How to create an authentic Thanksgiving in Italy

For many Americans, the fourth Thursday in November – aka Thanksgiving – is the most important holiday in their cultural calendar.

A traditional roast turkey
Will you be celebrating Thanksgiving with an Italian twist this year? Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

And while Americans living in Italy may be far from home, that won’t stop them celebrating – even if they don’t get a public holiday like they do back home and have to miss out on watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and American football on TV.

Each year, Americans in Italy gather to devour the traditional turkey with cranberry sauce and take advantage of their adopted home by sinking a few glasses of Italian wine.

READ ALSO: 17 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you live in Italy

And after a year of lockdowns and strict limitations on indoor gatherings, for many this year’s celebration will be an especially jubilant one.

Here’s our guide to how you can celebrate an authentic Thanksgiving in Italy.

Photo Element5 Digital/Unsplash

Those who live in small towns and villages will likely have trouble securing niche items like Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and Stouffer’s Stuffing, and you may have to settle for a large chicken over a turkey.

But the good news is that it isn’t hard in Italy to source the ingredients you’ll need to make homemade traditional stuffing (which mainly consists of bread, onions, celery, and various herbs) and cranberry sauce from scratch.

Cranberries, or mirtilli rossi, don’t grow in Italy, but some shops sell them dried, and there are plenty of recipes online that explain how to make a sauce by rehydrating dried cranberries.

Otherwise, cranberry sauce can be found at some major chain supermarkets in Italy like Esselunga. If you prefer to start with fresh ingredients, red currents, or ribes, are a good approximation, and can be found in a number of food stores across the country.

Life in Italy: ‘How our shopping habits have changed since we moved from the US’

It’s also possible to locate pumpkins and sweet potatoes in some markets and grocery stores across Italy, if you’re up to the challenge of making a pie from scratch.

In that case, Milan-based blog Doing Italy recommends the ‘La delica mantovana’ pumpkin variety for making pie: “a ‘short’ pumpkin with a deep green crust (sometimes with a few white stripes) and bright orange pulp. If not, butternut squash will do, and that’s getting easier to find at organic supermarkets and things of that nature.”

Buying a turkey requires a bit of research. You’ll need to start by finding a butcher that specialises in poultry, either by hunting online or by word of mouth, and get your order in early to make sure they have time to source your turkey.

READ ALSO: 15 things you’ll probably never get used to about living in Italy

Those who live in a big Italian city are likely to have greater luck than countryside-dwellers when it comes to sourcing imported ingredients.

In Rome, the small delicatessen chain Castroni stocks most items you might want to accompany an American Thanksgiving, including stuffing mix, pumpkin puree, and pecans. They have several stores across the city, including in Prati, Trastevere, and off Via del Corso in the city centre.

Drogheria Innocenzi in Trastevere is also recommended as a destination for those looking for imported American Thanksgiving ingredients.

And small but mighty, the tiny Emporio delle Spezie or Spice Emporium in Testaccio stocks pecans year-round, as well as almost any spice you can think of and some other imported food products.

Photo: Keighla Exum/Unsplash

In central Milan, the specialist store American Crunch is recommended by Doing Italy, which writes that it sells “all that ‘traditonal’ American stuff to make your homesick self cry with joy. You’ll find Crisco and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and even marshmallows.” It also accepts orders online and can deliver to any part of the country.

Milan residents also recommend Mercato Comunale Wagner for Thanksgiving and Christmas treats, and you can even source a turkey here (though you will need to order in advance).

And let’s not forget about the decorations. 

Getting hold of those may be even more difficult than getting hold of some of the more traditional foodstuffs but there are lots of websites with ideas for how to make them at home – and if you have kids, no doubt they’d love to get involved in this side of the preparations. 

If after reading this, you think going the whole hog and creating a traditional Thanksgiving in Italy is just too much effort, you could always keep the most important elements – gathering loved ones together for food and drink – and ditch the turkey.

Another option could be to book a table at a restaurant with a Thanksgiving menu – these are rare in Italy and limited to bigger cities, but examples of spots with special offerings include The Brisket, a smokehouse restaurant on Milan’s Navigli, and the Hard Rock Cafe in Venice.

However you plan to celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving from The Local.

Do you have any recommendations for sourcing ingredients for a Thanksgiving dinner in Italy? Please leave a comment below to share them with other readers.

Member comments

  1. I have ordered a turkey through a friend who has a frozen fish store. I found “American patate dolce” at an Emisfero which were white inside. Mashed tastes like roast chestnuts. Today I got real sweet potatoes at a Lidl. I brought my pie materials from the US. I’m refining my pastry now using lard – Strutto. The pastry is excellent. My heart health??
    Big squash at vegetable market sold split into quarters.
    No cranberries yet.
    I bought all the glassware I need for 18 people at a Mercatino d’ Usato.
    I made my own hot plate with sterno burners and fireplace racks.
    Almost ready to eat.
    Just need to cook the 15 kg turkey!

  2. I sourced the Turkey from Sant Ambrogio market here in Florence and asked for it to be spatchcocked. For cranberry sauce, I found dried cranberries and cranberry jelly at Natursi which I then combined this with ribes, port (to macerate the dried cranberries), orange juice and maple syrup. It tastes great. For the pumpkin pie, I’ve steamed, puréed and strained the pumpkin to get the flavor concentrated. I found Yams at the Asian market. Everything else, I make it by hand so it was easy to find the same fresh ingredients here in Florence. I also noticed after I made the cranberry sauce, there was cranberry jam at the Christmas Market in piazza Santa Croce and Enoteca Alessi had premade oceanspray sauce.

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‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Yet another survey of Rome’s foreign residents has rated the Italian capital dismally for quality of life. Jessica Phelan explains why she too disliked the city when she first moved here, and what helped to change her mind.

A view over the city of Rome at sunset.
Life in Rome can take a while to get used to. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

If you’d told me four years ago that I’d be coming to Rome’s defence, I would have told you: Ma va’. Yeah right, get out of town. And I would have said I’d be long gone myself. 

And yet, as the latest InterNations survey of expats around the world puts Rome in last place for city life and work, here I am not only still living here but saying out loud: this place isn’t so bad.

It’s not that I don’t get where my unhappy fellow foreigners are coming from. I never dreamed of Rome before I moved here and found it far from dreamy once I arrived, in summer 2017. I’d grown up a short flight away (the UK) and lived in European capitals (Paris, Berlin) for several years, and after a stint further afield (Japan), I naively thought that moving to Rome would feel like coming home. 

Instead I found myself complaining to anyone who would listen about the same things that InterNations’ respondents listed as Rome’s downsides. The unreliable public transport. The scant public services. The politicians on the take. The provincialism. The rubbish – good grief, the rubbish. The inequality and lack of opportunities for young people – and lack of young people themselves, as it seemed in certain neighbourhoods. 

READ ALSO: Rome and Milan ranked ‘worst’ cities to live in by foreign residents – again

Sure, I liked the food and I couldn’t argue with the weather, but it felt frivolous to enjoy the small pleasures amid what I began to see as existential flaws. They spiralled for me into the impression of a city on the brink: the trash is piled shoulder-high because people here don’t care about anyone else, I told myself.

The fact everyone assumes I’m a tourist means they’re not used to anyone who doesn’t look or sound like them. I’m struggling to meet other young professionals – it must be a sign that the best and the brightest have all left. Because really, who’d choose to live here?

Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

Partly it was because I didn’t feel I had chosen to live here. I had moved for my American partner’s teaching job, and nothing was more alienating than encountering people who were stubbornly, unaccountably, in love with the place – or an idea of it. An awkward pause would ensue as I contemplated whether to mumble something innocuous about gelato or take it upon myself to debunk their romantic notions and expose what I was convinced was the ‘real’ Rome – dirty, dysfunctional, doomed. 

It wasn’t all in my head. As the InterNations survey has shown for several years straight, many foreign transplants report deep dissatisfaction with the city. So do Romans as a whole: one survey in 2020 found that most residents said their quality of life had worsened in the past five years. Global studies have named Rome one of the unhealthiest cities in Europe, and its roads some of the most dangerous. When Italians compile the list of the ‘best places to live in Italy’, there’s a reason why Rome never comes close to the top ten. 

In fact, every time I lamented the city’s decline, I fitted in better than I realised: no one complains more about Rome than Romans themselves.

Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI/AFP

There was perverse comfort to be had in realising that people born and raised here saw the same things I did and found them just as galling. La grande monnezza, they call it: forget ‘the great beauty’ (la grande bellezza), it’s the great rubbish dump. Roma fa schifo, as a popular local blog has it. Rome is disgusting. 

Huh, I began to think I scrolled through photos of egregiously parked cars or smirked at another meme about the incompetents in city hall, maybe we can get on after all. It was a glimpse of a dark, deeply cynical humour that was one of the first things about Rome I had to admit I liked.


Gradually, other qualities forced their way into view. I moved from a stuffy neighbourhood in the west of the historic centre to outside the city walls in the east and discovered that yes, other people under 50 do live here, no, not every foreigner is a tourist or study-abroad student, and thank goodness, not every restaurant serves only Italian food. Our new apartment was bigger, and bigger by far than anything our relatively modest incomes would have got us in the capitals of our home countries.

In fact, I suspected I wasn’t living in a capital city at all. Milan is where most of the money and opportunities within Italy are to be found, which has long made it a more logical place to move to for Italians and foreigners alike. I envy Milan’s metamorphosing skyline and cosmopolitan population – things I associate with ‘real’ cities.

But what do you know: if Rome comes 57th in the InterNations survey, Milan comes 56th. The responses suggest that housing is more expensive and harder to find up there, and the cost of living higher. 

I’ll leave it to people who live there to say what it’s really like, but I wonder if there are other trade-offs: I’d take the people-watching and window-shopping in Milan over Rome any day, but would I have to wear the ‘right’ clothes to fit in? I might have more chances to get ahead, but would I be judged on my job title or salary, and would people be more competitive? For better or worse, these aren’t things I have to worry about in Rome.

OPINION: Why Milan is a much better city to live in than Rome

Lucky for me I can afford not to: I’m not one of the 41 percent of foreign residents in Rome who told InterNations their disposable household income is not enough to cover expenses. Salaries are low here, and the cost of living – not visiting – can be higher than you might think. I’m in the privileged position of working for international employers, who pay better than local ones, and of splitting the bills with someone else in the same boat. We’re comfortable, but Rome isn’t the place to make your fortune.

So it’s no economic powerhouse. But culturally it’s got more life than I first gave it credit for. The things I’d assumed were missing altogether – new music, interesting events, a mix of people and backgrounds – were all there, they were just on a smaller scale and correspondingly harder to find. (Places to start looking: mailing lists, venues’ Facebook or Instagram pages, Zero.)

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In other cities I felt I’d made inroads by the end of the first year; in Rome, I was still at least another year away from meeting the friends who’d become my group here and, in turn, introduce me to people and places I wouldn’t have found on my own.

More than other cities, people say that Rome – the Rome that’s not in guidebooks, at least – is da scoprire, ‘to discover’ or even ‘unearth’. While you’re digging, having an ‘in’ can make all the difference. 

In some ways, Covid-19 also helped to rehabilitate Rome for me. The seriousness with which most people took the pandemic, and the camaraderie my neighbours showed throughout that first bewildering lockdown, proved that Romans were more than capable of caring for strangers. The months that followed, when we were confined to city or regional limits, taught me to appreciate the possibilities I might otherwise have ignored: travel might be impossible, but at least I had woods, lakes, mountains, waterfalls and the Mediterranean on my doorstep.

Other things I had to work around, or simply live with. I’m as convinced now as I was four years ago that Rome’s public transport system is woefully inadequate, but now I mainly avoid it: I walk or cycle as much as I can. In fact a whole alternative network of shared transport has sprung up in the time I’ve been here, from e-bikes to car shares and scooters, or monopattini.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

I’m yet to see a fix for the city’s rubbish problem, but I no longer assume it’s all the residents’ fault. It’s the result of decades of misuse of public funds, graft and organized crime – hardly reassuring, but marginally less bleak than thinking that none of your neighbours give a damn.

Because always, of course, there are people trying to improve things – by protesting, by voting, by picking up litter, even by filling in potholes on the sly. (Remember that if you’re a citizen of another EU country living in Rome, you have the right to vote in city elections too.) Doing the work yourself doesn’t absolve the authorities of the responsibility to do it, but in the meantime, as one acquaintance put it, at least your sidewalk is clean.

And those small pleasures: I finally gave myself permission to enjoy them. I like cracker-thin Roman pizza, supposedly kept from rising by the city’s hard water. I like sun that dries my laundry even in December. I like the view of mountains on a clear day. I like the light that glows golden around half an hour before sunset and works a kind of magic on ochre walls and brick bell towers and crumbling aqueducts.

In my fifth year here, I know now that these things don’t blind me to Rome’s faults, nor do I have to pretend not to see them to prove I’m not just another tourist. I live here; sometimes it’s bad; and most days, at about 5pm, looking over the rooftops, it’s good.