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CHRISTMAS

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.

The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast
Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Seafood

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.

Crostini

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.

Pasta

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.

Turkey

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.

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.

Torrone

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.

Prosecco

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

Bombardino

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!

CHRISTMAS

Seven of Italy’s most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

Here are some of the most magical Christmas markets taking place in Italy this year.

Seven of Italy's most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

After two years of pandemic cancellations and restrictions, Italy’s Christmas markets will be back in full swing this festive season.

While the energy crisis means some towns are cutting back on lighting and limiting the hours of operation, there’s still plenty of magic to be found.

Whether your focus is on sipping mulled wine surrounded by snow-topped mountains, riding a ferris wheel, sampling German sausages or marvelling at light displays, Italy has something for everyone.

Without further ado, here are some of the country’s best Christmas markets in 2022.

Bolzano

One of Italy’s longest-running Christmas markets, the festive extravaganza in Bolzano’s Piazza Walther is also said to be the country’s largest, with around 80 stalls selling a variety of traditional handicrafts and local treats.

Resting at the foot of the snow-capped Dolomites, Bolzano’s pre-WWI history and proximity to the Austrian border means the city is steeped in Germanic influences, with a number of citizens speaking German as their first language.

This gives Bolzano’s Christmas market a German twist; expect to be offered candied fruit, apple strudel, cinnamon-spiced mulled wine and other alpine delights as you browse its chalet huts.

When? Until January 6th

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano's Christmas market.

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano’s Christmas market. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Trento

While it hasn’t been running for quite as long as neighbouring Bolzano’s, Trento’s Christmas market has become almost as popular, with new stalls added every year.

Just like Bolzano, Trento is surrounded by maintains, which means you can take in views of stunning white peaks as you wander the old town’s cobbled streets warming your hands on a cup of vin brulè.

As usual, the market will be spread across Piazza Battisti and Piazza Fiera; the Trento city council has also published a calendar of key events happening every day as part of the city’s festive offering.

This year Trento’s Christmas market will have a ‘green’ focus – the use of clean energy, edible bread plates and recycled paper are all part of the concerted effort to limit the event’s environmental impact.

When? Until January 8th

Trento's Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years.

Trento’s Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP.

Milan

Throughout the month of December and into January, Milan’s Piazza del Duomo plays host to the city’s Christmas market, with almost 80 wooden huts popping up all over the main square.

Those who want to see Milan at its most Christmassy, however, will want to wait for the “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!” (“How beautiful! How beautiful!” in local dialect) festive fair held in the area surrounding the city’s castle, Castello Sforzesco.

This sprawling, centuries-old market is held to coincide with the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint, and is expected to take place as usual from December 7th-10th.

As a result of the energy crisis, Milan will turn on its Christmas lights two weeks later than usual this year, on December 7th – so you might want to time your visit accordingly if you want to witness the city’s illumination.

When? December 1st until January 6th (Piazza del Duomo market)

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021.

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Cernobbio, Como

Lake Como’s roving ‘Città dei balocchi‘ or ‘Toytown’ Christmas fair this year moves to Cernobbio, where visitors can expect to find the town’s Villa Erba park transformed into a winter wonderland.

Fairytale characters, singing trees and a talking tower will greet adults and children who enter the park, with admission free to all.

Festivities are due to kick off at 5pm on December 7th with the opening of Magic Light festival, a mesmerising light display with projections of moving images.

On December 8th – Italy’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which for many in Italy signals the start of the festive period – light displays on Cernobbio’s tree and in the old town will be switched on, heralding the arrival of Christmas.

When? December 7th until January 8th

Florence

Florence has a range of Christmas markets, but the largest and best-known is the one on Piazza Santa Croce in front of the beautiful Santa Croce Basilica.

It’s run by the organisers of the Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany, which means you can expect authentic bratwurst, stollen, Glühwein, lebkuchen biscuits and German beer, as well as Austrian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, French and Italian treats.

This one closes a full week before Christmas, so if you’re planning an Italy Christmas markets tour you might want to make Florence your first stop.

When? Until December 18th

Florence's Christmas market is German-themed.

Florence’s Christmas market is German-themed. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Verona

Like Florence, Verona’s Christmas market is a collaboration with that of a German city; in this case, Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt.

At the main market on Piazza dei Signori you can expect to find sauerkraut, potatoes and German sausage, as well as fried donuts made with ricotta and coated in chocolate.

In addition to those on main square, the market stalls – which this year number some 100 huts – will fill Cortile del Mercato Vecchio and stretch intro surrounding squares and streets.

This year’s festive offering includes a Santa Claus house, a children’s train, two skating rinks, and a range of musical events.

Be sure to look out for the city’s famous 70m-high, 82m-long illuminated shooting star sculpture in Piazza Bra – installed in November and dismantled in January every year since 1984, the sight has become central to the Veronese Christmas experience.

When? Until December 26th

Salerno

Ensuring that Italy’s northern and central regions don’t get all of the glory, the Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights) display in Salerno draws visitors from all over the world to this small city just east of the Amalfi coast.

This illuminated open-air exhibition runs the length of the main shopping street, up to the Christmas tree on Piazza Portanova, through the medieval city centre and up to the Villa Comunale public gardens.

Salerno’s Christmas market stalls occupy a stretch of the seafront, and this year will run from December 3rd-25th.

Accompanying the event will be a 55m-high ferris wheel, two jazz concerts, and a Santa Claus house (from December 10th to January 7th).

When? December 2nd until January 31st; Christmas market stalls December 3rd-25th.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
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