Italy is a country that comes alive at Christmas. The cities dazzle with sparkling lights, the streets buzz with festivities and the people are full of excitement with anticipation for Christmas day - or as the locals call it - Giorno di Natale. As you would expect from a nation with such a rich heritage, Italy is full of age-old Christmas traditions that guide the modern celebrations of the present day.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, not long after Italians have finished their vigilia celebrations, churches all over the country ring their bells and Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo fires its cannons to announce the start of Christmas day. From the trees that decorate the town squares to group carol concerts, it’s a spectacular time – and that’s before we’ve even mentioned the food. Christmas lunch varies from region to region and from household to household, but there are plenty of dishes that are an essential part of a traditional Italian Christmas. Join us as we put together the perfect feast for Giorno di Natale.
As with many Italian celebrations, lunch typically begins with antipasto – a delicious spread of fine Italian cheeses, freshly baked bread, flavoursome olives, delicately cured meats and a traditional salumi. This is a course that’s designed to be eaten leisurely, with conversation flowing freely as everyone settles down for the meal. A wonderful introduction to the feast that will follow.
After the antipasto comes the first course, with the dishes varying from region to region. Pasta in brodo (pasta in broth) is a very popular dish in all of northern Italy, with different areas adding their own unique twists. In Bologna, it’s common to serve a meat-filled tortellini, while the people of Ferrara tend to favour a pumpkin filled pasta, but both of the dishes are traditionally served with an eel broth.
The locals of southern and central Italy usually choose to feast on a variety of baked pasta dishes. Timballo di maccheroni is a popular favourite, combining a rich pecorino cheese with pale violet aubergines and baked to perfection.
For the hearty second course, meat is the main attraction. Succulent cuts of baked veal, traditional spicy sausages and braised beef are all much-loved meats for Christmas day. More recently, the traditional meat of Le Marche, a roasted turkey smothered in a rich oil, butter and garnished with seasonal herbs, has taken on considerable popularity outside of the region. However, it is still the red meats that most commonly grace the Christmas tables of the majority of Italians.
After a little time to recover from the savoury courses of this culinary celebration comes dessert. Panettone and Pandoro are famous as Christmas cakes across the globe but in Italy, they are a sweetbread staple, with almost every family indulging in these light, fluffy and delicious desserts.
Just like the first and main courses, every region has it's own approach when putting together a traditional Christmas dessert. In Puglia, dita degli apostoli, also known as the apostle’s fingers, are preferred. These are thin and tasty crepes filled with rich chocolate or ricotta and sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar and limoncello. In Rome, pastries filled with spiced nuts, known as mostaccioli, are the firm favourites. Whereas in Naples, the classic Christmas dessert is struffoli, small delicate dough balls that are fried and then glazed in a runny honey.
Festive drinks usually accompany dessert, and white wine, prosecco and of course Peroni Nastro Azzurro are the classics that accompany every Italian celebration. There are some drinks that are made especially for the occasion; Bombardino is the most common and most cherished festive drink. Similar to eggnog, it’s an indulgent cocktail featuring whipped cream, cinnamon, brandy and egg liqueur.