Christmas foods in Italy – appetizer, first courses, main courses, sides, desserts. Typical Christmas Eve and Christmas Day menus. Classic Christmas beverages.
Christmas is one of the most magical moments of the year, and in Italy, it is one of the most important holidays on the calendar. It’s a national holiday in here, so schools and workplaces (including museums) are closed. If you visit Italy during Christmas, you’ll see what I mean! The only businesses you’ll see open on December 25th are restaurants – but not all of them.
Christmas Day in Italy is always spent with the family. The central activity of the day is eating (a lot) of delicious food!
When it comes to culinary delicacies, Italian Christmas food is incredibly varied. From northern to central to southern Italy, Christmas food traditions change. For example, having a huge Christmas Eve dinner (cenone) is very popular in the south, while in northern and central Italy, people focus mainly on having a big lunch on December 25.
Let’s take a look at traditional Christmas foods in Italy – from national to regional specialties.
Christmas Foods in Italy – Eaten Nationwide
Each part of Italy has its own Christmas traditions and recipes, and it’s almost impossible to find foods that are eaten nationwide! I know it sounds crazy, but trust me: every family, in every city, in each region of the country has its own Christmas foods!
However, the Christmas meal is always structured the same throughout Italy:
- the appetizer with cured meats, cheeses, and fried finger foods
- the first course, which is always a pasta dish
- the main course, a type of meat
- and to finish the grandiose meal, desserts!
- But the commonalities between Italy’s Christmas lunches and dinners end here.
Only one food is enjoyed on Christmas Day from north to south: pandoro and panettone! Although these two deserts are typically northern Italian, they are synonymous with Christmas everywhere in Italy. No Christmas meal is complete without indulging in some slices of pandoro or (or both!)
Regional Christmas Foods in Italy
Pandoro is a traditional Veronese sweet yeast bread with a smooth consistency. This star-shaped dessert has a distinct taste of vanilla and orange or lemon zest.
When served, pandoro is first covered with confectioners’ sugar and then cut into slices. It’s usually accompanied by a delicious cream prepared with eggs, sugar, mascarpone cheese, and a teaspoon of Cognac.
Pandoro has maintained its original recipe over the years, unlike panettone, which has come to have many variants.
Panettone is an integral part of Lombardy’s culinary tradition. Panettone is a soft and naturally leavened baked product obtained from a dough based on water, flour, butter, and eggs (yolk). With a typical dome shape, pandoro’s upper crust is enriched by candied fruit, orange peel and cedar (in equal parts), and raisins. This is the original recipe for panettone – panettone candito.
In the last twenty years, artisan workshops have proposed numerous variations on the theme of the panettone: glazed with chocolate or pistachio, without candied fruit or raisins, and filled with cream, just to name a few.
In the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, grocery stores and bakeries are filled with pandoro and panettone – they make excellent gifts for friends and family!
Panforte is a typical Tuscan Christmas cake. The origins of panforte trace back to the year 1000, when it was called ‘Christmas bread’ or ‘Pan Pepatus.’
Panforte used to be a food exclusively for the nobles and the clergy because its preparation contained almonds and spices, which were very expensive at the time. In addition to the almonds and spices, panforte includes orange peel, cedar, and melon.
Panforte’s recipe has remained consistent throughout history. The only variation is panforte nero (black), when the panforte is made with candied melon, sugar (instead of honey), and it has black pepper among the spices.
Torrone, or nougat in English, is a typical Christmas dessert in Italy. The name reveals its main characteristic: the Latin verb torrēre, which means toasted, and refers to the roasting of dried fruit that’s added to the torrone.
Torrone is mainly made from egg white, honey, sugar, and toasted dried fruit (including nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, raisins, and cranberries). The base is then usually covered by layers of wafer or chocolate.
Torrone has different consistencies depending on the ingredients used: hard and crunchy or soft and chewy. There’s one for everyone’s taste!
Roasted veal is a popular dish eaten on Christmas Day. You’ll find variations from a classic roast with potatoes to more elaborate versions with dried fruit, grapes and chestnuts. No matter what, veal is the most commonly used meat to prepare the roast.
Every nonna’s (grandmother’s) secret to making a mouthwatering roasted veal is not to be in a hurry! If you want the meat to be tender and juicy, it needs hours of cooking and resting.
Roasted veal is one of Italians’ favorite recipes to serve at the Christmas table because it can be cooked the day before and only requires one pot to come together.
Seafood is mainly served on Christmas Eve, but in southern Italy, many families enjoy seafood on Christmas Day as well. You’ll encounter many different seafood dishes on Christmas tables: scallops and mussels au gratin as appetizers, spaghetti with fresh tuna or lobster as a first course, and white fish as the main course (the most popular choice is usually cod (baccalà in Italian).
Hot chocolate is a must during the winter season. Enjoying a hot mug of cioccolata calda while eating a slice of pandoro or panettone is a fabulous way to spend a Christmas afternoon, especially for kids! Making hot chocolate at home is very simple, and here in Italy, we always have the ingredients inside the pantry to make it whenever we feel like having a hot and velvety drink.
Dark chocolate or cocoa powder, milk, and sugar are all you need to prepare this recipe! In Italy, we usually drink hot chocolate without any toppings, but I’ve seen people adding whipped cream or a dash of cinnamon on top before digging in.
Bagna cauda is a typical dish from Piedmont. It’s a fragrant sauce that you dip seasonal vegetables in. Bagna cauda is made with anchovies, olive oil and garlic cooked over low heat until the mix reduces to a thick, saucy consistency.
Bagna cauda is a hearty and filling dish, which is why it’s usually considered the main dish; however, it can sometimes be served as an appetizer.
In Piedmont, bagna cauda is served during the holidays, especially on New Year’s Eve, but you can find people eating it on Christmas Day as an antipasto (appetizer).
As the name of this dish suggests, bagna cauda needs to be eaten warm (cauda), and for this reason it’s traditionally served in the fujot, a particular container in terracotta or copper.
Bicerin is a warm, non-alcoholic drink from Turin. It’s a take on hot chocolate – made from chocolate, coffee and cream. It’s usually served in high glasses so you can gaze at the nuance of colors of the various ingredients before drinking. Bicerin is a fantastic drink to accompany desserts at the end of the Christmas Day meal.
Christmas Vegetables and Fruits
In Italy, we love eating seasonal vegetables and fruits. December and the Christmas period are no exception: on the festive tables, you’ll find all the main vegetables that are in season in December as side dishes or fried appetizers. For example, in my region (Le Marche), a must for Christmas lunch is fried artichokes!
For fruits, the same rule applies, but if I were to name one fruit that everyone in Italy eats at the end of the Christmas meal, it’s the clementine.
Agnolotti di Plin
Agnolotti is a traditional stuffed pasta from Piedmont. It’s egg-based, square-shaped, and filled with roast meat. Agnolotti can be cooked in different ways, but the traditional recipes for the sauce are: a reduction of the roast meat sauce; a mix of butter, sage and parmesan cheese; a meat broth; or a wine reduction. Agnolotti served in broth is a typical primo (first course) during the Christmas holidays.
Agnolotti del Plin is from one area Piedmont (the Langhe and Monferrato), and it’s smaller and rectangular-shaped. The name comes from the plin, the pinch with which the pasta dough is sealed.
Pettole is actually an Albanian dish; however, it’s common in southern Italy, where it’s known by different names depending on the regional dialect (for example, zeppole or crispelle).
Despite the name, the way pettole is made doesn’t change: the leavened dough is very soft-fried in boiling oil and covered in sugar or honey before serving. During the Christmas holidays, pettole are made savory (so without the sweet toppings) and served as appetizers.
Tortellini in Brodo
Tortellini is one of the most famous Italian dishes. Tortellini are a stuffed egg pasta typical of the cities of Bologna and Modena. The preparation of the filling for tortellini is crucial to nailing the correct taste: a mix of pork loin, raw ham, mortadella, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, eggs, and nutmeg.
According to the tradition of the Emilia-Romagna region, tortellini should be cooked and eaten in a broth made from beef and capon or chicken. Tortellini is a must on every Christmas menu in central Italy!
Struffoli is a typical Christmastime sweet from the Naples area.
Struffoli are made from little balls of sweet dough that are deep-fried, dipped in honey and decorated with colored confetti and candied fruit. Among the ingredients of the dough, you will find lard (which makes this recipe not vegetarian and vegan friendly!) and aniseed liqueur.
Struffoli is must on the Christmas table. You’ll find it as cicirata in Calabria, or cicerchiata in Umbria, Abruzzo, and Le Marche.
Baking cookies is a big part of Italian culinary tradition, but we don’t have any specific Christmas recipes. However, the Anglo-Saxon culinary tradition influenced the Italian one, and so during Christmas, you’ll find many Italians eating gingerbread cookies.
What we appreciate the most about the gingerbread cookies is their spicy flavor, adored by adults and children alike!
The cannolo is one of the most famous specialties of Sicilian pastry. Enjoyed year round, cannoli (plural of cannolo) is one of the star dishes on Sicilian Christmas tables.
Cannoli are a fried dough rind stuffed with a filling made from sheep’s milk ricotta. For the rind, small dough discs are formed made of wheat flour, Marsala, sugar and lard. The traditional filling consists of sweetened sheep’s ricotta, and sometimes candied fruit or chocolate chips are added.
Cannoli must be eaten as soon as they are filled with ricotta because otherwise, the humidity of the cheese is absorbed by the wafer, making it lose its crunchiness.
One of the most popular recipes served for the Christmas holidays in southern Italy is baccalà. Mainly enjoyed at Christmas Eve dinner, the cod is prepared differently depending on the region.
My favorite ways to eat baccalà are Campania-style – prepared in the cassuola (cooked with capers, olives, raisins, and tomato sauce) or cannaruta (floured and fried in a pan with onion, walnuts, pine nuts, and raisins before being blended with white wine).
Capon is one of the main foods of Christmas because it’s the key ingredient in traditional tortellini broth.
The capon is a young chicken cooked in a pot with soffritto (finely-chopped and sautèed celery, onion and carrot). The secret to making the most flavorful broth is to let it simmer for hours! After the broth is ready, the capon is taken out, cut, and served as the main course of the Christmas meal alongside aromatic sauces like green sauce.
Then, the broth is used for cooking the tortellini, cappelletti, or passatelli, served as the main dish.
Cotechino with lentils is a rich holiday main course, often served at New Year’s Eve dinner. Why? According to popular belief, eating cotechino alongside a generous spoonful of lentils is a good omen and brings prosperity (and money!)
Cotechino is a sort of sausage typical of Emilian cuisine but enjoyed throughout Italy. It is prepared by filling the pork’s casing with rind, pork meat, and fat mixed with salt and spices. It is important to slow cook the cotechino because the ‘budello’ (the casing) brokes easily.
Zampone is another sausage-like meat product of the Italian culinary tradition, similar to cotechino. The main difference between zampone and cotechino is the wrapper: the zampone’s filling is held together by the pig’s rear leg skin. Like cotechino, zampone is traditionally served with lentils.
Christmas Eve Dinner in Italy
The traditional Christmas Eve Dinner menu varies throughout the country. Here is a typical Christmas Dinner menu from Naples:
- Octopus salad
- Marinated anchovies
- Spaghetti with clams
- Fried cod
- Eel stew
- insalata di rinforzo
- broccoli with lemon
Read all about Christmas Eve Dinner in Italy!
Christmas Dinner Menu in Italy
The traditional Christmas Dinner menu depends on where you are in Italy. Here is a typical Christmas Dinner menu from my region, Le Marche:
- Fried artichokes and olive all’ascolana (fried green olives filled with meat)
- A variety of salame (salami)
- Cappelletti in brodo
- Bollito (the capon from the broth)
- Fried lamb chops
- Baked potatoes
- Pandoro or panettone
Italian Christmas Cocktails
In Italy, the Christmas period revolves around food. But, we don’t have a big tradition when it comes to drinks.
While eating the antipasto (appetizer), Italians like to sip spumante. The main parts of the Christmas meal are served alongside wine (white if eating seafood, and red if eating meat). The desserts are usually accompanied by an alcoholic drink or a hot drink. Besides digestive (digestives) and cioccolata calda (hot chocolate) or regional variants such as bicerin, the two classic winter drinks are punch and vin brulè.
Punch is a warm alcoholic drink made with rum, orange punch, orange peel, cinnamon, and anise. Vin brulè is a spicy drink made from warmed red wine, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and citrus.
Whether you’re enjoying Christmas in Italy or just want to celebrate the holiday ‘Italian-style,’ I hope this has given you some ideas of what to indulge in!
Do Italians have candy canes at Christmas?
Candy canes aren’t typically an Italian Christmas food, however, you can find them now at some stores over the holidays (but you’ll pay a premium)!