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What do Romans eat during the holidays, anyway?

Published on December 23, 2018 by C. P.

Cappelletti ravioli tortellini Christmas lunch traditional

Whether you’re visiting Rome as a part of a longer travel through Italy and were not aware of the local Christmas tradition, or you got here specifically for the purpose of being a witness to it, the fact remains that the Roman cuisine at this time of the year is both an exception and exceptional.

The usual menus and those meals you could be enjoying any day of the week get discarded for a while, and restaurants as well as mamme & nonne at home will go all in, preparing scrumptions meals that would not be out of place at a wedding reception, and in many instances are only served for a couple of days a year. So say goodbye to your bucatini or saltimbocca dreams, and enjoy the different food at this time of the year!

On Christmas Eve

The average Italian tries to go for a simple sandwich or salad at lunch, while the traditional dinner on Christmas Eve involves only fish-based dishes. Nothing to do with the so-called “Feast of the seven dishes” – hardly anyone has heard about it in Italy, and it remains an Italian-American tradition, probably derived and adapted from this very occasion.

The dinner will begin with a series of appetizers including pickled vegetables such as eggplant, mushrooms, peppers and more; insalata russa, which is a local version of coleslaw, along with marinated anchovies, smoked salmon on toast or prawn cocktail. Octopus salad may make an appearance, too.

Many people skip the appetizers and go for the main dishes: spaghetti in clam sauce, lobster linguine or other such variations which can include mussels, salmon or tuna-based sauces.

The meal will be followed by a roasted or fried fish: sea bass, codfish, turbot – whatever is fresh from the market on that day. Shrimp or other types of crustaceans may also be on the menu. These dishes are accompanied by the famous “fritto alla romana“, which is traditional to the city and includes fried zucchini, artichokes and broccoli. The meal ends with a selection of desserts that are also traditional to this time of the year: we will detail the most well known of these in a dedicated post!

On Christmas Day

Meat-based dishes show up at lunch on Christmas day.  Traditionally speaking, this meal begins quietly enough, with a stracciatella soup (a meat broth with beaten egg shreds). This type of recipe, though, is… facing extinction, along with other staples of the holiday menu, namely roasted capon or eel (the eel would be mostly served on Christmas Eve).

What you will find in spite of the changing times, however, is the pasta. Some families will go for lasagna, some for fettuccine with a meat-based sauce (either a ragù or a tomato-less sauce), but mostly associate the big Roman lunch with cappelletti in brodo, which is a local twist on a traditional Bolognese recipe. These types of tortellini-like pasta come with a chicken filling and are dumped in hot broth. Obviously, proper tortellini are also allowed!

A proper meat course follows, which might consist of roasted lamb or pork shank (or variations of those). Vegetables such as deep fried artichokes or raw puntarelle (the sprouts of a type of chicory) will also be served. If you’ve got any space left, desserts will follow once more: panettone, pandoro, torrone, mostaccioli… so many choices!

On New Year’s Eve

Because of the sheer amount of food prepared, many of the meals following that on Christmas Day consist of leftovers. Restaurants being the sole exception: so you can feel free to try whatever you skipped on in the first place.

Everything changes, however, on New Year’s Eve: again, the menu has rules of its own and is strictly reserved to the dinner of this one day. The pasta or rice dish served as a primo usually disappears in lieu of lenticchie (lentils, steamed or cooked as a risotto) which are usually served together or right before a zampone (pig’s trotter). As an alternative to the latter, cotechino can also be eaten, which is a sausage containing the trotter itself.

These dishes are said to be able to keep bad luck at bay, and should help bring more money in the new year (with each lentil, apparently, resembling a tiny, tiny coin). The important detail: for these to “work”, you have to eat them before midnight!

A more “frugal” affair compared to the Christmas meals of the week before, the dinner on New Year’s Eve is completed with fresh grapes and dried fruits, among them figs, apricots or plums.

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