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The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast
If you want to do Christmas Italian style, here's what you need on the table for a truly festive feast.
Published: 10 December 2021 16:28 CET
Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
The evening meal on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia) is traditionally based around fish, as a meat-free day before the decadence of the 25th.
If you eat at an Italian home or restaurant on this date, you’re almost certain to be served a wide array of seafood in various forms.
Some families will serve seven types of fish as the meal is known as the Festa dei sette pesci (Feast of the seven fishes) and seven is a symbolic number in Christianity. But don’t surprised if nine or even more different dishes are served.
Photo: Liza Pooor on Unsplash
Eel is one traditional component, with cod, octopus, king prawns, oysters and other types of shellfish all popular choices.
These may be served grilled or raw, depending on where you are, as every part of Italy has different regional favourite recipes and traditions.
Rustic crostini generally make an appearance on the Christmas table as a starter, with a topping such as paté, prosciutto and figs, or tomato and mozzarella.
If you’re going to any Christmas parties, expect to see plates piled high with different varieties – they make the perfect bite-sized appetizer.
In Italy, you simply can’t have Christmas (or any other day, come to think of it) without a pasta dish.
The methods of cooking vary from region to region and household to household, but two typical staples of the Christmas dinner table are tortellini in brodo (broth) in the north, and lasagna or any other type of pasta al forno (baked pasta) in the south of the country.
Yes, some families do eat turkey at Christmas in Italy, although it’s not usually the standard centrepiece and may feature alongside various other meats on an italian Christmas table.
Turkey is however becoming more popular as an option on Christmas Day, likely due to American influence. Other Christmas classics include stuffed chicken or capon.
Photo: Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash
Veal or ox
Traditional recipes using veal or ox are common alternatives to a poultry-based second course. Again, each region has its own way of preparing the meat and the accompanying vegetables, but two typical recipes are ossobuco alla milanese, or boiled ox, a dish native to Piedmont and Puglia.
Panettone or pandoro
On to dessert! The festive feast is finished off with a slice of panettone, a traditional domed Christmas cake made from sweet brioche bread, usually studded with pieces of candied fruit.
When the Christmas period rolls around you’ll see boxes of panettone stacked from floor to waist-height in every supermarket you enter, and your local pasticceria will no doubt have more elaborate versions flavoured with anything from chocolate to pistachio cream.
READ ALSO: Panettone or pandoro: Which is the best Italian Christmas cake?
Somewhat similar to a panettone, the pandoro is denser, richer, taller, and with a slightly more delicate flavour and texture.
True to its name (pandoro = golden bread), the cake is yellow-golden in colour. It sits higher than an a panettone and is baked into a star shape, with the base wider than the top.
A Christmas pandoro. Photo: Nicola/Flickr.
pandoro is usually served plain with a dusting of icing sugar (often provided in a separate packet, to be added right before serving by shaking along with the cake in its cellophane wrapping to completely coat its exterior).
You’re likely to find the two cakes vying for prominence at any Italian Christmas dinner table. Some families will proudly declare a strong preference for panettone or pandoro, while others simply buy one of each to save argument.
The name of this dessert means ‘big tower’ (though it actually comes from the verb for ‘to toast’) so you know you’re in for something spectacular. It’s made of honey and sugar and is basically a kind of nougat – the Toblerone chocolate bar was inspired by this sweet’s popularity.
The recipe varies depending on where you are in Italy. In the north you’ll often find varieties made with hazelnuts, while in the south almond-based recipes are more typical.
Biscotti, pastries and donuts
There are likely to be plenty of sweet treats at the end of the meal, enjoyed with coffee. In Naples, honey-covered dough balls (struffoli) are often on the menu; chestnut tortelli (crescent-shaped parcels stuffed with the sweet filling) are another classic, and biscotti get a seasonal twist with cinnamon or nutty flavourings.
Red or white wines are usually served to match each course, and after you’ve finished eating, it’s time to move onto the bubbles. Prosecco, or another variety of Italian sparkling wine, is one of the most popular ways to finish off the meal.
If you’d rather have your fizz as a pre-meal drink, rest assured that it’s equally popular at aperitivo hour.
Photo: Mel Maldonado-Turner on Unsplash
Literally translating as ‘the bomb’, this tasty drink is basically Italian eggnog. It’s made up of brandy, zabaione (egg cream), whipped cream and cinnamon, hails originally from the Lombardy region and is often the apres-ski drink of choice at Italy’s ski resorts. But it’s also perfect for a cosy Christmas afternoon by the fire.
If you don’t have those ingredients at your disposal, a caffè corretto is a simpler option: an espresso with a drop of something strong, usually grappa, but brandy or sambuca are also popular additions.
Buon appetito!
The Local Italy
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The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash
It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.
And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.
The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.
READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of
But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.
At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.
Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.
Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.
Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.
However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.
Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.
1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).
2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 
3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).
4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement​.
5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.
6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.
7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.
8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.
9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.
10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).
11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.
The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.
The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 
READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing
Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.
However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.
Clare Speak
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