Christmas is by far the most important holiday of the year in Italy – the festivities lasting from December 24th through to January 6th – and Italians like to celebrate the with lots of food. They start with a Christmas dinner on December 24th followed by an even bigger Christmas dinner on December 25th!
Like many Catholic nations, fish is the traditionally the only flesh allowed on the eve of a big religious celebration, and in Italy La Vigilla is meant to be a lean event, purifying the body before a four-course feast the following day.
On Christmas eve, expect to see eel (capitone) or a mixture of shellfish and octopus served with deep fried broccoli, artichoke or courgette and ricotta, followed by a pasta dish like vermicelli with clams.
Christmas Day is the most important of the 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. These days, many Italians tuck into a stuffed chicken or turkey, the stuffing made from chicken livers, rosemary, parsley and parmesan. But after the antipasti (usually cured meats, sardines and salads) they start with an indulgent broth called pasta in broda (broth) munching on pasta filled with meat or pumpkin and a deeply satisfying liquor made from chicken.
Eel used to be the favourite Italian centerpiece, but increasingly often it’s now the basis for an incredible sauce, served with peas and tomatoes as a delicious side dish perhaps.
While the Italians eat Panettone solidly, every day in the run-up to Christmas, on the big day, it will be served warm, with cream and a sweet, dark chocolate sauce.
A special lighter approach might be Doria’s Tiramisu pots. Made with almondy Doria Ratafia biscuits, Marsala wine, and whipped cream, it’s a delicious alternative to a heavy pudding.
And don’t worry about leaving the pots on the table after dinner. The Italians leave them out for a while so Jesus and the Virgin Mary can have a taste too.