkling wine.
The Pandolce, literally sweet bread, is typical of Liguria and is round in shape, sprinkled with raisins, candied lemon and pumpkin, pine nuts, and fennel seeds.
In Tuscany, dating back to the year 1000, we have Panforte with its honey, dried fruit and spices, while the Panpepato, made of dried fruit, candied fruit, and cocoa is generally consumed in Central Italy.
In Trentino and Alto Adige we can find delicious Zelten with almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, and sometimes dried figs.
A typical dessert in Abruzzo is caggionetti, a kind of fried ravioli filled with almonds and chestnuts purée, or perhaps chickpeas or dark chocolate.
Originating in Napoli, struffoli are small balls of dough made with flour, eggs, lard, sugar, and anise, fried in oil. They are coated with honey, candied fruit, and colored, sugared almonds.
The Cartellate, widespread in Apulia, Calabria, and Basilicata, are scrunched up pancakes, commonly drizzled with fruit syrup, or honey and cinnamon.
A delicacy of Friuli Venezia Giulia, gubana is made with walnuts, almonds, raisins, honey, wine and rum, wrapped in puff pastry.
In Molise you can taste calciuni, a traditional Christmas sweet made with flour, wine, boiled chestnuts, rum, chocolate, honey, almonds, candied citron, and cinnamon.
Finally, in Apulia we have purcedduzzi (literally “little pigs”!), a yummy treat made with honey or sugar, and in Sicily, buccellati, which are short pastry donuts filled with figs, dried fruit, and chocolate, with orange peels and raisins.
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