Pranzo di Natale: The Italian Christmas Feast

As in America and around the world, Natale – Christmas in Italian – is one of the most joyous times of year.  We will try to give you a feeling for un vero Natale Italiano. Is there such a thing as a typical Italian Christmas in a country so rich and varying in traditions, spanning from its Austrian and Swiss borders to the island of Pantelleria, Italy’s southernmost tip less then 50 miles from the African coast? We daresay there is, especially when it comes to food. Pranzo di Natale, the festive Christmas meal, is typical in all of Italy for being amazingly rich and astounding in its abundance and variety of dishes.

We might add it takes a lot of courage to face mountains of delicious food, knowing just after the starters, the so called antipasti, whose calories would be sufficient for a day, that one will have to brave another 2, 3 or even 4 hours of feasting.  I’ve been lucky to be included for 10 years in a typical Italian family Christmas feast. The first time, after having eaten more than ever in my life before, I wondered why we do that to ourselves?  Then I understood that this holiday is a once a year celebration of being together, of love, of sharing.  Whether Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or Diwalli (Hindu), a central part of these festive winter celebrations is always sharing an abundance of traditional food.

The Italians are an especially exuberant people, so their idea of feasting is just that too. The feeling of being all together and enjoying the food that marvelous Italian ladies have worked days and days to produce, create memories that last forever.  The few times I brought non-Italian family members or friends along to these Christmas meals, they had the same experience- reaching nearly psychedelic heights brought on by so many delicious flavors and special dishes- not to mention a variety of wonderful Italian wines. “Pranzo di Natale” is also the one meal of the year when a family’s finest table linens, china and crystal are brought out to create a true sense of occasion; heirloom linens and tableware passed down through generations. (eyeItalia’s selection of heirloom quality tablecloths, all made in Italy of the finest linen, are representative of that tradition).

We all live in a busy modern world where time is precious and few are the men, women or families who can spare days and days for cooking. Below is an idea of how to create an Italian pranzo di Natale that can include a number of ready bought items. We won’t attempt to give you complete recipes, rather a feeling for the Italian courses and foods served on this special day. The structure of a traditional Italian meal is kept and enriched for Christmas and the same is true for New Year’s Eve. Depending on the number of guests the number of dishes also multiply. This is true for all 4 courses, even for the desserts.

The starters – antipasti – are served often with a white wine or Prosecco. Many starters are ready- bought as the supermarkets have special antipasti sections over the holidays. Antipasti should be at least 4 or 5 different types: several kinds of olives; small toasted triangles with smoked salmon, caviar or San Daniele prosciutto; filled and rolled crepes sliced up thinly; crostini, which are small toasted bread slices with the traditional Italian liver pate’ fegato di pollo; and small cubes of Parmigiano Reggiano, perhaps served on small toothpick skewers with grapes.  For Christmas most antipasti also include insalata russa, which is a dish that became popular in  the 50’s and 60’s and has now become so much part of tradition there are few Christmas or New Year’s meals without it. Insalata russa is simply a salad made of tiny cubes of boiled potatoes, carrots, some green beans and peas dressed with mayonnaise.

The first course – primo – is the pasta or rice dish, served separately and ahead of the main course, or soup may be served as well. Often two or even three primi are served if there are many guests. Very typical is tortellini in brodo (a homemade meat bouillon). Italians use pasta sauce very sparingly. The taste of the rice and pasta is what counts just as well as the enhancement of the sauce. Italians shrivel their nose at the sight of a plate of pasta drowned in any sauce. Ravioli filled with a mixture of spinach, ricotta and nutmeg and served with a simple butter and sage sauce is a classic favorite. Ready made ravioli can work just fine, or as a “secret” shortcut, you may use Chinese won ton wraps, bought in the supermarket, and fill them at home. It’s flour and water that makes the dough after all.  Just don’t tell anyone and make sure you spread a little egg yolk on the edges to close them better.

The main course – secondo – is seafood, meat or game. Traditionally many households serve eel or capone (a castrated rooster) and cottechino (a ready-made pork roll) is popular too; also whole salmon, and any kind of roast or game.

Side dishes – contorni – are vegetables or legumes. At least two or three vegetables are served, creatively prepared and presented in a festive way, and often lentils that are a must if the main course is cottechino.

Dessert – dolce – is the final course served. Italian Panettone, a bread-like cake studded with dried fruit or chocolate, is a traditional Christmas favorite sold in a tin or cardboard box. Panettone, along with other traditional Italian Christmas sweets such as Panforte, a flat, rich and very dense cake with dried fruits and nuts, the Torrone, a white nougat, or Sicilian marzipan shaped like pretty pieces of fruit, can be found readily now in America at Italian food shops or larger supermarkets.

Whatever your own holiday food traditions might be, everyone at eyeItalia wishes you Buon Appetito, Buon Natale, Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!


—Sibylla Vogel