Twenty dishes for twenty regions: a culinary journey through Italian Christmas

During the Christmas season, every region from North to South offers its own iconic dish to delight tables during the holiday season.

The opulence of the Christmas table is, to all intents and purposes, a tradition that is embedded in the Italian way of life. At Christmas, families gather to spend time together, but first, they cook hearty dishes following recipes that are carved in stone of family traditions.

We discover together twenty specialities that characterise Christmas in all their authenticity.

Valle d’Aosta: Valpellinentze soup

We are on the border with France, right in the middle of the Alps. Obviously, venison and chamois abound here, both in the starters (those who have never tried mocetta have been missing something) and in the main courses. But the Seupa alla Valpellinentze, a typical soup made with beef broth, rye bread, Savoy cabbage, butter, and Fontina cheese is a must. Accompanied by toasted black bread, it is perfect for a cold snowy day.

Piedmont: agnolotti del plin

Actually, nowadays they are eaten all year round in typical trattorias, yet they cannot be missing from the Christmas table, because they immediately lend that festive touch. They are small square-shaped ravioli, stuffed with meat and seasoned with butter and sage. They embody the Piedmontese taste for elegance and substance. First, though, the Piedmontese table welcomes an appetiser favoured by adults and children alike, vitello tonnato in true Savoy tradition.

Lombardy: stuffed capon

Lombardy is a big region, so each area has its own specialities: tortelli with pumpkin, casoncelli alla bergamasca, ravioli in broth and of course the ever-present panettone. Inspired, nevertheless, by the Milanese literature par excellence, that of Alessandro Manzoni in ‘I Promessi Sposi’ (The Betrothed), we discover that stuffed capon has been offered on on Lombard tables at Christmas for hundreds of years. Our recipe is with potatoes and artichokes, perfect for the holiday season.

Trentino-Alto Adige: apple strudel

Canederli, with butter or in broth, but also game served with fruit preserves are among the unmissable Christmas dishes in Trentino.  In this case, however, the king of the table is the apple strudel, a traditional Austro-German dessert in which the thin dough enfolds spiced apples and dried fruit. A must during South Tyrolean festivities.

Veneto: creamed codfish 

Codfish, caught fresh from the Venetian lagoons, is made into a delicate and tasty cream for the festive season. Over time, this recipe has become famous throughout Italy, so much so that it is easy to find almost everywhere, especially around Christmas time. The classic combination is with polenta, preferably grilled as suggested by our chef Danilo Angè.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Toç di braide

The tradition of Christmas in Friuli still brings us polenta, this time in a dish with a name that translates to ‘farmhouse gravy’. In the Toç di braide recipe, polenta is served with a cream made from malga cheeses like Montasio, fresh ricotta and goat cheese as well as “morchia”, a cream obtained by mixing butter and corn flour.

Liguria: pandolce genovese

Even Liguria, gastronomically divided between western and eastern traditions, boasts many typical Christmas dishes. What (almost) everyone agrees on, though, are the natalini in brodo (a special type of pasta), the cappon magro, a sumptuous preparation of fish and vegetables, and the pandolce genovese, made with sultanas, pine nuts and citrus peel: a true symbol of Genoa, a cake that has been made using sourdough for centuries, long before it became fashionable.

Emilia-Romagna: tortellini and cappelletti in broth

This is the homeland of stuffed pasta and pork, so it goes without saying that the dish we choose to elect as the symbol of Christmas is tortellini. And then then become cappelletti, depending on the different shape, size, method of closing the pasta sheet that changes acconding to area.These small meat-filled caskets are made by hand and served in a rich and tasty broth.

Tuscany: crostini with liver pâté

Despite the endless delicacies of Tuscan cuisine, we are going to stop with the appetisers, because they are a delicious traditional speciality. Crostini with liver pâté are the perfect opening to a satisfying meal in Tuscany: these slices of toasted bread, covered with chopped chicken liver, are a tasty and traditional starter in Tuscany. Do you prefer the ‘Siena-style’ version? Here you are.

Umbria: sausages stewed with Norcia lentils

In a region where the scent of truffles pervades the entire autumn and winter period, first courses enriched with a generous sprinkling of prized black truffles are an absolute must. While for main courses, Umbria anticipates the Italian tradition of the last day of the year with sausages stewed with the delicious local lentils, those from Castelluccio di Norcia.

Marche: vincisgrassi

With a name created in honour of the Austrian general Alfred von Windisch-Graetz during the siege of Ancona in 1849, this dish is truly special. Certainly not the only one of the Christmas tradition in the Marche region (cappelletti in brodo is a classic), but it is certainly one that cannot be found elsewhere. Some people confuse this with lasagne, but the ragù recipe is much richer. The long preparation and cooking in a wood oven make it the perfect dish for feast days.

Lazio: abbacchio, lamb chops 

Here the furrow of tradition runs deep, as well as being universally well-known. Abbacchio, suckling lamb, cooked with herbs in a pan, baked or fried, has always been the star of Roman tables. Also in season and also much loved are artichokes alla giudia, the recipe that originated in Rome’s Jewish ghetto as early as the 16th century.

Abruzzo: maccheroni alla chitarra

They look like spaghetti, but actually have a square cross-section and are part of the egg pasta group.  They are made with the aid of a special instrument, a beech-wood frame that looks just like the strings of a guitar. Alternatively, brodo con cardone e pallottine is also very popular: a soup made with mixed meat broth, cardoon, and small meatballs, accompanied by small pieces of rustic pizza.

Molise: baccalà arracanato

The name is amusing, but the dish is really delicious: a codfish that used to be cooked over embers and made with chopped stale bread, garlic, bay leaves, oregano, sultanas, pine nuts and walnuts. The dialect term “arracanato” indicates indicates any preparation seasoned with chopped breadcrumbs and various flavourings, including oregano. 

Campania: Neapolitan pastiera

In this region too, we are spoilt for choice, ranging from the typical Christmas traditions of the city of Naples alone and in those of all Campania. To please everyone, we choose the timeless ‘pastiera‘, a cake made of wheat cooked in milk, ricotta cheese and orange peel that is the most traditional and symbolic Easter cake, now widely used at Christmas too.

Puglia: orecchiette con cime di rapa

In this region of the South, the menus for Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas lunch are preferably fish-based, but there is one rustic dish made with bitter vegetables that is always on the menu: orecchiette pasta with turnip tops, the dish traditionally associated with this region. And, if instead you are on the ‘fish’ team, opt for a fragrant dish of cavatelli with mussels. If instead you are on the ‘fish’ team, opt for a fragrant dish of cavatelli with mussels.

Basilicata: frittelle di peperone crusco

At Christmas, Lucanian tables are decked out in red. This is thanks to the typical ‘peperone crusco’, a local speciality recognised as a traditional food product (PAT) of Basilicata. This special pepper is none other than the PGI Senise pepper that undergoes the drying process. People use it to make delicious fritters or to accompany the inevitable Christmas codfish. 

Calabria: stockfish with potatoes

Stockfish (or ‘stocco’) with potatoes is a classic Calabrian dish, also known as stocco alla mammolese, because it originates from the village of Mammola. According to this recipe, stockfish is cooked with potatoes, tomato sauce, olives, capers, and chilli pepper. An explosion of flavours that can only make the Christmas menu special. And since classic cooking is also anti-waste, spaghetti with stockfish tripe (in dialect trippicedde) is also made in some areas.

Sicily: timballo

Sicily is abundant in delicious dishes, arranged wonderfully on the tables specially set tables at Christmas. 

Among the many, leading the way is the fabulous caponata: a mix of stewed and fried vegetables, enriched with olives, capers and pine nuts. The region’s baroque tradition is in the timballo. There are infinite versions of it, but the most opulent is certainly the one that is also mentioned in the famous novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), with an extremely rich filling, enclosed in a pastry case. Here you will find our recipe for timballo, lighter but just as succulent.

Sardinia: spit-roasted lamb

Lamb, suckling pig, culurgiones, malloreddus, but also plenty of fish and the ever-present pecorino cheese: Christmas in Sardinia is the apotheosis of traditional dishes. In particular, lamb or kid goat cooked in the oven, in a pan, or even ‘a ghisau‘, in other words, stewed. The most spectacular and slow cooking is on the spit, with ‘sa cordula‘ (the braid) of lamb offal on the side. 

These tasty meats are accompanied by cardoons, artichokes, or potatoes.

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