A great Italian Christmas

Buona cena: A great Italian Christmas

by Great Italian Chefs 17 December 2015

We talk to four of Italy's top chefs to find out what they love about the festive season, what they'll be cooking this year and which traditions they're looking the most forward to.

Great Italian Chefs is a team of passionate food-lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest news, views and reviews from the gastronomic mecca that is Italy.

Great Italian Chefs is a team of food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest news, views and reviews from the gastronomic mecca that is Italy. From Veneto and Lombardy in the north to Calabria and Sicily in the south, we celebrate the very best of this glorious cuisine and try to bring you a little bit of la dolce vita wherever you are.

They might all speak the same language, but that doesn’t mean all Italians enjoy the same food, take part in the same traditions and spend their time in the same way come Christmas. There are around nineteen different regions in Italy, all with their own festive dishes and customs, which are little known or completely unheard of abroad. So we asked some of our chefs to share their own family traditions and what they tend to cook on Christmas Day.

Roberto Cerea

Roberto Cerea is one half of the Cerea brothers, who together run the three Michelin-starred Da Vittorio in Lombardy. Growing up in the north of the country meant lots of big, hearty meals centred around meat, stews and other warming dishes. Today, his Christmas dinner carries on that tradition. ‘At Christmas there are always lots of people in high spirits eating lots of rich food and wasting money!’ he says. ‘What I like to have for lunch is a simple stuffed turkey (which is much smaller in Italy than the ones you see in the UK and America) called tacchinella with some polenta and pancetta on the side. It’s a very northern Italian dish, and we always finish with marron glace – a beautiful chestnut ice cream. Of course, you have to have panettone too, and I make one with hazelnuts and chocolate. It just tastes like Christmas!’

Daniele Usai

Daniele loves Christmas and feels it’s a particularly important time of year, which is why he and Claudio, his business partner, close their restaurant Il Tino on Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day. ‘A dish that always reminds me of the festive period is cappelletti in brodo (‘little hats’ in broth),’ he says. This is a very popular dish throughout Italy, particularly Emilia-Romagna, of cappelletti – a very small filled pasta – cooked in a clear meat broth. ‘It is my grandmother’s recipe and the pasta is filled with cheese, usually Stracchino and Parmesan.

Also on Daniele’s Christmas table is fritti, a starter comprised of mixed fried vegetables such as broccoli and artichokes, and abbacchio, which is roast lamb with potatoes. ‘There are some really tasty parts of the lamb, such as the brain and offal,’ says Daniele. ‘Every year my family always fights over who gets to eat them!’

Giuseppe D'Aquino

‘One of the dishes we always make every Christmas is minestra maritata – a wedding soup made of five different vegetables and two broths,’ says Giuseppe, who runs Ristorante Oseleta in Verona. This dish actually has nothing to do with weddings; it refers to the fact that the flavour of the meat and vegetables in it ‘marry’ well together. It often contains pasta of some form – either filled as in Giuseppe’s recipe or small varieties such as orzo – as well as different meats and vegetables.

Giuseppe also eats fried capitone (eel) and cod with salad on Christmas Eve. This is a tradition found throughout Fruili, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Puglia, but it is most celebrated in Naples, Giuseppe’s home town. No one really knows where the tradition came from, but in the build up to Christmas Eve, the city’s main fish market, Porto Nolana, sells thousands of eels to local families. These days, the eels are usually gutted the second they’re purchased by the fishmonger, but there are still many people who prefer to take them home alive, keeping them as fresh as possible for the big day. There’s usually some fish left over, which is then enjoyed in a salad on Christmas Day with olives and cauliflower.

For dessert Giuseppe eats pastiera, another Neapolitan speciality. It’s a cake made from grano cotto, which is cooked wheat, as well as ricotta, orange flower water and vanilla. Pastiera has been eaten in the area since ancient times, made by nuns at the San Gregorio Armeno church for rich families in Naples.

Norbert Niederkofler

Norbert spends Christmas in South Tyrol with his family, amongst the snowy mountains of the area. ‘Christmas is such an important time of year for me and my family,’ he says. ‘I like to spend it with my five-year-old son and visit the restaurant to see the team as we are very busy at this time of year. When I was younger, I would always get my skis out and enjoy a Christmas Day ski down the mountain.’

South Tyrol is well known for its Christmas markets, which, thanks to its close proximity to Austria, means there’s plenty of gingerbread, vin brulè (mulled wine), apple strudel and carved wooden figures on offer.