By Romina Monaco
Growing up Italian in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon area was a bit of a challenge for me. Especially at Christmas time. After the holiday season my friends and I would congregate during school recess and discuss not only the fabulous gifts received but also the delectable food enjoyed. As I listened to them discuss their traditional Christmas dinner which usually consisted of ham or turkey I knew that mentioning mine would not only be confusing, but futile. Could they even comprehend it all? How could I explain the multiple course meal consisting of bizarre foods such as cannelloni, fried calamari, and lamb as well as the slew of side dishes and desserts that accompany this extravaganza? So for many years I kept these uncommon culinary customs to myself but thankfully today, with the popularity of Italian cuisine featured on television cooking shows including the sale of Italian products in local supermarkets, these dishes have become mainstream.
The delicacies served during an Italian Christmas are endless and the variety reflects each distinct region. However, the one thing that all Italians have in common is the abundant quantity of food that’s prepared - usually several weeks in advance. It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t just a one-day event. The lengthy culinary marathon kicks off Christmas Eve with generous helpings of fish and seafood, a tradition stemming from the Roman Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on specific holidays. While Pavarotti’s thundering arias play in the background, excited loved ones bite into mouthwatering linguini with clam sauce, grilled calamari and baccala, better known as cod fish.
Once the previous evening meal has been digested and the gifts have been exchanged it’s time to feast all over again on Christmas Day. Stewed, braised and grilled meat dishes follow a vast antipasto and medley of primi such as ravioli in chicken broth, stuffed pasta shells, and tortellini with ricotta cheese. Let’s not forget the endless stream of side dishes such as broiled tomatoes filled with herbed rice, rapini and string beans with garlic and lemon juice. Wine is also a very important staple but you can forget drinking what’s in the liquor store. This is a perfect opportunity for the family’s male contenders to compete over which homemade wine rightfully deserves to be poured at the Christmas table.
Despite all these scrumptious edibles, Christmas still wouldn’t be complete without dates, prickly pears and roasted chestnuts. Calabrian mothers prepare heaping trays of deep-fried honey cookies such as turdille and scalidde. Hailing from northern Italy I prefer our very own invention, panettone. This sweet bread tastes even better with decadent mascarpone cream and a sparkling glass of spumante. To top it all off there’s nothing like some chewy torrone, honey and nut nougat, as well as some caffe’ coretto, espresso spiked with either a shot of grappa or sambuca liqueur. So whether you’re an ethnic food aficionado, marrying into a big Italian family or you’ve just befriended an Italian who has invited you over for the holiday season get ready to loosen your belt and enjoy the culinary ride!