All the perfect ingredients for a traditional Italian Christmas dinner

Adam Jones | 20/12/2019
Panettone - a traditional italian christmas cake.
Panettone - a traditional Italian Christmas cake.

Traditional Italian Christmas food isn’t just a meal — it’s more of an event. In Italy, Christmas eating starts at lunchtime then continues well into the night. 

There are a lot of dishes to keep track of if you’re thinking of creating your own Italian Christmas menu. We’ll break down the anatomy of this holiday meal, so that you’re better prepared to experience, eat, enjoy, and perhaps even prepare some dishes if you’re feeling inspired. 

What is traditional Christmas food in Italy? Let’s take a look.

What is the Italian tradition of the 7 fishes?

Before Christmas comes Christmas Eve, a prominent Italian culinary tradition in its own right. Known in Italy as vigilia, vigilia is traditionally a meal where you’d be abstaining from red meat. This Catholic tradition led to the creation of a meal of sumptuous seafood. Curious? You can learn more about that tradition in our article dedicated to The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Let’s look into the perfect ingredients for an Italian Christmas dinner.

Italian Christmas food - the starters

The beginning of the meal isn’t so much about the dishes you’ll prepare as it is about the ingredients. A home-cooked Italian meal often starts with a lovely tray of antipasti. Key components to include on your Italian Christmas menu include: Italian cheeses (such as shaved parmesan), cured meats (for example, prosciutto), salty olives, and artichokes in olive oil or sun-dried tomatoes.

Italian Christmas bread

Bread is likely to make an appearance as well. If you can, find traditional focaccia, whose ingredients may vary based on the region of Italy that you’re visiting. Instead of looking for specific menu items, you’ll want to embrace what’s popular and served locally, as it’s likely to be the best.

Italian Christmas food - the mains

Mains vary greatly across Italy, but almost everywhere it is traditional to start with a pasta course. Tortellini in brodo — pasta served in a rich flavorful broth — is a fairly popular way to start wherever you are in Italy. On a quest for regional Italian Christmas ideas? In Bologna, opt for meat-filled tortellini in eel broth. While in Ferrara, your tortellini is most likely stuffed with pumpkin. Regional variations will provide you with many options.

After your pasta course is over, you’ll move on to some of Christmas’s meatier mains. Eel has long been a Christmas tradition across Italy. In Puglia, you’re more likely to come across roast lamb with small onions. In Tuscany, expect a roasted capon with vegetables and potatoes. Sardinians prefer spit-roasted pig. While in Calabria, many enjoy roast goat. In recent years a stuffed roast turkey, similar to an American Thanksgiving dish, has become a more common Italian Christmas menu item. 

Vegetarians take note: mains aren’t entirely meat-focused. You’ll often find a series of roasted vegetables on the side or prepared in the meat dishes themselves.

Italian Christmas food - the desserts

Traditional Italian Christmas food isn’t very dessert heavy, but naturally, there are many sumptuous desserts to choose from. The most famous internationally is panettone. Panettone is a kind of Christmas cake, a sweet bread that sometimes contains nuts and candied fruit. Very different than Christmas cakes outside of Italy, panettone is exceptionally light and fluffy. 

Another popular Italian Christmas dessert is torrone, a nougat made with honey and sugar, and often containing varieties of nuts. Last, but certainly not least, you may want to enjoy traditional pastries such as fried dough balls, whose name varies from region to region. Tortelli (crescent-shaped pastry with sweet filling) and biscotti may also be served as an after-meal treat.

Italian Christmas food - the drinks

Drinks are an essential part of every Italian meal, and Christmas is no exception. Get ready for copious amounts of wine, starting at lunch and continuing along with the evening meal. Typically you’ll find both red and white wine, paired with the appropriate courses for those wines. 

Meals will often end with some prosecco, a refreshing sparkling Italian wine similar to champagne. Liqueurs, especially as a digestif along with coffee, are usually served near the end of the meal. 

If you’re in northern Italy, you may celebrate with a cup of something to keep you warm. Bombardino is a popular beverage there — it’s a kind of fancy eggnog made with brandy, egg liqueur, whipped cream, and cinnamon. You’ll likely come across it at most of Italy’s popular ski destinations. 

Buon Natale and buon appetito!

There you have it — all the information you’ll need to start curating an Italian Christmas dinner for your next trip, or to brainstorm your own Italian Christmas menu at home.