Today Christmas is celebrated in much the same way in Italy as it is in most other western countries, and this is also largely true when it comes to the food. However, in Italy strong regional or even local traditions have a habit of displaying remarkable vigour, and this is the moment when grannies and unmarried aunts still take to the kitchen to produce delicious and labour-intensive treats, the excessive consumption of which leads to that extra weight that is so hard to remove come January.
The staples of dried fruit, pandoro and panettone have no place in this article, and for reasons of space it will be confined to Rome and its province, leaving no room for other regional delights such as the Neapolitan insalata di rinforzo, whose principal ingredient is cauliflower and which serves as a sort of vegetable prairie oyster (raw egg and Worcester sauce), in that its consumption gives the eater the strength to go on guzzling.
The first of the big family get-togethers is on Christmas Eve for a repast in which the principal ingredient is fish and no meat, and which is therefore technically magro (lean, suited to a day of fasting), although this is a somewhat misleading term given the quantities that are actually eaten. The meal may begin with a relatively light antipasto, such as a fresh seafood salad, crostini with a little smoked fish, salmon eggs, or caviar for the seriously indulgent. In traditional Roman households this is followed by a frittura mista, principally vegetarian, with perhaps a bit of baccal (salted cod), and it is in the frying that the grannies and aunts come into their own. One batter for the whole frittura mista is not considered enough it needs at least three, according to what is being battered. See below for the minimum selection.
Then on with the fish, and now things get serious, moving through spaghetti alle vongole, or spaghetti allastice, or penne with salmon or tuna, or a fishy risotto, to a main course, drawn from a wide selection ranging from humble anchovies and cozze alla marinara (mussels), to the doubtful pleasure of farmed salmon, the very real pleasure of wild sea-bass or other large fish suitable for poaching, baking, steaming or grilling. There may even be eel cooked in various ways. Those with a really strong digestion might go for a frittura di pesce, a mixture of fried fresh fish, all accompanied by a salad or boiled broccoli with a little oil and lemon juice. At this point Neapolitans will help themselves to a bit of insalata di rinforzo to restore stamina, but Romans will prosaically shift position and let out their belts before moving on to pan forte, pan giallo, torrone, tozzetti, amaretti, brutti e buoni, nociata (all varieties of cakes and biscuits), nougats, nuts and dried and fresh fruit, which constitute dessert. Then, wreathed in virtue at having restricted itself to such a magra meal, off goes the family to midnight Mass.
The food on Christmas Day itself is more recognisable to Anglo-Saxons a thin and delicious broth with agnolotti or tortellini will be followed by poultry, often a capon but without bread sauce, although nothing of that creation so puzzling to Italians, Christmas pudding.
New Year brings a bit more of the same but since the grannies and aunts of the family will have been re-consigned to wherever they emerged from for their day of glory, the meal is rather less elaborate. There is always that additional element of lentils, accompanied by cotecchino (a boiled salame-shaped favourite of spiced, minced pork and pig skin) or zampone (pigs trotter filled with cotecchino mixture, also boiled), home-made versions of which can still be found.
A few recipes:
1. Sliced artichokes, courgettes, aubergines, mushrooms and apple. Carefully roll the vegetables in flour, dip in beaten egg mixed with salt and a little water or milk, fry in deep oil.
2. Florets of broccoli, potato slices (both should be lightly pre-boiled) and pieces of baccal. Make a smooth batter with 90 g flour, one beaten egg, salt, pepper and 15 g yeast dissolved in a little warm water. Stand in a warm place for 30 minutes until mixture becomes frothy. Dip each item into batter and fry in deep oil.
3. Bite-sized mozzarelle and stuffed olives. Roll in flour, dip in beaten egg, roll in breadcrumbs. Fry in deep oil.
Nociata: (as made by Maria Vallati from the village of Licenza near Tivoli).
Take equal weight of walnut kernels and honey (try 250 g of each). Chop the kernels finely, removing all trace of the shell (not that external skin) and put aside. Put the honey into a heavy pan and bring slowly to the boil, then boil fast, stirring occasionally until it reaches the caramel stage; at this point it is rapidly getting darker and a blob dropped into a cup of cold water hardens immediately. Quickly stir in the walnuts and cook until golden, stirring all the time, as the mixture burns very easily. Pour onto a slab of lightly oiled marble (ideally), quickly flatten with a rolling pin and leave to set. While it is still hot, cut into small diamond shapes and let cool. Take each diamond and sandwich between one clean, dry bay leaf above and one below. Store in tin when cold.
If you cant make your own:
Homemade torrone: Pasticceria Bernasconi, Piazza B. Cairoli 16 (near Campo de Fiori), tel. 066880664. This exquisite creation is made just from honey, sugar, egg whites and almonds or pistachios, and is an absolute revelation to those used to the fluffy, artificially perfumed, industrial variety. However, strong teeth are required.
l Marrons glacs: Giulio Giuliani, Via Paolo Emilio 67/67A (Prati), tel. 063243548, 063243654. The shop makes its own very large marrons glacs.
l Smoked wild salmon: La Corte, Via della Gatta 1 (Piazza Collegio Romano), tel. 066783842.
l Homemade zampone: Volpetti, Via Marmorata 47 (Testaccio), tel. 065742352, or Flli. Carilli, Via di Torre Argentina 11-12 (historic centre), tel. 0668803789 (wonderfully old-fashioned norcineria (pork butcher).