Dec 23, 2009

Italian Christmas menus

Candied dates smeared with butter, dried figs stuffed with walnuts, trays of hazelnuts, almonds, pecans and dark Brazilian nuts. Bread crumbs, cracked nutshells, bits of leftovers, empty espresso cups and wine glasses, and curled up mandarin orange peel scattered on a bright red embroidered tablecloth.

That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of Christmas Eve dinner at my mother’s house. The annual battleground after the seafood-based feast known as cenone della vigilia.

Earlier in the day the kitchen vibrates with joyful activity. We cook, drink, laugh a lot and throw food at each other, authorized to make a mess. We do it all together. We prepare the Christmas Eve dinner together, we eat it together and together we express our love for each other exchanging little thoughtful presents after midnight Mass. When my son finally falls asleep, we tiptoe into the house's many hiding places and bring out Santa's booty. We eat the snack left out for him, leaving evident crumbs and soot footsteps coming out of the chimney. And we smile in his same adorable anticipation. And that's when it truly feels like Christmas.

I kept wondering why I was having such a hard time getting into the Christmas mood this year. I tried everything: decorating the tree, building the presepe, putting up ornaments and lights all over the house, playing carols, baking cookies, constructing a gingerbread house... I included my son in all these usually infectious holiday activities because, after all, that's who I was doing it all for. But it wasn't really working. Something was missing.

And then I figured it out. I understood that there wasn't anything missing, there was actually an excess instead. There is too much of everything. Excessive frantic driving through traffic for last minute shopping. Too much constant mad rushing to conquer ground (and parking space) in horrible hysteria-mode stores and malls. Had the holiday season been reduced to racing brawl-prone folks laden with gift-wrapped boxes to the best deal? That's not Christmas! Christmas suddenly had turned into a commercial operation, and I somehow had forgotten its real meaning. To me Natale was a moment of excitement, of preparation, of joy. A traditional festive family occasion.

This shouldn't sound like a sermon, but very few things are sacred for me and Christmas is one of them. Nowadays Christmas in Italy is all about getting the perfect gift, leaving for the ultimate exotic vacation (and then bragging about it), accumulating rather than un-cluttering. Il Santo Natale–the holiness of Christmas–has been transformed into a display of money, image and opulence rather than a domestic celebration. It's a little sad, isn't it?

Thankfully the one element of Italian Natale that will never change is getting the family around a table and eating like crazy. So tomorrow evening, the dining room will be alive with chatter and laughter. After the gargantuan meal, the venue will convert – like every year – into casino royale for the Italian ritual Christmas gambling and tombola (bingo) tradition. The crumbs and nutshells get swept off la tavola with one tipsy motion and the games will begin. Usually one cousin – appropriately nicknamed 'the taxman' – always wins every game, pocketing all our invested coins, so after a few rounds everyone gets up disgruntled, belching and unzipping constricting garments. Someone always volunteers to do the monumental pile of dishes, and politics are rarely ever overlooked in the conversation. We have been known to fight occasionally on Christmas Eve for that reason. But we also stick to tradition, and play, laugh and eat ourselves into a stupor.

Like every year, my mother will be Grand Supervisor of the Christmas Eve banquet, which will traditionally include fish in its multi-course menu and copious amounts of wine, bubbly and happiness. We all help out and contribute our share cooking with her.

Needless to say, pre-preparation has already started. I am in fact posting this in a break during busy kitchen work.

This year we will be serving our Christmas Eve Dinner guests (old friends, immediate family and additional boyfriends, girlfriends, ex-spouses and the like) the following menu:

Smoked salmon canapées
Fritto di paranza (small fried fish)
Lasagna with Taleggio, mushrooms and shaved white truffles
Steamed European Sea bass with homemade mayonnaise (12 eggs)
Broccoli rabe rustic pie
Escarole rustic pie
Insalata di rinforzo (Neapolitan boiled cabbage, Greek olives and anchovy salad)
Artichokes "alla Romana" (added at the last minute)
Panettone, Pandoro and mixed nuts, dried figs and dates
Champagne Veuve-Cliquot Rosé
Rosso di Montalcino
Greco di Tufo
Homemade myrtle liqueur

But Natale here in Italy is a two-day celebration, so...

The Christmas Day Lunch (for seating capacity reasons, always held at my mom's house) menu will feature:

Tortellini in brodo made with 3 kinds of meat/bones
Crown lamb roast and oven-baked russet potatoes
Guinea-fowl breasts stuffed with chestnuts and truffles
Radicchio, pears and gorgonzola salad
Panettone and Pandoro
Seasonal fruit platter
Chianti Classico
Passito di Pantelleria
Mandarin oranges

I have the oven blasting at 350°F and the smell in the house is delicious. My apron is spattered and Mr. E is wearing a Santa hat with flashing red lights. He's helping me mix ingredients. Rosemary Clooney is singing her carols for us through the sound system, and tree lights twinkle.

Something inside is tingling. I may have just found my Christmas spirit...


  1. It's so easy to forget to stop and actually enjoy Christmas! I'm keeping time free this year for plenty of glasses of eggnog in front of the fire.

    And I hope you'll tell us more about the broccoli raab pie.

    Buon Natale!

  2. all the food sounds lovely...and all being it. i hope you have as much fun as it sounds.

    so true about getting so busy this time of year...hope santa is good to e...

    merry christmas lola!

  3. How lovely....I wish I were there!
    Merry Merry to you and yours.

  4. You explain it so well Lola! I love the historical menu.You also did a wonderful job in decorating.The foods that ring my ear every year. I wish you and family, especially your little man a Merry Christmas!

  5. Lola, I'm so glad you found your Christmas spirit! My last post was on exactly how unimportant all the commercial stuff is, as I discovered in one frightening phone call.
    The food and family together sounds fantastic, that's what I miss without my Mum.
    However, we will have some fun, and a Skype call to get the family together.
    Merry Christmas Lola!

  6. It's all about celebrating with the family! Enjoy!

  7. The menu sounds amazing (of course). I found that cutting back helped me enjoy Christmas much more too. There's only so much a person can fit over the holidays without going insane!

  8. How wonderful it would be to spend one Christmas in Italy! Your home sounds like a warm and wonderful place, so much fun and filled with the most mouth watering food at the holiday.

    Blessings to you and your family at Christmas.

  9. I love the menus!
    I also wonder why we have to be so excessive at this time of the year. . . but we don't ever change do we?
    We have warm sunny days in South Africa at Christmas and I'm doing Limoncello Champagne with Panattone as one of the aperitifs at our communal friends lunch tomorrow.
    Enjoy your Festivities!!
    Greetings from a hot Johannesburg

  10. Merry Christmas Lola, I'm thrilled you found your Christmas Spirit. Yes, it is all about the kids including the little kid in all of us. RG

  11. I would never ever let today go by without saying a Merry Christmas to my favourite cook.

    Merry Christmas darling Lola.

    I think your cookbook has to come out like your posts. It has to be a storybook/cookbook. It will be unique and different and I believe in the person who is going to make it happen.

    Merry Christmas.

    Love Renee xoxo

  12. You are absolutely right about the over commercialism and what the main focus should be.
    Enjoy your Chrismas my friend and I wish you a Happy New Year also ~ Eddie x

  13. I think you've summed up what's gone wrong with Christmas perfectly, along with recognising just what it should be!
    Erm... there are, however, certain critters in my garden who are feeling thoroughly unhappy with your Christmas day menu...
    Hope you had a lovely day, Lola! xxx

  14. We had a wonderful family day and yes, we have all that food you have only I tend to spread it along the week. But we still have heaps of leftovers so that I don't have to cook for a while!

    Tanti Auguri and great sex to you too!

  15. Lovely post and I wish I was sitting at your table!

  16. What an absolutly gorgeous post Lola, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and that Santa was good to little E (and you!).

  17. With the recession hitting our business very hard, our Christmas gifting was extremely sparse...and then, it snowed, and the whole city stopped. It was one of the most beautiful Christmases ever...calm, peaceful, and full of spite of missing my parents...truly, a Christmas without commercialism is stunningly beautiful!!! Thank you for this soulful, and tenderly written reminder Lola!!! You are simply the BEST!!!! Love you!!! Janine XOXO

    Hope your Christmas was as magical and special as you are!!! Love, J.

  18. Oh Lola - I'm glad you found your Christmas spirit in the end. Mine was lacking this year -perhaps it will return for Xmas 2010.

    In the meantime have a happy new year and may 2010 bring you only lovely things


  19. Wow, this is the first post on your blog I am reading and it's wonderful. I am glad you figured out the over-done attitudes of Natale these days. Here in the States it's no different with the commecialism. I am bookmarking your blog and will probably link it from my own. Do you mind?

  20. The gingerbread house is so pretty! How did you make it? I hope you found the Christmas spirit in the end. It's easy to get lost in the commercial Christmas and forget what really matters.

  21. Oh Lola I missed this post somehow. Good grief.
    I am glad you found your Christmas spirit. It wasn't really lost but merely sleeping.
    I cut back on many things every year. I plan big but I don't hesitate to drop things that are going to make me crazy.
    In the end we have a relaxed event full of Christmas spirit. It is a good thing to teach Mr. E as I am sure you know. He is such a sweetheart.