A Quick Guide to Traditional Italian Christmas Food

Maybe you plan to travel to Italy for the holidays. 

Perhaps you're Italian-American wondering if your family recipes are actually "traditional." Or possibly you just love learning about all things food from the Belpaese. No matter the reason, you may ask, "What Food Is Served During Christmas In Italy?" 

Here is a rundown of what food is served across the peninsula during the festive season: 

Small Christmas tree in Venice

What Is The Main Christmas Meal In Italy?

To understand Italian Christmas food, let's talk about how the holiday is celebrated. Italians generally linger over meals longer than Americans, and that's especially the case during Christmas, where meals might stretch over six hours. 

While the holiday season runs from the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th through Epiphany on January 6th, Christmas is celebrated over three days from the 24 to December 26th.

La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve)

Thanks to its Catholic background, where it's prohibited to eat meat the evening before a religious holiday, Christmas Eve is a meat-free meal. 

Instead, you'll find plenty of seafood. If you go to a market on the 23rd or 24th, you'll see the fishmongers working on overdrive to fulfill the many orders. 

In Central and Southern Italy, the feast is known as "Cenone della Vigilia" a multi-course Christmas Eve dinner that usually includes appetizers, pasta, and fish. The focus is on fresh, simply prepared dishes with a seafood centerpiece like baccalà (salt cod) or capitone (eel). 

Il Giorno di Natale (Christmas Day)

In Northern Italy, a Christmas Day lunch is much more common than a Christmas Eve celebration, and pretty much any food (including meat) is okay to serve. Across the country, this is a day to gather with family and make Christmas lunch an all-day affair.

Il Giorno di Santo Stefano (Boxing Day)

December 26th is also considered a holiday in Italy, and it's another day when most Italians gather for yet another family lunch. 

Commonly on this day, people will reinvent their leftovers, aka avanzi, into new dishes. Say, with leftover pasta mixed into eggs for a frittata or roasted or braised meats shredded into a pasta sauce. 

Casoncelli Pasta In Bowl

Traditional Italian Christmas Food 

As with almost all things in Italy—from language to pasta shapes—it varies regionally. But, you generally find seafood dishes on Christmas Eve while roasted meat, pasta, and soup or vegetable sides are served on Christmas Day. And, of course, there are desserts aplenty!

Pasta

Christmas meals in Italy contain several courses, and, after the appetizers of antipasti, pasta or risotto is the first course. 

Northern Italy

In Piedmont, you'll find classics like agnolotti in broth or tajarin served with pancetta or mushrooms along with crowd-pleasers like ravioli (often a spinach pasta or filled with meat). 

Meanwhile, in Trentino-Alto Adige, the local dumpling known as canderli made with cheese,  butter, Parmigiano Reggiano, and sage are more common. 

In Lombardy, you'll encounter the classic Mantoan pasta of pumpkin and amaretti Tortelli or find casoncelli from Bergamo served in broth. 

Because rice is a significant crop in Northern Italy, risotto also abounds, especially in Venice, where risi e bisi (rice with peas) is served.

Central Italy

As one of the food capitals of Italy, it's no surprise that most in Emilia Romagna serve traditional pasta dishes like lasagna Bolognese

Throughout central Italy, from Bologna through Tuscany and in Le Marche, you'll find tortellini o cappelletti served in a rich, slow-cooked broth. Also, in the Marche, they often serve the tomato and meat pasta known as maccheroncini di Campofilone.

Southern Italy

Almost every corner of Southern Italy has a classic pasta dish they make on Christmas. 

In Campania, you'll encounter spaghetti with clams (somethings with fish roe or bread crumbs added. In Puglia, the classic orecchiette con Cime di Rapa (ear-shaped pasta with broccoli rabe) gets a twist with the addition of anchovies or tuna. Meanwhile, in Sicily, the iconic pasta con le sarde, pasta with sardines, is typical.

Finally, in Calabria, baked pasta is just one of 13 courses served in a traditional Christmas Day menu along with sausage and broccoli rabe, meatballs, and 'nduja salame.

Fish 

You may have heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But the meal is an Italian-American concept and not one of the traditions in Italy. Many people visiting Italy during the Christmas season expect Italians to eat the meal on Christmas Eve. Even so, you find seafood served on Christmas Eve in Italy.  

Northern Italy

Though seafood is more common in the South this time of year, there are a few traditional dishes. For example, eel is cooked in parchment paper in Lombardy, while there is often polenta with salt cod in the Veneto region. 

Central Italy

Like in the Veneto, in nearby Emilia Romagna, you find a few types of baccala or salt cod dishes where it's steamed or even fried. Down in Lazio, then make salt cod and eel, and over in the Molise, there is a twist on salt cod made with bay leaves, oregano, pine nuts, and raisins.

Southern Italy

Residents in urban areas like Naples like to make eel dishes. They may grill their eel, deep-fry it, or roast it. As mentioned earlier, many kinds of pasta use seafood, from mussels to clams to salt cod and calamari. Others prefer anchovies. In addition to making pasta with anchovies, some Italians bake anchovies with bread crumbs and capers. 

Poultry and Meat

On Christmas Day, roasted and braised poultry and meat take center stage.

Across Italy

Many families in Italy like to serve a roasted capon as their main course on Christmas Day. A capon is a rooster that a farmer castrates before it becomes mature. This makes the meat more flavorful, even as the rooster gets older. 

Some families serve two capons, boiling one and roasting the other. You can stuff your capon with walnut stuffing and then eat it with its natural juices spooned over its top. 

A holiday dish well known to Italians but not to Americans is quaglie con melograno or quail with pomegranate. Pieces of quail are marinated in pomegranate juice and then braised or roasted. You can also find guinea fowl that are roasted and stuffed with ground meat and spices. 

Regional

In the Val D'Aosta region, you'll encounter carbonade, a meat dish cooked in red wine often served with goat salumi, while in Piedmont, the classic bollito misto often makes an appearance. In Friuli, there is a dish made with broccoli rabe and cotechino pork sausage though tripe is also very common. 

True to form, the Tuscans serve the classic chicken liver crostini and dishes like roast guinea fowl,  duck, or even bardiccio, a type of sausage made with spiced pork and fennel. The Umbrians usually roast guinea fowl or pigeon, while roast lamb or braised beef is typical in Abruzzo. 

Italian Walnut Cookies

Desserts

There are numerous classic Italian desserts you can serve on Christmas, and no Italian Christmas meal is complete without cookies, be they walnut shortbread cookiesZaletti, or traditional biscotti. But there are also holiday-specific desserts:

Northern Italy

It isn't Christmas in Lombardy until a panettone is served. This brioche-like sweet yeasty Christmas cake originated in Milan, and it is often considered an Italian fruitcake because it is traditionally made with dried fruit or nuts. A quality panettone will be heavy for its size and rather pricey as it has loads of eggs and butter. If you're in Milan, head to Pasticceria Martesana, where they sell panettone year-round. 

Over in Verona, the similar but different Pandoro is king. It is buttery, star-shaped, dusted with powdered sugar. Both are delicious topped with whipped cream or fresh fruit or even toasted with butter and served with coffee. Try them for yourself at Eataly.

Central Italy

In Tuscany, you'll find beloved sweets like ricciarelli ( soft almond flour cookie) and panforte (a fruit and nut sweet from Siena during Christmas as well as less-common dishes like castagnaccio, a cake made with chestnut flour, pine nuts, and raisins.

In Abruzzo, a chestnut puree is found along with almonds in caggionetti, a fried sweet ravioli. 

Southern Italy

To us, it seems the desserts get sweeter and more numerous the farther South you go in Italy. As such, it's a long list of what you'll find during Christmas. 

In Sicily, classics like cassata and cannoli are standard, while the tower of little fried dough and honey, known as struffoli, is ubiquitousThroughout Italy, but especially in the South, you'll find the nougat known as torrone. 

You don't need to fly to Italy to get great Italian food (though, if you want to, we're here to help plan your travel!) Here at Salt & Wind Travel, we have all sorts of Italian recipes you can add to your holiday spread.


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Photo Credit: Mini Panettone By Susan Brooks-DammannChristmas Tree in Venice By Vero

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