Natale Feasts: Christmas in Italy

3 Traditional Italian Meals to Celebrate the Season

POSTED November 22, 2014

Natale, or Christmas, is one of Italy's most beloved holidays, where each region celebrates three meals with their own line-up of traditional dishes. Take a peek into Italy's rich tradition and get a few ideas for your own holiday feasts.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Cities sparkle, hearts are full and Italians of all ages spend the whole month of December anticipating the great food to come. Natale festivities last from December 24th through January 6th with family gatherings at the top of the list. This is the time of year when families reunite from whatever corners of the world they may have scattered, and it is around the table—or, a tavola—that Italian families come together. When it comes to Christmas in Italy, we celebrate three important meals.

December 24: Christmas Eve Dinner

Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally a light meal with no meat and a lot of seafood. Bring on the sword fish, tuna fish, salmon, octopus salad and the baccalà (salted cod), of course! Along with an abundance of fish, Italians celebrate this meal with simple pasta dishes and meatless antipasti. The "Feast of the Seven Fishes" is an Italian-American celebration derived from this tradition; though, in Italy, the dinner on Christmas Eve wouldn't be called a "feast" but a partial fast.

Every region has its own food traditions. For instance, in Northern Italy, agnolotti and gnocchi are a popular choice—pasta stuffed with ricotta and spinach, potato or pumpkin served in a butter and sage sauce. In Veneto, a classic dish is buckwheat spaghetti seasoned with a delicious cream of anchovies and onions. An exquisite Bagna Cauda is served in Piemonte. As for sweets, some desserts may include biscotti, pandoro, torrone and nearly ways a candied citrus studded loaf of panettone.

December 25: Christmas Day Lunch

This is the most important of the three Natale meals and can last for hours. Unlike Christmas Eve's meal, Christmas Day is typically meat-based. First, the Natale lunch begins with a classic antipasto spread featuring dry cured meats, salumi, fine Italian cheeses, briny olives, artichokes and more. The first course is pasta. Like all food traditions, the dishes and prep vary by region. In Southern and Central Italy, baked pasta is a must. In Northern Italy, Lasagne Bolognese and filled pasta like manicotti and ravioli are traditional Christmas fare. Next comes the main event, the meat. Roasted veal, baked chicken, sausages or braised beef are common Natale entrées worth celebrating.

December 26: Santo Stefano’s Lunch

In Italy on December 26th, lunch carries on the Natale festivities. For this meal, more distant relatives and friends are invited. The meal isn't as indulgent as Christmas lunch, but just as well composed. If there are no new guests to your party, it’s customary to enjoy leftovers, like the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. (Why not try a batch of Fried Baccalà with your leftover salted cod or While there are no particular culinary traditions, Santo Stefano's lunch tends to be less elaborate and much more creative. Now is the time to try some unusual pasta dishes or exotic soups. Also, on this day, restaurants are very popular, offering a refreshing change from days in the kitchen.

Ready to make some family traditions of your own this holiday? (Prefer a slider? Click here.)

Our Favorite Natale Recipes

1. Fried Baccalà

A crispy breaded take on your favorite Christmas cod.

Fried Baccalà

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2. Oven Roasted Baccalà with Potatoes

 Make this hearty baccalà dish one of your seven fishes for the Christmas Eve feast.

Oven-Roasted Baccalà with Potatoes

Get full recipe here! 

3. Baccalà Tomato Sauce with Linguine

Take your tangy tomato sauce to the next level with that famous salted cod at your next holiday feast.

Baccalà Tomato Sauce with Linguine

Get full recipe here! 

4. Buttery Shrimp Cioppino

Seafood lovers, get ready for this one. Buttery, tangy, garlicky and ready for some crusty Italian toast.

Baccalà Tomato Sauce with Linguine

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5. Braised Beef with Borolo Wine Sauce

This is no ordinary beef roast. Big flavors and an exquisite presentation make it the perfect entrée for a holiday celebration.

Braised Beef in Barolo Wine Sauce

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6. Layered Eggplant Parmigiana Lasagna

Who needs noodles when there's crispy fried eggplant? This dish is a meatless, must-try dish for your Christmas get-togethers.

Layered Eggplant Parmigiana Lasagna

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7. Classic Three Cheese Lasagna

You can't go wrong with a cheesy pan of Nonna's lasagna... so why not make your own? This traditional holiday pasta is a must.

Classic Three-Cheese Lasagna

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8. Veal Ossobuco Milanese

This is an uncomplicated, but exquisite dish belonging to a revered Milanese tradition. Slow braising, a good homemade broth and a bit of experience are all you need to make a marvel out of these simple ingredients.

Veal Ossobuco Milanese

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9. Balsamic Citrus Pork Roast

What has your Christmas pork roast been missing? We're guessing it's a rich, sweet and complex balsamic reduction.

Veal Ossobuco Milanese

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10. Baked Olives with Fresh Garlic and Herbs

Scoop up some of your favorites from the olive bar and amp up your antipasto offerings. This easy-to-prepare baked olive dish is like nothing they've ever tasted—a superb holiday indulgence.

Veal Ossobuco Milanese

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11. Torrone Italian Nougat Candy

A sticky, sweet Christmas tradition, this Italian confection is made with just a few simple ingredients.

Torrone: Italian Nougat Candy

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12. Classic Pizzelles

Nothing says Natale like these famous Italian waffle cookies. This family recipe is rumored to be Santa's favorite, so don't forget to save him a few. 

Classic Anise, Vanilla & Chocolate Pizzelles

Get full recipe here! 

Our Favorite Holiday Recipes
Fried Baccalà Oven-Roasted Baccalà with Potatoes Buttery Shrimp & Tomato Cioppino Baked Olives with Fresh Garlic and Herbs Baccalà Tomato Sauce with Linguine Braised Beef in Barolo Wine Sauce Layered Eggplant Parmigiana Lasagna Classic Three-Cheese Lasagna Veal Ossobuco Milanese Torrone: Italian Nougat Candy Classic Anise, Vanilla & Chocolate Pizzelles