Yuletide Italy’s Family Table: A Regional Feast
The Italian heritage is a multi-layered wonder, and the holiday season is no exception: north to south, households gather round the family table in a kaleidoscope of regional traditions, ingredients and recipes that vary greatly, yet bear the common denominators of warm conviviality, a deep-set sense of family, shared beliefs and values, and a hearty appreciation of fine food and wine.
Italy’s diversity is rooted in its fragmented history: though the concept of Italy has existed for millennia, the sovereign nation did not come about until 1861. Before then, this country was split into a patchwork of grand-duchies, duchies, kingdoms and even republics, often at the mercy of foreign powers. This patchwork formed the basis of the present regions.
Christmas, on the other hand, is a unifying factor: despite being home to one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the world, as well as some 2.6 million Muslims, a whopping 84.4% of the population is Christian – most of these Roman Catholic (79.2%). Still, the Yuletide table is diverse, depending on where you’re celebrating and what local traditions dictate.
The first major distinction is whether you celebrate on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day: the regions of central and southern Italy tend to honor both, albeit with a predilection for Christmas Eve dinner. In the south, the dinner features fish-based dishes, because the Catholic Church prescribes a meatless menu the evening before, and meat on the actual day. In the north, by contrast, families gather round the festive spread at lunchtime on Christmas Day.
Christmas Recipes of the North
One of northern Italy’s winter staples – especially popular for Christmas lunch – is stuffed pasta like tortelli or ravioli, cooked and served in broth. Tortelli and tortellini are typical of the Emilia-Romagna region, and are stuffed with pork, veal or bologna (a large smoked sausage of beef, veal, and pork, a.k.a. as baloney, stateside) and often cooked in capon broth. Piedmont favors “ravioli del plin”, “pinched ravioli” in the local dialect – from the method used to wrap the fresh egg pasta dough round the stuffing. Lombardy’s best-known version is the pumpkin tortelli typical of the Mantua area, while Trentino-Alto Adige stars canederli cooked in broth.
If we backtrack to starters, Valle D’Aosta traditionally kicks off the meal with “mocetta” – a kind of cold cut characteristic of the region, which looks like bresaola but has an aromatic flavor all its own – paired with croutons and honey; while rustic Piedmont generally teams “bagna cauda”, its hot dipping sauce of olive oil, garlic and anchovies, with croutons or crudités (raw celery, bell pepper and carrot sticks).
The Menu in Central Italy
The ‘c’ in Central Italy might well stand for cannelloni (a large sheet of fresh pasta rolled into a tube and stuffed with meat ragout or ricotta cheese and spinach, topped with a sauce, and baked; considerably larger than ravioli or tortelli), a scrumptious crowd-pleaser that can be found even beyond the borders of the central regions.
Tuscan Christmases would not be the same without an antipasto of “Tuscan crouton”, toasted bread with a savory spread of chicken liver pâté, herbs and vegetables. Also typical of the region is an amazing range of ragouts that make the best possible use of local meat and game: wild boar, Cinta Senese (pork from an extraordinary local breed of black pigs with something that looks like a white “belt” or “cinta” round their shoulders and chest: hence the name, “Sienese Belt”), sausages and Chianina (famous, lean meat from a particular breed of white cattle).
Most commonly, families in the Marche region will serve some version of “timballo” (timbale), a creamy mixture of meat, vegetables and pasta baked in a mold, and roast capon, while Lazio loves mixed deep-fry, “abbacchio” (roast lamb) and “pangiallo”, the Roman Christmas cake. “Pan giallo” literally means “yellow bread” (think “panettone” in Milan), and is made with honey, raisins, nuts and various spices (including saffron, which gives the dessert its characteristic color).
Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally meatless, so it’s all about fish, particularly salted cod, which takes pride of place on the festive tables of Apulia and Calabria – respectively roast codfish and fried (“arriganato”). Sicily cannot be mentioned without referring to its quintessential “pasta con le sarde”, pasta with sardines; or timbale with “anellini” (pasta rings) and fried eggplant.
The richness of southern terroir, its produce and specialties are ideally showcased by a vast and varied range of antipasti: dried tomatoes, “caponata” (fried eggplant with capers, olives, tomatoes and basil leaves in a sweet and sour sauce), eggplants, olives, “lampascione” (Muscari comosum, a kind of spring onion found in Salento), “soppressata” salami, “capocollo” (a seasoned and cured cold cut of pork that takes its name from the pig’s neck and shoulder), the hyper-spicy n’duja sausage and a host of other yummy items that offer myriad variations, depending not just on the region but even the individual village.
We have a proverb that goes, “Paese che vai, usanza che trovi” – something like “Different strokes for different folks” – and the funny thing is that “paese”, in Italian, can mean either “state” or “village”: after all, Italy, il Bel Paese, is a fascinating mosaic of microcosms and villages, each of them a world of its own, connected by the warmth, empathy and generosity of the Italian people.