How to make an Italian Christmas meal

Italian Christmas traditions include food being an integral part of the celebration. What do Italians eat for Christmas dinner?

As with everything else in Italy the exact Christmas food will vary depending on where you live. Here are our top food traditions!

A Christmas Eve in Italy – please, only fish!

Tradition says that Christmas Eve’s meal, La Vigilia (no meat), is not prepared with meat. It is a mixture of fish and vegetables. This is in line with the majority of meals that are served on the eve of a religious festival in Italy. It’s not clear whether the actual fish dishes are considered “lean.”

Capitone (eel) is a traditional Christmas Eve dish, but it is becoming less popular. Nowadays, shellfish, octopus and baccala are more popular fish. Pezzetti is a popular local dish in Rome. It is made up of cubes of ricotta, artichokes, zucchini, and broccoli. In Naples, a starter is a sauteed mixture of seafood and broccoli.

Next, the pasta dishes. They also come in a variety of flavors. The north, particularly Piedmont and Lombardy, has lasagna covered in anchovies, parmesan and other seasonings. It’s also known as vermicelli with mussels or clams in Naples.

You might be mistaken if you think this is a 3-course meal. You might be surprised to learn that it is traditionally more. But there is a reason for all this indulgence. Seven courses may be served for each of the seven sacraments: 9 for Trinity (squared), 12 to the apostles, 13 to the disciples with Jesus, and 13 for the Trinity (squared), or 21 (yikes!). The 7 sacraments are required for the Trinity times.

“Lean day,” indeed!

Christmas Day Lunch… with the Madonna or Jesus?

After you have (ahem), resisted the temptation to indulge on Christmas Eve you are allowed to eat on Christmas Day. Lunch is the main meal. Pasta in brodo, or pasta in broth, is a popular way to start a meal in Italy. It’s a very common starter in Italy, especially in the north. Bologna is all about meat-filled Tortellini in Capon (eel) broth. Ferrara has pasta stuffed with pumpkin filling.

The eel was once the main dish for most Italian families. But now many people in Italy eat turkey stuffed just like what you would see at an American Thanksgiving.

If you are at a Christmas Day dinner in Calabria don’t be surprised that the table remains set after everyone has finished eating. Tradition says that the dishes are left to be enjoyed by the Madonna or the baby Jesus while they wait for them to arrive.

There’s also dessert. The Italians don’t like desserts but they love sweets and Christmas. It’s no surprise that sweet bread like panettone pandoro are very popular in Italy. Cavallucci are cookies depicting a horse, and dita degli Apostoli (“fingers-of-the-apostoli”) is a Puglian tradition. Mostaccioli is spiced nuts pastries that Romans devoured.

Pandoro is an Italian Christmas tradition

As much (delicious!) Italians don’t stop at food! It’s Christmas in Italy through January 6. The day of the Epiphany.

Keep checking back for a post about what to eat in Italy for the New Year and Epiphany!

Do you want to try these recipes? These are some great recipes:

Christmas dinner: Recipes including tortellini with brodo, stuffed turkey, eel and peas, and panettone dessert

Christmas Fish Recipes from Puglia with beautiful photos

Recipes to make a Northern Italian Christmas.


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