Christmas (or ‘Natale’ as it’s known locally) is as big of a deal in Italy as it is here in the UK. However, it does have a decidedly Italian twist, with each of the various regions having their own traditional dishes which they prepare over the festive period.
We all know Italy is renowned for its food, so we’re going to take a look at some of their favourite holiday dishes and some of the traditions that are observed, hopefully giving you some inspiration to do something a little different for your own Christmas dinner.
Christmas Eve Dinner
The night before Christmas, Italians start off the Natale festivities with a lighter meal, usually consisting of lots of seafood and no other meats.
Usually, a salad will be served up with swordfish, tuna, salmon octopus, or baccalà (salted cod), which is a regional favourite.
Simple pasta dishes and antipasti (starters) are also cooked, but again, usually without meat.
The idea of abstaining from meat comes from an old Roman Catholic tradition of fasting from meat for certain periods of the year and in the US, the practice has led to the ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes’, where Italian-Americans make their way through seven different seafood dishes.
Christmas Day Lunch
Just like here in the UK, the midday Christmas meal is the big one in Italy and can go on for many hours!
After ‘fasting’ the night before, Christmas Day is very meat-heavy. Things start off with a selection of antipasti such as dry-cured meats, cheeses, olives, artichokes and salumi (cold cuts).
Next up there’s a pasta-based course, which will vary depending on where abouts in the country you’re sitting down to Christmas dinner.
For example, in the North, lasagne is a popular choice, as are filled pasta dishes such as ravioli and manicotti, but in the South, you’re more likely to enjoy a pasta bake dish.
The main course will be heavy on meat, with the likes of veal, chicken and braised beef being preferred to our traditional Christmas meat such as turkey or ham.
Santo Stefano’s Lunch
Finally, on Santo Stefano’s Day (Boxing Day to you and me), Italians gear up for their third feast in as many days, with more distant friends and family being invited for a slightly less indulgent meal than the one they’ve enjoyed the day before.
There are no particular traditions for the Santo Stefano’s Lunch, but like in the UK, leftovers from the previous day will probably be used up.
With less of a focus on tradition, Italians use this meal to get a little bit more creative and many will use it as an excuse to get out of the kitchen and enjoy a nice meal in a restaurant.
If you want to mix things up a little and add some Mediterranean flair to your own Christmas meals this year, here are some Italian recipes for you to have a go at, or if you’d rather take it easy, here’s a flavour of the kind of fare you can expect from a Christmas menu at a top Italian restaurant, courtesy of Bella Cosa in London.