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Planning a holiday menu? Come with me on a culinary tour of Italy, region by region


With Christmas right around the corner, I have been thinking about the traditional Christmas feasts enjoyed in Italy. We are all inundated with ideas for our own Christmas fare and most of us already have our menus started for the holiday. I have our Christmas brunch with the entire family planned out.

I thought that it would be fun to dig into some research to get a better idea of what types of menus will be prepared in Italy at Christmas time.

Christmas feasts in Italy are enjoyed in the evening of Dec. 24, Dec. 25 or Dec. 26, or even all three. As we would expect, the Christmas holiday menu varies from region to region. By exploring these regional dishes, we’ll treat ourselves to some dishes that we are familiar with, some unique surprises, and maybe some inspiration that we may apply to our own Christmas menu. There are some 20 regions in Italy. Each region has its own food identity for every season. But in no season is the range of dishes more diverse than at Christmas.

For our purposes, the best approach to this is to build three menu options representing the regional grouping. Let’s get this food tour started in the center of Italy. This region includes

Menu No. 1 (Region includes Lazio, Marche, Abruzzo, Tuscany, and Emilia Romagna)

  • Antipasti from Tuscany – Crostini di Fegatelli: Hugely popular at Christmas in Tuscany, chicken liver pate’ served on crostini.
  • Primi from Marche – Vincisgrassi: This baked pasta dish has some similarity to baked ziti. The delightful difference is that in this Marche version, the dish is made with rigatoni with red sauce combined with chicken, prosciutto, ground beef, and mushrooms (usually Porcini mushrooms). This mixture is folded into a parmesan cheese bechamel. It is then baked in the oven.
  • Secondi from Abruzzo – Batter fried salt cod that is baked with cherry tomatoes, olives, and potato.
  • Secondi (Christmas Eve) from Lazio (Rome) – Fritto misto di verdure: Slow-fried battered vegetables.
  • Sweets from Emilia Romagna – Panone: Cake made with apples, honey, dark chocolate and dried figs.

Menu No. 2 (Region includes Lombardi, Piedmont, Liguria, and Veneto

  • Antipasti from Liguria – Liguria is widely known for the best anchovies in all of Italy. At Christmas, these fabulous anchovies are dusted with flour and fried.
  • Primi from Piedmont – Brasato: Like our pot roast, Brasato is chuck roast braised in Barolo red wine. The chuck is braised for several hours depending on the size until fork tender.
  • Secondi from Lombardi – Tacchinella: Roasted turkey hen stuffed with a mixture of sausage, ground beef and soft bread that has been soaked in milk or broth. This dish is primarily made at Christmas.
  • Sweets from Veneto – Pandoro: This “golden bread” was developed and perfected in Verona, in the Venetian territory. It is made at Christmas time in the shape of an eight-pointed star and dusted with powdered sugar to resemble the Italian Alps.

Menu No. 3 (Region includes Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, and Campania)

  • Antipasti from Sicily – Sfincione: This, unlike the more familiar flatbread called Scacciata, is focaccia bread topped with tomato, onion, anchovies, and caciocavallo cheese.
  • Primi from Puglia – Cime di rapa: Orecchiette pasta, broccoli rabe, garlic clove, anchovy filets in oil, and crushed red pepper.
  • Secondo from Campania – Frittura di pesce: Shrimp, squid, fresh anchovies, sardines, or any combination of seafood that is floured and deep fried to golden brown.
  • Sweets from Calabria – San Martine: Shortbread dough filled with any combination of dried fruit.

These three menus are only a small sampling of the hundreds of Christmas dishes prepared in every city, town, and region of Italy. Every area seems to put its own spin on feasting during the Christmas holiday.

But what about the Feast of the Seven Fishes? When you look at all the facts and myths that surround this popular feast, it would appear that the Feast of the Seven Fishes took root  among Italian Americans around 1920. The feast was clearly established right here in the United States.

The Italian-American immigrants brought their religious customs, their love of the sea, their traditions of multi-course meals and even their regional diversity with them to this land. It is from this that I believe The Feast of the Seven Fishes was born.

I would be doing us all a disservice if I neglected to mention Panettone. This sweet bread is beloved by Italians worldwide  and goes hand in hand with Christmas. In Italy, Panettone is eaten with coffee, prosecco, or Moscato following the Christmas Eve meal. Plus, it is perfect with Christmas morning coffee.

I hope that you have gotten some ideas for your Christmas menu.

From our house to yours, we send wishes for a very Merry Christmas. Buon Natale!


Murray Schulman

Murray Schulman, a columnist with the Italian-American Herald for 12 years, has worked in the food business for more than 50 years, sharing his expertise in kitchens, offices and classrooms spanning several states. He retired in 2017 as head of prepared foods for Delaware Supermarkets Inc. He lives in Pennsville, N.J

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