Italian cuisine is world-famous, one of the best and most influential culinary traditions on the planet. When you cruise to Italy, you know that you’re tastebuds are in for a treat. From pizza and pasta to prosciutto and parmesan, no other country in the world has quite the same range, depth, and quality when it comes to food and cooking.
As a result, it is unsurprising to discover that Christmas in Italy is all about food. The festive season from Turin to Palermo is filled with traditional dishes and exciting culinary customs, many of which have been passed down through generations. From sweet treats to indulgent feasts, the holidays in Italy are absolutely delicious!
So if you are visiting La Bella Italia for Christmas or just want to get a little taste of Italy wherever you are in the world, here are some of the best and most authentic Italian dishes to sample over the holiday season.
Panettone is the ultimate Italian Christmas sweet treat and is so good, it has become a ubiquitous part of seasonal celebrations around the world. This delicious, airy, brioche-style bread stuffed with candied fruits and raisins is a fantastic way to end the Christmas meal, offering something not too heavy to compliment the rich, weightier dishes that are traditional during the winter. It also makes a delightful afternoon snack with a cup of espresso or a glass of prosecco.
If panettone is a little too mainstream, try this regional variation. Originally hailing from Verona, pandoro literally translates as ‘golden bread’, and is another fantastic Italian Christmas dessert. Baked in the shape of a star and designed to signify the shining light in the sky that led the Three Kings to Bethlehem, its golden, sugar-dusted appearance ensures that it looks as good as it tastes. Its buttery texture and delicate flavors combine perfectly with mascarpone, making this an incredibly indulgent and decadent option.
Cappelletti in Brodo
As you might expect, pasta features at the Christmas meal in most Italian households. The highlight of the festive pasta options is cappelletti in brodo, tiny little filled pasta that are shaped to look like miniature hats! These delicate, succulent morsels are filled with cheese and spiced meat and served in a mouthwatering broth. True traditionalists will make the pasta dough themselves, enjoying the family affair that is a kitchen full of representatives from every generation working to create something delicious. Various regions of Italy have their own take on this Christmas tradition, and you can find tortellini in brodo (Emilia-Romagna), pasatelli in brodo, and even ravioli in brodo.
Baccalà alla Vicentina
Salted cod in various forms is a Christmas classic across southern Europe. While many will have discovered bacalao before, the Italian version, baccalà alla Vicentina, is less well-known. After being dried and salted for some time, the cod is then slowly braised in a sauce of milk, onions, anchovies, and white wine. The sauce and the fish exchange flavors, making for a tender and flavorful main dish that is absolutely sumptuous when served with rich, cheesy polenta. This is comfort, soul-warming food turned up to 11.
Southern Italian food tends to lean towards the sweeter, richer, more hearty areas of Italian cuisine, and this is perfectly highlighted by the tradition of struffoli. These small balls of dough are deep-fried, bathed in honey, and piled up into a mound in a similar fashion to the French spectacle that is the croquembouche. Struffoli are usually sprinkled with sugar and covered in candied fruit, adding a colorful, vibrant, and undeniably festive look to the dish.
Traditional Italian chefs have long been proponents of ‘nose-to-tail eating’, and there are many classic Italian recipes that ensure that no part of an animal is wasted. Zampone is the Christmas version of this ideal, a delicacy hailing from Modena consisting of a stuffed pig’s trotter. The filling is usually made with ground pork, spices, and herbs, and carefully placed inside a hollowed-out trotter, before being gently simmered over a low heat for several hours. The taste is rich and gamey, similar to haggis, and it is usually sliced up and served over lentils. The meal is meant to signify wealth and good fortune and is designed to bring luck for the year to come.
Siena’s version of festive baking is the panforte, a dense, chewy Tuscan dessert that is similar to a florentine or a German lebkuchen. It is an intense treat, made with nuts, dried fruits, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, and is a wonderfully direct way of cutting through the rich flavors of a Christmas feast and ending the meal with something exciting.
Hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day is an unbeatable combination, and the Italian penchant for cioccolata calda served with a dollop of freshly whipped cream is a decadent indulgence that warms body and soul.
Feast of the Seven Fishes
The traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes and usually outshines the meal eaten on Christmas Day. The feast can be many things but predominantly features an array of seafood dishes, from fried calamari to seafood risotto. The meal is symbolic of abundance and prosperity and is a celebration of the past year and the year to come.
When you consider the love and passion that surrounds food in Italy, it is no surprise that Christmas celebrations are all about indulgence. The rich culinary traditions of the festive season have been cherished for centuries and make an Italian Christmas something truly special. With a heavy emphasis on family, sharing, and togetherness, cooking and eating in an Italian style over the holidays is a fantastic way to celebrate the season.