Food occupies a central position in Italian culture and is therefore a big part of many Natale, Christmas, traditions across all of Italy. However, depending on where you live in the country, the traditions that you are familiar with and that you partake in may vary considerably. For example, the Feast of the Seven Fishes originated in the southern coastal regions where, for centuries, many people were dependent on the fishing industry for their income. In northern regions which are historically wealthier, the types of food consumed are generally richer and more expensive and one may expect to see a lot of cured meats and hard cheeses incorporated into festive dishes.
Feasting in Italy often begins on Christmas Eve, though this is normally a lighter meal involving fish rather than meat. Baccalà or salted cod is a much-loved choice for this dinner, though in Northern Italy many people enjoy other meat-free dishes varying from fresh gnocchi to spaghetti in a rich sauce made from anchovies.
Whilst the main meal may appear modest, Christmas Eve is often a time for indulging in sweet treats. Wherever you spend the festive period, you will come across a whole range of tasty dolce from biscotti and pandoro to torrone and panettone.
Panettone is a sweet, enriched bread which originates from Milan and the Milanese are currently petitioning to obtain Protected Designation of Origin status for this beloved delicacy.
Pandoro is considered by some to be the Veronese equivalent to Milan’s panettone. This is another type of sweet bread enjoyed throughout the festive season and it is dusted with icing sugar so that it resembles the snow-capped peaks of the Italian Alps.
Torrone is an Italian nougat typically made from honey blended with almonds and pistachios and it was first made in Cremona, a town in Lombardy. Torrone di Benevento is a version of this dolce that comes from Campania and it is made with hazelnuts which give it a more crumbly texture.
Biscotti literally means ‘twice cooked’ and it is a type of crunchy biscuit that comes from Prato in Tuscany. This tasty treat contains almonds and is often served with Vin Santo, an Italian dessert wine which the biscotti can be dipped in!
The Italian Christmas dinner, cena di Natale, will usually follow the same plan as other Italian dinner parties, with a number of courses enjoyed throughout the meal. Following the lack of meat the previous evening, many Italians enjoy a number of meat-based dishes as part of this festive feast.
Whilst the meal is being prepared, guests may nibble on a spread of antipasti which will often involve olives, Italian cheeses and a selection of charcuterie.
The first course, or il primo, is usually pasta, though the variety served varies from region to region. In the South, oven-baked pasta, known as pasta al forno is always a popular option, whilst in Northern Italy ragù alla Bolognese is often on offer and parcels of tortellini are stuffed with rich cheeses and morsels of Parma Ham.
Il secondo is the main event and on Christmas Day this will usually be some form of roasted meat, traditionally beef or lamb, served with a range of accompanying sides like roast potatoes.
The meal is likely to last several hours and will often be enjoyed with several bottles of delicious Italian wine.
Santo Stefano’s Lunch
Of course, the Natale celebrations carry on even after Christmas Day itself has been and gone. Often people meet with friends and more extended family on December 26th and enjoy another delicious meal. This meal frequently incorporates the leftovers from the previous days and is a chance to get creative! Often Italians experiment with new pasta combinations and rich soups and broths.