The evening meal on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia) is traditionally based around fish, as a meat-free day before the decadence of the 25th. Grilled eel is one of the traditional components, with cod, octopus and shellfish all popular choices too. Some families will serve seven types of fish as the meal is known as the Festa dei sette pesci (Feast of the seven fish) and seven is a symbolic number in Christianity. But don't surprised if even more dishes are served!
A type of toasted bread, crostini generally make an appearance on the Christmas table as a starter, usually 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.
Turkey is fast becoming more popular as the main meat served on Christmas Day, likely due to American influence. Other poultry-based Christmas classics include stuffed chicken or capon.
In Italy, you simply can't have Christmas (or any other day, come to think of it...) without indulging in pasta. 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 baked pasta in the south of the country.
Veal or ox
Traditional recipes using veal or ox are common alternatives to a poultry-based main meal. Again, each region has its own way of preparing the meat and the accompanying vegetables, but two typical recipes are ossobuco alla milanese, where veal is braised in a simple broth, or boiled ox, a dish native to Piedmont and Puglia.
Photo: bhofack2 /DepositPhotos
On to dessert! The festive feast is finished off with a slice of this traditional fruity Christmas cake, a sweet bread with candied fruit inside. Pandoro is another very similar variant, but doesn't have the fruit and is usually shaped like a star.
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. The exact recipe varies depending whether you're in the north or south of Italy, but it's usually made with either almonds or hazelnuts.
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 sparkling wine, is one of the most popular ways to wash down the meal.
Literally translating as 'the bomb', this tasty drink is basically Italian eggnog. It's made up of brandy, egg liquer, whipped cream and cinnamon, was first created in Lombardy and now is the apres-ski drink of choice at Italy's ski resorts. But it's also perfect for a cosy Christmas afternoon by the fire.
This article was first published in December 2016.