Let’s go so, and let’s begin with the region by many considered the cradle of Italian cuisine: la bella Emilia-Romagna.
In the first part of this article, I let my memories take over and told you a bit about my childhood Christmases and my grandparents. The recipes of the Northern regions of Italy are mostly familiar to me and so are those from Emilia-Romagna, which you will find below. Culinary tradition, though, begins to change once we get to Lazio and our trip takes us South: it will be a bit of a discovery for me, too.
A Christmas Italian Kitchen: the central regions
This is the region of filled pasta and salumi, known for the richness, in flavor, ingredients and associations, of its culinary tradition. Christmas is, of course, no exception to this rule. A variety of tortellini, a smaller version of cappelletti, is made for Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Usually, the Eve is a day of “magro” where meat is not consumed, hence its tortellini are usually filled with ricotta and other types of cheeses. Things change dramatically, of course, on Christmas day, when people celebrate with rich, meaty tortellini in brodo di cappone (in a capon broth), filled with mortadella di Bologna, ham, Parmesan and eggs.
Keep in mind that pretty much everywhere in Italy, as you may have noticed already while reading the first part of this article, tortellini, cappelletti and ravioli are served in a broth at Christmas: it is usually capon or hen broth. The birds are then consumed as a meat dish, with sauces and seasonal vegetables. This happens in Emilia-Romagna, too, where boiled capon or hen is often served along with boiled cuts of beef or cotechino. This is also popular in Piemonte.
Ah! Tuscany! The not-so-secret dream location of a very large amount of people all over the world, it is a delight at Christmas time, too. Not only its beautiful towns become, if possible, even more charming, but the food– oh, the food!– is just the perfect completion to this fabulous time of the year. Tuscan people enjoy earthy starters such as crostini ai fegatini (roasted bread with fried livers) and truffle based antipasti, such as carpaccio al tartufo. Roasted capon is a popular meat dish, just as stuffed turkey is. A typical Tuscan stuffing is usually made with ham, roasted chestnuts, bread, cream, salt and pepper. Popular is also roasted guinea fowl.
Dessert is often a delicious panforte of Siena.
Le Marche’s people rejoice on Christmas day before a delicious plate of cappelletti in brodo di cappone and a meat dish of roasted capon with truffles. Once again, capon proves to be a favorite Italian Christmas meat, regardless of the region. Typical of Le Marche are the vincisgrassi, a Marchigian variation of lasagne, with added egg, prosciutto and mushrooms. A delicious pizza di Natale (yes, you read that right, a “Christmas pizza”) completes the feast: this is a heartwarming dessert, made of bread dough filled with candied fruit, nuts, figs and cocoa.
In Abruzzo, tastes and traditions begin to change and turn more towards south. Gone is the capon and the tortellini, in are a delicate, yet flavorsome minestra di cardi, chard soup, made with white chard, chicken broth, meat and eggs, and the lu rintrocilio, homemade pasta with a tomato and mutton sauce. Meat is poultry, usually turkey in broth. Typical desserts are fried parcels of dough, filled with black grape jam and nuts, called calgionetti fritti.
Historically, Umbria has a lot of to do with the traditional idea of an Italian Christmas, as it was here, thanks to the will of St Francis, that the first presepe was created. Umbria is also one of the best-known areas of Italy when it comes to food and culinary expertise, and its traditional Christmas dishes are no exception.
A favorite main pasta dish is, once again, cappelletti in brodo di cappone, often made with a capon filling, too. Capon is also consumed, boiled, as a meat dish, usually with a side of chard. Chard returns on the table of the 25th , just as in Abruzzo. Desserts are baked and heartwarmingly spicy: panpepato, made with nuts, candied oranges, honey, dark chocolate, black peppers and sultanas, pinoccate, a sugary, pinenuts-based type of cookies, and the torciglione, a sweet dough and almonds twisted bread, are traditionally consumed in Umbria during the Christmas festivities.
In Lazio, fish plays an important part at Christmas: we begin to sense here the influence of more traditionally Mediterranean flavors and ingredients, often associated to the southern part of the country. It is usual to start a Christmas meal with bruschette, followed by a tasty soup of arzilla, broccoli e vongole, skate, broccoli and clams. Main dishes are usually clams spaghetti or a broth made with arzilla. A common side dish are carciofi alla Romana, Roman style artichokes, made with Roman mint, olive oil and parsley. Dessert can be a lovely pangiallo, made with dried and candied fruit, mixed with flour, honey and chocolate. Pangiallo is a presidio Slowfood.
Molise is, to many, a little known area of Italy, but it is home to some magnificent Christmas traditions: did you know, for instance, that Italy has her own bagpipes players? Yes, indeed, and they come from Molise: they are called zampognari and their instruments are the zampogne. Do not compare them to Scottish bagpipe players, though. Zampogne and Scottish bagpipes are similar, but not the same at all, as they are constructed differently, in structure and materials.
But let's go back to the kitchen: Molise's Christmas table is filled with earthy flavors and rich ingredients: zuppa di cardi is a popular starter, just as it is in Abruzzo. Baccalà (salted cod) is usually the chosen main, and is prepared in several guises: baccalà arracanato, for instance, is made with garlic, parsley, bread innards, oregano, sultanas, pinenuts and walnuts, whereas the baccalà al forno con verza is made with savoy cabbage, parsley, bread innards and walnuts. Calciuni are a popular dessert that mixes together plenty of ingredients typical of this region: chestnuts, wine, honey, as well as rhum, eggs, vanilla and almonds.
An Italian Christmas kitchen: the South
As mentioned while talking about Lazio, and seen in Molise, the more we head South, the more fish becomes central to Christmas cuisine. Puglia is no exception: baccalà is protagonist once again, this time stewed with lambascioni, a wild variety of onion; popular is also lamb with sausage, served with cime di rapa (turnip greens), a typical ingredient in pugliese cuisine. Lasagne and focaccia pugliese, a focaccia made with potatoes and flour, and topped with cherry tomatoes and olives are common. Carteddate and porcedduzzi complete a perfect pugliese Christmas meal: the first are rose-shaped parcels of filo pastry, fried, then dipped in honey or grape (or fig) must. The second are little cubes of dough, deep fried, covered in honey, then placed together on a dish and covered in sprinkles.
Campania, the land of mozzarella di bufala and pizza, of fragrant Amalfi lemons and, of course, of the beautiful, charming Naples. Campania, the land of zampogne and presepi, of good food and tradition, hosts a glorious Christmas when it comes to food, too. Spaghetti with clams and a rich soup made with chicory, egg and veal meat in a capon broth are popular mains. Squid and potatoes and stuffed capon are served along with insalata di rinforzo, while struffoli and rococò are typically chosen to conclude the meal in sweetness. By the way, if you'd like to make struffoli, you can find the recipe here!
The land of the 2019 European Capital of Culture, Matera, is keen on fish as a main on Christmas day: boiled baccalà with peperoni cruschi, sundried peppers, quickly dipped in hot olive oil, is usually anticipated by strascinari al ragù di carne mista, a type of handmade pasta, with a rich meat sauce. On the table, also bread with almonds and deep fried sweet pastries called calzoncelli, filled with chestnuts or chickpeas.
Pasta china is usually Calabria's pasta dish for Christmas day: it is like lasagne, but usually made with a maccheroni-type of pasta, filled with meatballs, spicy salame, provola, caciocavallo and pecorino cheeses. Calabrese cuisine contemplates both fish and meat on the 25th of December: stoccafisso (air dried cod) is cooked with a lovely tomato, onion, olive oil, capers and sultana sauce called ghiotta. Capretto (kid) is cooked with broccoli, black pepper, garlic, laurel and bread crumbs: this is called capretto e vrùocculi nivuri ammullicàti. Quazunielli are sweet parcels of pastry, similar in ingredients to pugliese carteddate, but baked rather than fried.
Our tour through the deliciousness of Italy's traditional Christmas tables has now brought us to the kitchens of Sicily. Hen broth is a popular starter, followed by a world famous Sicilian classic: pasta con le sarde, a traditional dish that has been added to the list of Prodotti agro-alimentari tradizionali Italiani (traditional Italian agriculture and food products or PAT). Sarde are protagonist again for the follow up: stuffed with bread innards, pinenuts, orange peel, laurel and sultanas, they are called sarde a beccafico. One thing: of course, we are talking about fresh sardines here, not the tinned ones!
Mustazzoli are another delicious variation of typically southern Italian aromatic, sweet pastries that we have learned to love while exploring the culinary traditions of other southern regions. Check out how to make them:
If you want to truly have a sicilian feast, have your meal with beautiful sicilian wines like a Zibibbo, a Passito di Pantelleria or a Malvasia delle Lipari.
Last, but not certainly least, in our stomach-filling, happiness-inducing trip of Italy is Sardegna. There is more to Sardegna than its beautiful sea: try its glorious food to see what I mean. A true sardinian Christmas meal starts with homemade salumi (sausages and salami) aromatized with finocchietto, wild fennel. A traditional pasta dish is culigones de casu, which are ravioli filled with fresh pecorino, nutmeg, saffron and chard. Culigones are usually dressed with a fresh tomato sauce and more grated pecorino on top. Both agnello and capretto are traditionally consumed, especially roasted with vegetables.
And so it ends this brief, yet hopefully fulfilling voyage in the kitchens of Italy, all getting ready for Christmas. Maybe our shared, little trip inspired you, if you're the one in charge of the Christmas dinner this year. Maybe, it brought back childhood memories, old snapshots of happiness shared with loved ones, especially if you are of Italian descent, or grew up in those parts of the US where Italians are plenty.
Whichever the result, I hope you enjoyed reading these pages as much as I enjoyed writing them. Now, if you will excuse me... I got a little peckish... I think it's time to have a slice of panettone with my coffee!