Christmas isn’t just a time for presents and family. It’s also a time for food – often lots and lots of it. However, what Christmas meals look like varies dramatically from country to country. After all, different places have their own histories and traditions, not to mention distinct climates.
Today, we’re interested in Italy. We’ve talked about Italian breakfast foods in the past, which are simply amazing (there are plenty of delicious Italian foods for kids too, not to mention Italian Easter foods). Now, we’re taking things further and talking about Italian Christmas foods.
As always, the specific foods vary depending where you are in Italy. Italian American have their own versions too, as they’re in a different culture and climate. But, for the most part, an Italian Christmas is always a food laden affair, with a strong focus on Christmas lunch, rather than dinner.
Christmas meals in Italy have multiple courses, starting with appetizers and light dishes, followed by pasta, then a meat-based main dish, and finally… plenty of desserts. Seriously, the dessert selection is next level.
This progression of stages is similar no matter where you are in Italy. However, the specific meals and how they’re prepared can be very different from one region to the next.
This first set of Christmas foods are the lighter ones. They’re often served as entrées, but could also be part of a small meal instead.
Antipasto is a simple, familiar, and delightful Christmas entree. It’s exactly what you would expect – a board packed with plenty of cured meat, cheese, and related foods.
Some boards also feature Christmas salamis that make the celebration even more amazing. The style means these boards can easily be tweaked to match the family’s preferences.
You may already be familiar with these deep fried stuffed rice balls. They come with any number of fillings and can be served on their own or as part of a larger meal.
While arancini can be served at any time of the year, the rice balls are especially delicious as part of a Christmas feast.
This entrée may be less familiar than the previous additions, but it’s just as tasty (if not more so). Canderli are basically dumplings. They’re a little like gnocchi and are made using bread that’s been mixed with milk, eggs, and seasonings.
The seasonings vary, but often include speck (a type of cured dried meat) and cheese.
These dumplings aren’t just tasty. They’re also incredibly common. In fact, they’re perhaps the most frequently served Christmas carb in parts of North Italy.
While this treat originally hails from Albania, it has become a popular addition to Italian Christmases. Pettole is normally made by taking leavened dough and soft drying it, then covering it in either honey or sugar.
However, things are done a little differently for Christmas. The sweet toppings are generally avoided, which creates a savory snack instead. Doing so allows pettole to act as a delicious appetizer (rather than a dessert).
In some ways, bagna cauda is like a riff on fondue. It’s a rich sauce that’s made using garlic, olive oil, and anchovies. The garlic and anchovies give the sauce a rich flavor, making it perfect for dipping vegetables.
Bagna cauda is always served warm and is a surprisingly filling dish. Because of this, it’s sometimes served as a main, although it can still work as an appetizer as well.
While the dishes we’ve discussed so far are filling enough, they’re only part of the picture. Christmas day pasta dishes and meat-based meals are often even more filling, delicious, and elaborate. There are also many of these – enough to satisfy even the pickiest eater.
You might notice that these main meals are often meat-heavy. This is unusual for Italy, as Italian cuisine tends to be pretty light on meat. Christmas is the exception to that pattern, allowing people to enjoy some heartier dishes.
Vitello tonnato is an unexpected dish, combining veal with a rich tuna sauce. Combining fish and meat in the same meal is unusual, yet this dish works well and has become a popular Christmas tradition.
Veal is a popular choice for Italian Christmas and can sometimes be the centerpiece of the entire celebration. The veal can follow the style of a traditional roast, complete with roast vegetables or it can be something more unusual.
Regardless of how the veal is prepared – patience is crucial. Trying to rush veal often gives you a tough and dry dish that isn’t very good at all.
Agnolotti Del Plin
This stuffed pasta dish hails from Piedmont. It’s a delicious meal that relies on egg-based pasta that’s been filled with roast meat. The pasta is normally served with some type of sauce, such as a wine reduction or a creamy cheese-based sauce.
The ‘piln’ part of the name is a reference to the pinching action that’s used to seal the pasta as it’s being prepared. Another fascinating feature is the size, as the pasta pockets are always very small – even though the pasta recipe itself can change considerably.
Lasagna is a common dish, but that doesn’t stop it from featuring during Christmas day celebrations. In fact, it’s one of the most popular Christmas dishes.
The popularity isn’t that surprising, as lasagna is familiar, filling, and easy to make. It’s also easy to make a large amount of lasagna at a time, making this a perfect dish for feeding a crowd.
Seafood isn’t such a traditional Christmas day dish and is much more often served for Christmas eve. However, some families do also feature seafood on Christmas day, particularly those in south Italy.
Many different types of seafood can feature at such feasts, including mussels, scallops, baked white fish, and even lobster.
Tortellini In Brodo
Here’s another stuffed pasta dish – and this is a very popular one! The stuffing is interesting, as it relies on a combination of pork loin, ham mortadella, cheese, nutmeg, and eggs. The pasta is then served in a fragrant broth.
The flavors of this dish are famous, so there’s not that much room for experimenting. Still, everyone makes it slightly differently and most versions taste amazing.
Roast capon can also feature as the main Christmas meat. For those unfamiliar, a capon is a type of rooster, one that was castrated before maturity. This practice changes the flavor of the rooster, making it taste richer than it would otherwise.
Some families even choose to serve two capons for their celebration – one roasted and one boiled. This provides textural variety and lets everyone choose their favorite version.
Pasta Al Forno
Here we are with pasta again. This time we’re just talking about baked pasta, which can come in many different flavors and styles. Potential ingredients include hard boiled eggs, meatballs, cheese, and a rich sauce.
Needless to say, this is a Christmas dish that will have people coming back for seconds (and thirds!).
Quaglie Con Melograno
This dish is simply quail with pomegranate. It involves marinating the quail pieces in pomegranate juice, then either roasting or braising the meat. Doing so creates a rich flavor and an exciting dish.
Quail can feature in other Christmas dishes as well. It may even be stuffed and roasted, then served as one of the main meat dishes.
Now we come to the sweet side of things. Desserts are often the best part of Christmas and Italian desserts are particularly impressive.
Panettone is one of the most famous traditional Italian treats. It’s a type of rich bread that (or cake) that’s studded with raisins and orange peel. The bread is then sliced into pieces and served, often alongside a mug of coffee.
It’s a treat you can make yourself or find at any number of Italian bakeries. There’s also plenty of variation, with different bakeries making their own versions. Some rely on the traditional ingredient combos, while others add new ingredients into the mix.
Pandoro and panettone are the two Christmas treats that show up consistently, no matter where you are in Italy.
Both treats are similar, as they’re bready and sweet. However, pandoro tends to be denser and moister than panettone. It’s often topped with powdered sugar and can be in the shape of a star.
Struffoli earns top marks for being distinctive, as it’s an unusual dessert that will make most people look twice.
The dessert is made using fried dough balls. These are covered with honey and then shaped to look like a wreath, a Christmas tree, or something else interesting. Dried fruit or colorful confetti provide the finishing touches.
Stollen isn’t as famous as some of the other desserts on this list, but it still has plenty of fans. The sweet bread is studded with candied fruits, raisins, and sometimes nuts, and then topped with powdered sugar.
Torrone is basically a form of nougat. It’s normally made using egg whites, sugar (and sometimes honey), plus dried fruits and nuts. While the style may be familiar, this is still a delicious dessert that’s worth trying at least once.
This traditional dessert could be just the ticket if you love chocolatey treats. It relies on fruits, nuts, honey, spice, and plenty of cocoa. Notably, there’s no flour in the recipe at all, which makes this a dense and very sweet treat.
It’s also an easy dessert to prepare at home. It even keeps well, giving you something to enjoy for the entire holiday season.
Although bicerin is a drink rather than a type of food, it’s too delicious to ignore. Think of this as a variation on hot chocolate – one that also includes coffee in the mix.
The coloring is fantastic as well, which is why this is often served in glasses, rather than mugs.
Then there’s cioccolata calda, which is simply hot chocolate. This hot drink is usually enjoyed without toppings, although some people add a little cinnamon or perhaps some whipped cream.
Hot chocolate is certainly familiar and is also an excellent way to close off Christmas celebrations and settle into the evening.
Italian Christmas celebrations often start the night before, with a seafood-based Christmas eve dinner. In many parts of Italy, this is a relatively light meal that may also feature pasta and some sweet treats.
Italian-Americans and some families in Italy also follow a tradition called The Feast of the Seven Fishes. This often features seven different seafood dishes. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you need seven types of fish or seafood. Often there are just a couple of types of fish prepared in different ways.
The focus on fish is inspired by Christianity. In particular, the Catholic faith prohibits meat the night before significant religious holidays – making fish an obvious choice. Focusing on seven fish dishes is relevant too, as the number seven features throughout the bible.
A few notable Christmas eve dishes include the following. Some are even served on Christmas day as well.
Baccalà is a salted cod dish that’s often served with vegetables as a starter. However, it can also be floured and fried with ingredients like walnuts, pine nuts, and onions, or cooked with capers and tomato sauce instead.
This distinctive dish relies on a female eel, which can weigh 350 grams or even more. The eel is cooked, often by frying or grilling, then marinated.
Eating eel might sound strange, yet eels are often served during religious celebrations in Italy. The tradition is particularly common in Naples, where it’s very easy to buy live eels throughout the Christmas season.
Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia
This dish is a sight to behold. The noodles get their black color from squid ink, which also gives them a type of earthy flavor and makes them silky.
There’s also a sauce, which is made from cuttlefish that has been fried with garlic and olive oil. Despite the strange ingredients, the dish comes together well and can be a fantastic Christmas eve treat.