Holiday Food At Home And In Italy

December 21, 2011
Written by Rita Cook in
Latest News, The Welcoming Table
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A traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings for many Americans. Photo Credit:

You can bet it’s the holiday season when you sit down to a meal particularly around Christmastime and find turkey, dressing, cranberry, and pumpkin pie. This tradition comes primarily from customs adopted from the United Kingdom and brought over to the United States when America was first born.

However, across the world there are many holiday food traditions that, these days, other cultures brought over from “the old country” to be celebrated alongside the traditional foods we serve in America on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

For example, the Italian tradition calls for recipes that many an American table might never see during the holidays.

Italians love to cook and celebrate and typical Christmas dishes, particularly on Christmas Eve always centers on a fish dish in the Italian culture. A few examples are baccalà, which is salted dried cod fish, vermicelli, baked pasta, and capon, but that’s just the beginning.

The traditional Christmas Eve Dinner always includes at least seven types of fish and sometimes even more and is known as “La Vigilia Napoletana” in the southern part of Italy. Served alongside the fish is Christmas broccoli, roasted or friend eel, and caponata di pesce or fish salad for the main course.

The seven fishes tradition actually comes from what is called the Feast of the Seven Fishes and that is the reason the seven fishes are always served on Christmas Eve. The significance of the seven types of fish, most likely has to do with the number of sacraments in the church, the seven days of creation or a reminder of the seven deadly sins. But whatever the regional reasons for the seven fishes, it is always observed even though the dishes served can also vary widely depending on the region in Italy.

One such example of the seven fish dishes according to the website might include:

  1. Baked shrimp with breadcrumbs.

  2. Bacala (or salt cod) mixed with olive oil, red onion, and parsley.

  3. Seafood salad with fresh sconciglio (or scungelli in Italian-American parlance), scallops, shrimp, squid, celery, octopus, and onion.

  4. Baked flounder

  5. Mussels

  6. Raw clams

  7. Shrimp cocktail

altIn Italy Christmas Eve is also a day of abstinence from meat, so in addition to the seven fishes, the first course might be dumplings with pumpkins followed by the "Anguilla" a big female eel, roasted, baked or fried, and then the fish dishes. These dishes, often served with mostarda emiliana, which is a sort of spicy fruit jelly to spice it up for the Italian palette.

On Christmas Day in Italy there will be lot of traditional sweets or “i dolci” on the table in the Italian home, and very important on the Menu di Natale.

At, it says that many of these sweets actually originated in convents where the nuns made sweets of various types to mark religious holidays like Christmas. The desserts might include struffoli or Neapolitan honey pastry, cenci or fried pastry ribbons sprinkled with powdered sugar, dried figs, candied almonds and marzipan fruits, and vegetables.

The sweet breads are also big business on the table in Italy, for example, panforte for Siena, pandolce from Genoa, and panettone from Milan. About the latter, the panettone is a Milanese Christmas bread and legend says that it originated in the sixteenth century when a baker named Antonio fell in love with a princess and baked a golden, buttery egg bread to win her heart. These days the panettone also has candied red cherries and green citron baked inside as well.

As for the actual meal on Christmas Day, before the sweets are served the meal begins with cappelletti (a small tortellini) in capon broth, boiled capon, zampone, a pig's foot filled with spiced meat, a sausage made from pig's intestines, and a variety of vegetables dipped with balsamic vinegar are served and, just like at an Italian wedding, the festivities last all day and all night.

How to make your own Christmas pastry: Cicerata

6 egg whites
5¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
12 egg yolks
¼ teaspoon salt
2¾ cups extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup anise liqueur
¼ cup sugar
1 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1 cup finely diced candied fruit
juice of 8 oranges
3 cups honey
zest of 4 oranges, julienned
¼ cup colored sprinkles

Make the dough: Whip the egg whites until soft peaks hold. Place the flour in the bowl of an electric mixer; work in the egg yolks, salt, ¾ cup of the olive oil, anise liqueur, and sugar. Gently fold in the egg whites with a wooden spoon; the dough should be soft and elastic. If it is too dry, add more liqueur; if it is too wet, add more flour.

Snip into chickpea-sized pieces and roll into tiny spheres. Heat the remaining olive oil until it registers 325 degrees on a thermometer; fry the bits of dough until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and blot dry on paper towels; arrange on 8 plates, and top with the slivered almonds and candied fruit.

Heat the orange juice in a saucepan; stir in the honey and heat through. Fold in the julienned orange zest. Pour the sauce over each portion, dust with the colored sprinkles, and cool to room temperature before serving. Serves 8



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