From the snow-covered huts under Mt. Blanc to the whitewashed trulli ofAlberobello in Puglie, Italian housewives, as Christian housewives everywhere, will soon be shooing everyone out of their kitchen to clear the deck for the readying of Christmas dinners. Food will vary along the thousand-mile stretch of the land, but it will fall neatly into two categories: the pranzo della vigilia-the Christmas Eve supper which will be strictly meatless-and the Christmas Day dinner itself.
Capitone, the big female eel (roasted, but also baked or fried), will figure largely on Christmas Eve not only in Naples and the south, where it is a “must,” but as far north as Chioggi, where most capitoni are bred. The Christmas Eve supper will also feature sott’aceti-an infinite variety of vegetables, mushrooms, fruit rinds, etc., preserved in vinegar and sometimes served with oil and anchovy sauce. Pasta in many varieties of shape and size, with vongole (small clams), will be popular on Christmas Eve tables. No cheese will be allowed to kill the salty tang of the vongole.
The actual Christmas dinner will start practically everywhere with tortellini in brodo (broth). Tortellini-a smaller variety of ravioli but still, basically, a little cushion of pasta stuffed with meat and condiments-are handmade, and what goes into them is generally an individual housewife’s or chef’s secret. Tortelli (without broth) stuffed with pumpkin paste are also used in the north (Venetian country, mostly) on meatless Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Day, capons by the millions will cluck their last, to be served with stuffing. Chestnuts, still plentiful in Italy where the tree has not been blighted, will go along with them. Only in Sicily is turkey considered a Christmas fowl. There it is often stuffed with half-cooked maccheroni, meat, livers, and giblets, and then baked in an oven (often old giant outdoor ovens heated first with a bonfire of twigs and kindling wood). In the north-particularly in Milan-the Christmas capon is often discarded in favor of a mixed boiled dinner of many meats with caper sauce. Also in the north and central Italy zampone, fl fresh pork sausage packed in a pig’s leg, will figure, smothered in lentils.
The Christmas sweets vary from one locality to another even more widely than the rest of the meal. However, the Milanese panettone has in recent years crept down the peninsula, especially since modern packaging has made its fresh delivery possible everywhere. Panettone is an extremely light, brown-crusted, domelike golden cake filled with candied fruit. Homemade panettone takes twenty-four hours in the making. This is the only cake that is better when mass produced by giant mechanical mixers-as even housewives admit. In central Italy, especially in Umbria, pinocchiate and other cakes ffiled with the delicate little white nut of the pine cone are in evidence. Siena’s panforte and a variety of torroni and mandorlate (hard cakes based on figs, almonds, and nuts) run the pinocchiate a close second. As one moves south, figs, almonds, chestnuts, and honey assume increasing popularity in cakes (rococo and mostaccioli in Naples, cuccidati in Sicily . . . ). Everywhere they alternate with strufoli and frappe, ribbons and bows of sweet paste deep-fried in olive oil, which should be so light as to almost blow away. They are sprinkled with powdered sugar and eaten with one’s fingers-dipped in very liquid honey, rum, or alchermes (a sweet liqueur).
In Sicily the cassata-an angel-cake crust filled with frozen whipped cream, currants, and candied fruit-is a Christmas standby. The winter variety of cassata often has ricotta (a creamy, almost tasteless cottage cheese) in place of the whipped cream.