What is literally more representative of an Italian Christmas than a traditional Milanese Christmas bread—Panettone? The history of panettone traces back to the 14th century. And then there is its cousin from Verona, Pan D’Oro (no candied fruits). More than 100 million of these Christmas breads are sold every December. The Germans have a related Christmas bread called Stollen (also with saffron and candied fruits, but also often with marzipan). Enjoy these with espresso or prosecco.
How many of you remember the little boxes of nougat candy—La Florentine Torrone? They come in three flavors, Vanilla, Orange, and Lemon, and each box had a different picture. To collect each picture you had to sample the candy inside. And don’t forget the Sienna specialty—Panforte, in many flavors and variations. In Sicily there is a special version of pizza prepared for Christmas, the savory Sficione. Each region of Italy has its own Christmas specialty, too many to list individually here.
But Christmas food traditions go much deeper than these cakes or breads. Sundown December 23rd to sundown December 24th historically was a very strict fast. The fast was broken with a magnificent feast on Christmas Eve before going to midnight Mass with family and friends to celebrate the birth of Christ. But Christmas Eve was also traditionally a religious time of abstinence, which in the Catholic Church meant a time during which meat is not eaten.
And so the essence of a true Italian Christmas Eve Feast evolved as The Feast of the Seven Fishes (Perhaps connected to the Seven Sacraments? Or maybe a family would do The Feast of the 12 Fishes, one fish course for each of the 12 disciples. There are many variations.) While Il Cenone di Vigilia has its roots deep in Italian culture and history, it evolved into the Italian tradition of The Feast of the Seven Fishes, a celebration for breaking the fast while maintaining abstinence and to celebrate Christmas Eve, which really took hold amongst Italian Americans.
So lets design our “Grand Cenone di Vigilia”…
The feast would start with some appetizers. These could be some shrimp cocktail, or some baccala crostini, or both (if both, two fish down, five to go). Upon being seated at the table the first course might be a suppa di granchio (crab bisque, and three down). No Italian feast is complete without pasta, so we can go on to aragosta fra d’avolo con Fettucine (noodles with lobster in a spicy tomato sauce; four down), and on to the three fish served as the main course—lets see… roasted branzino (Mediterranean sea bass stuffed with rosemary and roasted in a jack of rock salt), grilled swordfish Sicilian style (capers, tomatoes, wine, and parsley sauce) and fried calamari (5, 6 & 7). All washed down with bottles of prosecco, pinot grigio, and Barbaresco, or similar).
We couldn’t start this dinner until sundown due to the strict fasting rules, and appetizers and three courses like this are going to take two or three hours, so we will finish up about 10 PM and go to the church to make sure we get good seats. After all, we need comfortable seats in which to take naps and sleep off the fabulous meal before mass starts.
After mass, we all return to our home to have dessert, a Christmas bread served with gelato, grappa, and espresso before going to bed at 2 or 3 AM after saying good night to family and friends. No need to worry about interfering with Santa Claus coming because in the Italian tradition gifts are not given until Epiphany (the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th) when La Befana comes to find the Wise Men giving gifts to the baby in the manger.
Or course, substitute fish as you wish, just make sure there are seven different ones but in the Italian tradition, we use more shellfish than any other kind. And if you want to simplify it, simply make baccala crostini as the appetizer and then a grand cioppino made with six fishes—lobster, crab, clams, calamari, mussels and shrimp/prawns with a green salad. And remember baccala is required at either of the three Christmas meals: Christmas eve, Christmas breakfast, or Christmas Day. In the Roman tradition, Christmas Day is roast lamb.
Enjoy and Buon Natale!