In Italy, the holiday meal spans three days – December 24th (La Vigilia), December 25th (Natale) and December 26th (Santo Stefano). In keeping with the Catholic custom of not eating red meat on Christmas Eve, the dinner on La Vigilia is seafood-based, whereas on the 25th, it’s common to eat a filled pasta, like lasagne or ravioli. On Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day), people often eat tortellini in brodo – something light to counteract the giant dinners of the preceding nights. Yes, the giant dinners – it’s also customary to give gifts of food during this season, most commonly panettone, as well as other sweets and salumi. It’s wonderful in theory, but can get to be a bit much when you’re getting panettone from everyone you know. Thanks, COVID – we received just one Christmas box and it was more than enough to keep us going.
Our three-day pandemic Italian Christmas season menu for two:
La Viglia (Christmas Eve)
- Antipasto: Battuta di gamberi rossi (red shrimp crudo)
- Primo: Tagliolini limone e pepe con gamberi rossi e pistacchio di Bronte (lemon pepper tagliolini with red shrimp and Bronte pistachios)
- Secondo: Baccalà fritto con patate, peperoni, e olive nere (fried codfish with potatoes, peppers, and black olives; a typical Christmas Eve dish in Calabria)
We went traditional for the secondo, but went a little out of the box for the antipasto and primo, since we were cooking for just ourselves. We did most of our cooking and prepping on the 24th, as a pot of Guatemalan ponche de frutas simmered on the stove. There are no photos of the baccalà because we didn’t make it to the secondo – we had way too much pasta and couldn’t bring ourselves to do much more than freeze the cod for another day, and pick at the potatoes. Which were great, thx.
Natale (Christmas Day)
Here, we combined traditions from both our families. My parents always made ravioli ricotta e spinaci (ravioli with spinach and ricotta) for Christmas Day, so we rolled out a batch of those, and served them with his mother’s ragù. We added a touch of burrata and some crushed walnuts to the ripieno for the ravioli, just to put our own special spin on the dish.
The cut of meat we used for the ragù is called gamboncello in Calabria and that’s how we refer to it, but when it came time to have the butcher set some aside for us, we realized that neither of us knew what it’s called in Italian. After a bit of linguistic detective work, we learned that this delectable cut of meat is called campanello in Terracinese and gallinella di vitello in Italian. It’s super tender, and sniff-testing the ragù is like dunking your head in paradise.
Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s Day)
Our final holiday meal was easy peasy, because I’d made the broth on the 23rd and we’d made the tortellini (classic Bolognese, with mortadella, crudo, lonza, and parmigiano) a few weeks ago, on a rainy day. They froze perfectly and, fittingly, were just the ticket on this freezing day.
The broth was by far the best broth I’ve ever made, and it was all due to a mistake. When I called my butcher to reserve the gamboncello for our ragù, I used the Italian term – gallinella. Either the butcher didn’t know it, or he assumed I – a stoopit ferner – was mixed up, so when we went to pick up the meat, we found that he had reserved us some gallina – hen – instead. After we got it sorted out, we took both the gallinella and the gallina home. I used the gallina for our broth, not expecting it to be much different from the regular chicken I’ve always used. But I will always use hen from now on, forever, because the flavor I got from that old bird was phenomenal.
Turns out that the old Italian adage – gallina vecchia fa buon brodo (an old hen makes for a good broth) – isn’t just about MILFs.
Merry everything, you hungry animals.