This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
What do Italians eat for Christmas? There are a lot of misconceptions about how we spend the holidays and how is Christmas celebrated in Italy. Let me introduce you to the best Italian Christmas food you should eat on your next trip to Italy! As a local foodie – and someone who loves Christmas – I have a number of useful tips for you. I used Italian names and translated them in English so you can recognize the food on the menu: it’ll be super easy to order!
Italian celebrations – what you should know
One of the things Italians love the most is sitting at a table with their family to enjoy a scrumptious meal. Homemade food helps people to bond: so many of us – me included – grew up learning how to cook with their cousins and grandmas. It was always such a lot of fun!
Many people attend mass at midnight, after having had a very long Christmas eve dinner with their family. If you’re spending a few days in Rome, be aware that Vatican City will be very crowded. Yet you can attend mass at every Church, even the smallest one in the tiniest town will in fact have a midnight mass.
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The following day, among the Italian family traditions, there’s a Christmas lunch, during which people exchange gifts. Some of us, especially in the South, like to spend the time between the Christmas eve dinner and the midnight mass exchanging gifts. It’s a family tradition, not really a fixed rule.
Since the Christmas lunch is usually huge and very long, we generally skip dinner (yet some restaurants might still be open).
On Boxing Day we have yet another lunch, and we eat some of our best Italian Christmas food – at night, and for quite a few days, Italians generally eat leftovers from the previous days. We always cook too much (you know how Italian nonne and mamme can be – they get carried away) and we hate for our food to go to waste!
Another thing you should know is that a good part of the Italian Christmas food is exclusively prepared for the Christmas holidays. Which means that you won’t find it if you visit Italy on any other occasion.
Note: While a lot of shops and restaurants will be closed, some will stay open. Big supermarkets and malls are usually always open, in case you need to buy something. Be aware that reserving a table at any restaurant is mandatory: many are fully booked weeks in advance!
Christmas pasta and main dishes
It’s no surprise that pasta in Italy is always on the table, no matter what.
Whether it’s handmade pasta or not, every region has its own recipes, which entail seafood or meat sauce. There’s just one rule: all the ingredients have to be fresh!
In Piedmont the Italian Christmas food you should never say no to is Agnolotti con sugo d’arrosto, a traditional type of pasta filled with roasted meat and served with veal sauce.
Christmas pasta filled with meat is cooked especially in the Northern regions: in Liguria you could order Ravioli alla genovese, which are similar to Agnolotti con sugo d’arrosto, if only for the fact that the sauce in Liguria uses a mix of different meats.
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Not every type of filled pasta has to be served with a super rich sauce. Cappelletti in brodo are similar to tortellini but smaller: they are served with a light broth in Tuscany, Emilia Romagna and Lazio.
The vegetarian friends eating in Italy at Christmas will be able to enjoy delicious Tortelli di zucca (tortelli pasta filled with pumpkin) in Lombardia and Emilia Romagna. Beware of the fact that there are eggs in the traditional recipe so vegans will not be able to enjoy traditional tortelli.
Filled pasta in Italy comes also in the form of Lasagne, which are served during the holidays in Emilia Romagna (we eat them in Naples as well, but not at Christmas).
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The Central and Southern regions have different kinds of Italian Christmas food which revolve around pasta served with a rich (and delicious) sauce.
In Marche you can find Vincisgrassi, which look like lasagna but are served with a rich sauce made with chicken, Italian pancetta, ground pork and beef.
If you’re visiting Calabria you should absolutely try Scilatelle con ragù: it’s handmade pasta which is prepared with a long iron skewer. Grandmas make this kind of pasta for days so their large families can eat as much as they want!
Lazio serves Lasagna or Cannelloni (a cylindrical type of lasagna, filled with meat and covered with tomato sauce) and Sardegna has Culurgiones, which are ravioli served with a savory tomato sauce. Even Sicily has Timballo di anelletti, which looks like some sort of “pasta cake” with a savory meat sauce.
Gnocchi, that you might recognize as Italian dumplings, are served in Friuli, where you can order Gnocchi di susine (filled with plums), in Marche, as they make yummy Gnocchi ripieni alla marchigiana (filled with meat), and also in Sardegna, where you have to look for “Malloreddus“, a type of gnocchi with a longer shape.
The coastal regions usually serve traditional Italian Christmas food with fish and seafood.
In my region, Campania, for example, we eat Spaghetti con le vongole (spaghetti with clams) during our Christmas eve dinner.
In Lazio you will find Pasta e broccoli in brodo di arzilla which is pasta served with Romanesco broccoli and thornback ray meat.
In Calabria (and also on the Amalfi Coast) you should order Spaghetti con alici and mollica, served with anchovies and breadcrumbs.
While in Sicily, make sure you eat a dish my parents absolutely love: Pasta con le sarde, made with sardines.
The lovers of Italian risotto should order Risotto al radicchio in Veneto, made with fresh chicory.
One of our favorite dishes in Veneto is also Risotto all’Amarone (which is served throughout the year), made with Amarone della Valpolicella wine, produced in Valpolicella, near Verona.
Christmas food in Italy can be particularly different from what you’re used to.
If you don’t feel like eating pasta, your main dish could be something like Canederli in brodo, or with burro fuso or with Ragù di carne. Canederli are cooked in Trentino Alto Adige, and are the Italian Knodel, bread dumplings also found in Friuli Venezia Giulia and part of Veneto.
Beware: they are incredibly filling!
Having a deep fried main dish at Christmas is definitely a thing in Puglia. In case you’re visiting you should absolutely try the famous Pettole (deep fried pasta fritters filled with tomatoes, capers, oregano and anchovies).
Another delicious dish from Puglia that you can also find throughout the year is Panzerotti fritti. Cheap and delicious, they look like a small calzone but are filled with different ingredients (the most popular filling is tomatoes, oregano, parmesan and scamorza or mozzarella cheese) and deep fried. They are usually very cheap and have to be eaten scorching hot!
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As you might have noticed, during the holidays in Italy you will definitely eat a lot. Yet be aware: ordering a soup isn’t always a good idea. Not all of them are light and easy on the stomach, even if they are absolutely exquisite!
Abruzzo brings Brodo di cardi e volarelle on the table at Christmas. It’s made with chicken stock, chicken meat, eggs, ground beef, pecorino cheese and thistles.
Valle d’Aosta (Aosta Valley) also has a delicious, delicious soup which is very filling. The original Minestra di Natale recipe reflects perfectly this Northern region. It’s made with cauliflower, savoy cabbage, fontina cheese, beef stock, cinnamon and nutmeg: all the flavours and scents mix together in a truly unique dish, usually only served during the holidays.
Campania has Minestra maritata, which is very filling and difficult to prepare. My mother cooks for days to make sure all the ingredients are perfectly combined together!
Minestra maritata is made of five different herbs and vegetables: chicory, endive, savoy cabbage, borage and bitter chicory. The vegetables “marry” (as in “maritata”) the meat: chicken, beef, sausages (also the spicy ones) and different parts of pork, simmering for hours on low.
As I mentioned, it’s a very traditional dish that not many restaurants serve anymore because it takes so long to make: if you see it on the menu, by all means, try it!
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Note: Minestra maritata (or “Menesta maritata” in Neapolitan dialect) is very filling and we eat it as a main dish at home because we consume also all the meat… for quite a few days. Did I mention our grandmas cook a lot of food?
In Basilicata you should try Minestra di scarole e verza, which is a soup made with endive and savoy cabbage, cooked in beef stock and served with cheese.
Italian Christmas food – Traditional dishes for the meat lovers
The meat lovers who are visiting Italy for the Christmas holidays should add quite a lot of dishes to their food bucket list.
The Northern regions love to eat Carbonade (which can be prepared in different ways), a delicious stew cooked with Italian red wine that has to simmer on low for hours to make sure the meat is tender and savory. It’s considered possibly the main Italian Christmas food if you’re traveling anywhere in the North of the Country.
Piedmont loves Bollito misto con polenta. It’s a traditional Italian Christmas food with a recipe that has been preserved for hundreds of years. Traditionally it had to be prepared for at least twelve people, because it was to be shared with friends and relatives.
Bollito misto has to be prepared with seven different cuts of beef, and it’s boiled for hours with spices and vegetables. To that, seven more cuts will be added. The fourteen cuts will be served with seven different sauces, Italian polenta and a strong wine like Barbera or Dolcetto.
Those who are visiting Friuli Venezia Giulia should try Brovada e muset, a particularly rich dish made with turnips, polenta and Italian cotechino. The traditional recipe is protected by DOP (Protected Designation of origin) certification and is part of the Italian family traditions in Friuli.
Restaurants in Friuli will also serve Trippa con sugo e formaggio (tripe with tomato sauce and cheese) and Cappone (capon) during the festivities.
If you’re planning to celebrate Christmas in Trentino or the Dolomites, you will find Capriolo al forno everywhere. The marinated roe deer meat is usually cooked in the oven for hours and then served with seasonal vegetables and of course polenta.
Capriolo dishes are very popular in the mountain retreats and the Northern regions so you will probably find them on the menu throughout the year.
The Italian Christmas eve dinner in Liguria has Faraona al forno con carciofi on the table. The savory guinea fowl meat is perfect with the artichokes. Usually it’s one of the main dishes of the night because it has to be well decorated (and particularly rich) to impress the family.
Note: while it’s very filling, this is a very healthy recipe because it’s usually cooked without a drop of salt and with just the right amount of olive oil!
The lucky ones who will spend the Christmas holidays in Tuscany should add Bardiccio to their foodie bucket list. Some also know this dish thanks to a funny nickname “Salsiccia matta” (“crazy sausage” in Italian). It’s a dark sausage prepared with pork meat, using “unusual” cuts like the heart. It’s a “Presidio Slow Food“, and one of the most traditional holiday dishes in Tuscany.
Bardiccio is generally charbroiled and served with Tuscany bread and Chianti Rufina wine.
Bologna and the whole Emilia Romagna region are where you should eat lots and lots of Italian cured meats like prosciutto, mortadella, salame and more. These are generally served every day of the year, often as an antipasto.
Find them on the menu as “Tagliere di affettati” or ask your server about them!
During the Christmas holidays Emilia Romagna likes to eat two of their traditional dishes: Cotechino di Modena or Zampone. Cotechino is an Italian large pork sausage which has to be simmered at low heat for hours. Zampone derives from the trotter of a pig and a mix of boiled lean meats, with belly and neck fat.
Both are served with lentils.
Note: we do serve cotechino or zampone with lentils for good luck also in Naples. It’s a very traditional food we eat for New Year in Italy, usually at midnight.
Lentils in fact represent abundance and are believed to bring good luck and money.
Abbacchio al forno con patate is a traditional dish in Lazio which is prepared at Christmas and Easter. It’s lamb meat, which is very lean and white-ish, cooked in the oven for hours and usually served with roasted potatoes.
Agnello (“lamb” in Italian) is a quite popular dish which is usually always on the table during the Italian celebrations, whether it’s Christmas or Easter.
Usually at Christmas it’s a specialty dish in Abruzzo (you should order “Agnello arrosto” to have it charbroiled), and Puglia. In this second region you will find “Agnello al forno con lampascioni“, which is lamb roasted in the oven and served with tiny wild onions (known as “lampascioni pugliesi“), traditionally cooked in Puglia.
You can also buy mason jars full of lampascioni and olive oil as a delicious souvenir from Italy: make sure you put them in your checked baggage and that you can import them in your Country!
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Capretto al forno is a similar dish you can eat in Calabria, one of the traditional Italian Christmas foods people can’t live without. It’s goat meat roasted in the oven, usually served with potatoes, sweet peas and onions.
I’m sure you’ve already read a lot about this dish, but Sardegna is super famous in the whole world for the “Porcetto con il mirto“. While you can find this dish throughout the year, in Sardegna it’s usually part of those Italian family traditions that people love to revive for Christmas.
Porcetto is a piglet roasted on a fire pit. The meat inside is very tender and seasoned with spices and myrtle leaves (the scent is mouthwatering), while the outside is crunchy and fatty: divine!
Traditional Italian Christmas dinner – fish and seafood
Many wonder how is Christmas celebrated in Italy, especially in the South. Some even believe we have pizza on the table for the holidays!
Actually, Christmas in Naples means eating lots and lots of fish and seafood. Fresh, local ingredients are mandatory: many of our fish dishes are the kind of Italian Christmas food you exclusively eat during the festivities.
A popular antipasto in Naples is Pizzelle di pasta cresciuta con baccalà. Throughout the year you can find the pizzelle with algae or with vegetables. At Christmas we add codfish bites to a puff pastry which is chewy and soft. Some think it’s the same dough we use to make pizza, but it’s not!
Deep fried codfish is another staple in the Neapolitan cuisine during the Christmas holidays (my family adds it to the Christmas eve dinner menu), followed by deep fried eel, squids and shrimps.
Eel in particular is a type of fish that has been used in the Neapolitan cuisine for centuries. In the ancient city of Pompeii in fact there were a lot of hatcheries: eels were considered a delicacy for the rich Roman families living their best life here in the South.
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Another one of the traditional Italian Christmas dishes we love in Naples is Sautè di vongole (sautéed clams, sometimes with mussels, which is indicated on the menu as “cozze“). It’s delicious and you can find it throughout the year in the best restaurants in Naples.
Puglia is another region which loves to eat fish at Christmas. They also cook eels, but they prefer to have them charbroiled: Anguilla arrostita. Codfish is also widely used in Puglia but they prefer to eat it boiled and paired it with bell peppers.
It’s Baccalà lesso con peperoni cruschi.
The recipe to make peperoni cruschi is peculiar: the bell peppers are sun dried and then deep fried for just a few seconds in a pan full of boiling olive oil. They’re then served with some marine salt on the top.
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I must say that eel is not only appreciated in the Southern regions. In Lombardia you can eat Anguilla al cartoccio: the eel is cooked in foil in the oven, with onions, lemon juice and spices.
The only thing you should be always aware of is that eel is a very fatty kind of fish. Not everyone likes it! Yet the Anguilla al cartoccio recipe is possibly the less fatty way to cook eels, because they remove the fatty skin.
Lazio and Veneto share the same love for Baccalà (codfish), served in several ways, and in Lazio you might also be lucky enough to find eel on the menu (only in selected restaurants).
Stoccafisso (dried cod) is a different way to preserve codfish. In Calabria for Christmas they prepare Stoccafisso con patate, which is served with creamy potatoes.
Emilia Romagna, and in particularly Modena, prepares a traditional Italian Christmas dinner with Spaghetti con tonno, sgombro, acciughe e pomodoro. Spaghetti are cooked with a sauce made with sweet tomato, fresh tuna, mackerel bites and anchovies.
It’s a savory, healthy and pretty rich sauce that you should enjoy with an Italian white wine.
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If you’re planning a trip to Molise for the Christmas holidays, you will find Brodetto alla termolese on the menu. It’s a kind of fish soup prepared with clams, mussels and over two kilos of fishes like squids, shrimps, cod and much more.
The Brodetto alla termolese is served with bruschetta or toasted bread.
Last but not least, our beloved Sicily loves to eat Sarde a beccafico for Christmas. Sardines are marinated with bread crumbs, raisins, anchovies, garlic, sugar, salt, parsley and pine nuts. It’s a unique mix of sweet and savory that you should absolutely add to your bucket list if you’ve never tried it before!
Another staple of the Sicily cuisine for the holidays is Insalata di arance con aringa e cipolla, which is an orange salad with sardines and onions. This dish represents a bit of everything that grows or is fished in Sicily!
Christmas desserts in Italy you should absolutely eat
Now, the chapter that everyone was waiting for: sweets, pastries and Christmas delicacies!
Pastries and the likes are very much part of the Italian Christmas food, as most of them are traditional and only prepared during the Christmas holidays.
This means that if you’ve planned to spend the holidays in Italy, you should not only eat as much as you can, but also buy some that you can bring home!
Piedmont for example has Torrone d’Alba, which is a confection made with honey, sugar, egg white and toasted almonds. You can buy it in every supermarket (torrone is also very traditional in Naples and other Southern regions), and it’s a perfect Italian souvenir.
Another cake you should try in Piedmont is Torta di nocciole e zabaione, with hazelnuts (those in Piedmont are absolutely delicious) and eggnog. Very Christmassy!
In Friuli Venezia-Giulia one of the traditional Christmas cakes is Gubana, which is sometimes also baked at Easter. This puff pastry cake is filled with huts, raisins, pine nuts, sugar, Italian grappa and lemon.
Trentino Alto-Adige and Tirol on the contrary love Strudel (which is the same strudel you can eat in Prague) and Zelten, a cake made with raisins, almonds, nuts, candied fruit, honey, oranges, rhum, white wine, spices and dried figs.
Because it’s very complicated to bake Zelten, not many families make it at home anymore: they prefer to buy it for Christmas.
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If you’re going to spend Christmas or the New Year in Valle d’Aosta, there are a couple of options for you, both delicious. One is Pere cotte, which are baked pears covered in a syrup made with sugar, vanilla, cloves and red wine.
The other one is the delicious Tegole valdostane, thin cookies that you usually have to eat with Caffè alla grappa (Italian espresso with grappa).
Many Italian regions eat chewy desserts at Christmas.
In Liguria you will find Pandolce con Rossese di Dolceacqua, a chewy cake that you should eat while drinking the Rossese di Dolceacqua wine.
In Emilia Romagna there’s a similar cake, Panone Bolognese, which is made with quince, honey, dark chocolate chunks and dried figs.
Umbria and Tuscany share the unique Panpepato, only baked for Christmas, with chocolate, dried fruit, cinnamon, nuts and nutmeg.
Actually in Tuscany Panpepato usually goes with Panforte, which is very much like Panpepato, only with mostly white ingredients. Ricciarelli are also part of the Italian Christmas food we all love: pastries with almonds and sugar that will melt in your mouth.
Panpepato, Panforte and Ricciarelli are sold in every supermarket in Italy, but only during the Christmas holidays. While they aren’t as good as the handmade ones you can find in Tuscany, they’re still delicious so give them a try!
My personal favorites are Ricciarelli. Yum!
Those of you who have been reading about the traditional Italian Christmas food surely know about Panettone and Pandoro.
Panettone was born in Lombardia and is a type of sweet bread, with raisins and candied fruit. The traditional panettone was first baked in Milan. While you can find panettone in every supermarket in Italy, nothing compares to a slice of artisanal panettone in Milan. I encourage you to find panettone even if you’re only spending one day in Milan during the holidays: it will be worth your time.
A tip for those of you who don’t like candied fruit (like me and Aldo): you can ask for Panettone senza canditi to eat the original panettone without candied fruit (only with raisins).
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Pandoro on the contrary is a tall and sweet yeast bread, shaped like an eight-pointed star and covered in powdered sugar. The original recipe is from Verona, but nowadays you can find Pandoro in many Italian cities (even families in the Southern regions now bake Pandoro at home) and in every supermarket. There are many different types: Panettone with chocolate chips, Panettone with custard or with pistachio custard… beware, it can be addictive!
Marche has its own version of Panettone, which is known as Pizza de Natà (as in “Christmas pizza“, even if it isn’t a real pizza).
The original recipe was created in the countryside, as the peasants used to bake this cake with what they could grow themselves.
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Pizza de Natà is a type of sweet bread made with olive oil, nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, raisins, dried figs, lemon and orange. While the traditional recipe is not very sweet, the modern version includes chocolate chips or cocoa powder.
Fried pastries are also popular dishes in Italy at Christmas.
Abruzzo has Caggionetti, which look like cookies filled with almonds, cinnamon, chocolate and chestnuts. Only in stead than being baked, they are deep fried and served with powdered sugar on the top.
Sardinia prepares Seadas, deep fried pastries filled with cheese, lemon and honey.
We have relatives in Puglia who always bring us Cartellate, a type of pastry that every mother and grandmother has to deep fry during the Christmas holidays. Even if it takes forever to prepare the thin pastry, and then to give it the shape of a rose, they still make hundreds of them, as it’s traditional to gift Cartellate to friends and relatives.
The traditional toppings are honey and must.
Note: The original Cartellate are difficult to find, as they are usually handmade as a family tradition. Some restaurants might sell them, but they spoil after a few days, losing their crunchiness, so they’re not a good souvenir: eat them while in Italy!
Another traditional Christmas food in Puglia is Porcedduzzi, tiny puff pastries made with white wine or liquor, deep fried and covered with honey, nuts, cinnamon and almonds.
The Italian Christmas eve dinner in Basilicata wouldn’t be the same without Calzoncelli. Two dishes of puff pastry filled with chestnuts custard cream and deep fried. Not overly sweet and yet absolutely delicious because they always use local chestnuts – Christmas is the best period to eat chestnuts in Italy!
My region, Campania, has Struffoli. Believe me, if you’re visiting Naples or the Amalfi Coast for Christmas, you really don’t want to miss Struffoli.
These tiny dumplings are deep fried, then covered with honey and sprinkles. They have to be crunchy and stick to your fingers, or they’re not the traditional ones!
In Naples it’s not Christmas without struffoli: they are prepared in every house and only for the Christmas holidays!
Campania is also where you can eat Dolci in pasta di mandorle (pastries made with almonds and sugar), Roccocò (crunchy donut-shaped pastries with cinnamon, spices and almonds) and Mostaccioli (soft and chewy cookies made with spices, cinnamon and cocoa powder, then covered in chocolate frosting).
As you might be aware, Christmas food in Italy is always delicious, but Sicily definitely goes overboard when it comes to desserts, just like Campania.
In Sicily you should eat the traditional Cannolo (which can be found throughout the year), the Buccellati di Enna (pastries filled with dried figs), the super popular Cassata Siciliana (also found throughout the year and often shipped to Naples as well), Mustazzoli (similar to Neapolitan Mostaccioli) and Cubbaita, which is similar to Torrone d’Alba.
Can vegetarians and vegans eat in Italy during the holidays?
Now that you’ve read all about what do Italians eat for Christmas, you might be worried sick.
Will you find vegetarian or vegan dishes during the holidays?
The honest truth, by a local, is that you might not be able to eat many traditional Italian Christmas dishes. While there are a few vegetarian options, some of them include eggs or other animal products so if you’re vegan they’re not good for you.
The positive thing is that in Italy we often cook using olive oil in stead than butter.
Yet whenever you’re in doubt, always ask your server!
In case you’re worried you might not find much to eat, contact your hotel or a restaurant you want to go to, and check with them if there are vegan options.