Italians pride themselves on their ability to turn even the most mundane occasions into holidays by virtue of their sumptuous cuisine and legendary hospitality. They particularly excel during the Christmas season. Doing that requires preparation - and a love of the traditions that bind all Italians, no matter where on earth they call home.
The truth is, Italians love ritual. It pervades just about everything we do, and is the cornerstone of the way we celebrate the Christmas and New Year holidays. From the way we greet our guests at the door to the foods we serve them, there is a reason for everything and a tradition that commands it. There is virtually no menu planning involved in preparing the dishes for a traditional Italian Christmas. We eat the same things, year after year, generation after generation - whether we like it or not!
Probably most dictated by tradition is the Christmas Eve meal that credits its meatless character to the Catholic church's long-standing rule that Catholics should abstain from meat on the day before Christmas. Still, the Italians managed to turn what the Church intended as a sacrifice into a seafood feast. As a result, the Christmas Eve "Feast of the Seven Fish" is the centrepiece of the Italian Christmas holiday celebration. The meal pays homage to - depending upon who is asked and from what Italian region he or she is from - the seven sacraments or the seven virtues to which we should all aspire. Depending upon regional and personal preferences, the feast may include clams, oysters, mussels, shrimp, calamari (squid), eel, octopus, or even lobster. Clams and oysters may be served cold and raw - seasoned with just a squeeze of lemon - oven-baked with tomato sauce, breadcrumbs and grated cheese or steamed. Mussels and shrimp are also steamed and presented either on their own or with pasta. Octopus and eel are oven baked - after having been cleaned and prepared by the cook with the greatest intestinal fortitude.
Meanwhile, the calamari are served - tentacles and all - either in a tomato sauce or oven baked in olive oil, stripped of their little legs, but with their body stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic and grated cheese. The prescribed way to prepare Christmas Eve calamari is also contingent upon the region of the cook. Those from the southern provinces predict immediate excommunication unless the squid is swimming in tomato sauce. Farther north it is believed that the key to heaven is found in the baked, stuffed, tomato-free version. One thing is sure, in a traditional Italian meal, calamari are never, ever deep-fried!
While tradition allows for some flexibility in the Seven Fish menu, there is one item that is totally non-negotiable. Baccalà just absolutely show up on the Christmas Eve table if both hosts and guests are to avoid some terrible consequence in the future - near or distant. Traditionally, baccalà is codfish that has been dried and salted in order to preserve it. In its traditional state, it resembles frozen laundry - frozen long underwear to be specific. Returning it to its natural, unsalted state requires extensive soaking, and then extensive squeezing to remove the excess water applied to re-hydrate it. Every Italian grandmother knew exactly how long to soak the baccalà. Squeezing out its excess water and salt involved a couple of wooden cutting boards and some kind of weight - books and buckets of water were tools of that domestic trade.
Once re-hydrated the desalinated fish is free to find its way to the pan where it is paired with crushed tomatoes, onions, garlic, dried olives and a sprinkle of fresh parsley, then slipped into the oven for an hour or so. More modern cooks skip the frozen laundry part of the ritual by preparing the dish with fresh frozen cod plucked from the grocer's freezer. Strict baccalà traditionalists, however, regard this substitution as a serious transgression and a shameful lapse of ethnic pride.
No matter how it shows up in the kitchen - dried and salted or fresh frozen - baccalà is required Christmas Eve fare. Everyone is expected to taste it to satisfy tradition. Amazingly, at the end of the meal, it generates the largest amount of leftovers, with the exception of, perhaps, the eel and the octopus. The elders insist, however, that the excessive leftovers are due not to baccalà's lack of appeal, but to the fact that the feast contains so many dishes that a small sampling of everything is permissible. According to others, however, baccalà, eel and octopus are only palatable under threat of punishment for breach of tradition. Which theory is correct, however, remains under investigation.
You Won't Like It
While seafood dominates, the traditional Christmas Eve meal is not without its pasta. Pasta is often served with mussels, shrimp or clams. But aglio e olio is also appropriate pasta fare. So is a dish that comes from Naples that satisfies both Italians' affection for pasta and the "Seven Fish" tradition. Called pasta e noci, it is only to be prepared on Christmas Eve and is always served with the same warning: "You won't like it, but eat it anyway." That's because, those who prepare it say, the dish requires that one cultivate a taste for it. The warning is probably also prompted by the ingredients that go into the dish - chiefly anchovies and crushed walnuts, which, in imagination, seem nowhere near compatible.
Pasta e noci is prepared by sautéing two finely chopped cloves of garlic, one can of mashed anchovies and one cup of rather coarsely chopped walnuts in one-and-one-quarter cups of olive oil. According to traditionalists and for reasons unknown, this procedure must only be accomplished in a cast iron frying pan. All this cooks for seven to ten minutes - or while the angel hair pasta is boiling in its pot. The pasta is drained only enough to retain about 25 percent of the water and returned into the pot where the oil, garlic, anchovy and walnut mixture is added and mixed thoroughly throughout the pasta. Traditionally, the dish is served directly from the pot to guarantee it gets to the plate piping hot. Cheese is never ever served with pasta e noci, though a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper is permitted, but only on the individual plate.
Actually, pasta e noci is quite pleasant tasting, and lots of people look forward to enjoying it. But, tradition connected with this dish is even stricter than the one governing baccalà, pasta e noci must only be served on Christmas Eve and all leftovers must be disposed of immediately. To prepare or consume the dish at any other time of the year is, according to one elder, an invitation to earthly disaster and a guaranteed ticket to eternal damnation. Having said that, there is no evidence that anyone has suffered any horrific earthly consequences by eating pasta e noci at any time other than Christmas Eve. Evidence regarding the otherworldly consequences remains unavailable.
It is important to note that none of the dishes served on Christmas Eve are long on kid appeal. Even so, children are encouraged to at least try some of the traditional dishes, and many are able to face some of the cooked shellfish without much fuss. The key to introducing kids to traditional Christmas Eve fare is never to start with the baccalà. It's probably best to avoid the eel altogether. But children need to eat on Christmas Eve, too. And the reliable pasta al burro is prepared especially for them - well, allegedly just for them. It is not unheard of for adults to use the "I'll check on the kids" excuse to visit the "children's table" for a welcome reprieve from the fish dishes. While elders frown upon this practice, they change the subject when asked if they've ever engaged in it themselves.
The Next Day
While the Christmas Day meal is the main event for most North Americans, Italian-North Americans view it simply as an extension of the Christmas Eve feast - except that meat is the star of this meal. Roasted beef, pork, and game including rabbit and venison, if available, are all represented on Christmas Day. But not before the ravioli, the day's traditional pasta dish.
As far as anyone can tell, there are no strict ravioli rules - that is, the decision to serve either the meat or cheese-filled version is more a matter of individual tradition than cultural one. But that does not say there is no tradition connected with the tiny pasta pies. For some families, crafting the ravioli from scratch is a holiday ritual in itself. Weeks before Christmas, three generations gather in the kitchen to make the dough, roll it and prepare the filling according to a recipe so guarded that it is never disclosed to anyone save the children and grandchildren of the ravioli-makers themselves.
This is actually a blessing for remaining family members who are never drafted to participate in the labour-intensive ravioli-making process. They are obligated only to arrive on time for Christmas Day dinner, graciously accept their plate of ravioli, lavish praise upon the ravioli makers and pronounce this year's ravioli better than last year's batch - maybe better than any batch of ravioli ever made by anyone anywhere. Having done all that, Christmas dinner guests are at liberty to proceed to the next culinary highlight: stuffed artichokes. We often wonder what primordial ancestor initially came up with the notion that a human being could stuff, steam and eat a member of the thistle plant family. But Italians have been doing it for generations. Though artichoke hearts are frequently marinated in olive oil and garlic and eaten alone or added to salads, the stuffed artichoke is, in the opinion of many, the true delicacy. That's largely because of the stuffing. A combination of toasted bread, chunks of Italian cheese - Asiago is a favourite, but Romano or Parmigiano will do nicely as well - and minced garlic all drizzled with olive oil, lend their flavour to the artichoke while it steams, either in the oven or in a deep, covered pan atop the stove.
Newcomers to the art of artichoke eating are easy to identify. Most fidget nervously in their seats upon facing the prickly looking vegetable, then furtively glace around the table to locate someone demonstrating the best way to eat the thing without suffering some kind of physical injury. Once the knack - and the taste - is acquired, however, artichokes are hard to resist. Happily, there is no folklore predicting catastrophe if artichokes are eaten at any time other than the holiday season. However, like many of the holiday foods mentioned here, there is one critical caveat to be extended: whoever masters the art of preparing a particular Italian dish should do so with caution, as he or she will be obliged to prepare that dish throughout his or her lifetime - perhaps in all eternity, as well - for any appropriate occasion. Since there is very little Italian fare that does not involve significant shopping, cleaning, chopping, stirring, coaxing or undivided attention, it is wise to choose a specialty only after calculating the amount of labour involved in preparing it. On the other hand, there is something to be said for becoming the family's unimpeachable expert on something or another. At the dining table, a little flattery goes a long, long way.
Taking the Tonic
New Year's Eve can't hold a candle to Christmas Eve when it comes to strict tradition and prescribed table fare. Most Italians avoid venturing out on that holiday in favour of gathering the family together to, well, eat. For many the occasion is casual and the menu is simple - a baked ham, a pasta dish and homemade pizza. But there are a couple of things some Italians must, by tradition, serve and eat on New Year's Eve to ensure well being in the year ahead.
Among them is bagno caldo - literally a "hot bath" - another one of those traditional holiday dishes for which a taste must be acquired. The specialty is prepared by sautéing one can of mashed anchovies and one full bulb of mashed garlic in a small amount of butter until the garlic is soft and its flavour is well blended with the anchovies. Then a full pound of butter is added to the pan and heated until the entire mixture is piping hot and bubbly. When the cook declares the "bath" is ready, guests line up next to the stove to choose among assorted vegetables - celery, cabbage, broccoli, even lettuce, and crusty bread - and wait their turn to dip their choices into the bubbling concoction. Then they wash it down with warm red, dry wine, get back in line and wait for another turn to do it all again.
According to tradition, bagno caldo is a kind of health tonic taken on New Year's Eve to purify the body and guard against illness all through the upcoming year. It is also credited with the power to protect those who eat it from all manner of harm - man-made or otherwise. Elders insist, however, that nobody who eats bagno caldo on New Year's Eve ever comes down with a winter cold or the flu. The truth is that the concoction is tasty, but sure to produce a powerful thirst the next day. Probably the large quantities of water imbibed to quench it - not the bagno caldo - should be credited with promoting good health in the new year.
While the bagno caldo ensures good physical health, Italians rely on fruit to enjoy prosperity. A handful of grapes must be eaten exactly at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve to keep a roof over one's head, plenty of food in the pantry and cash in one's pocket. Failing to participate in the ritual is a one-way trip to the poorhouse in the year ahead - at least that's what we've been told since childhood. And no one we know has been game enough to avoid grapes on New Year's Eve just to test the theory.
Another Year, Another Feast
Like New Year's Eve, New Year's Day is a pretty casual affair for most Italian-North American families. It's a time to polish off some more of the Christmas ravioli, carve into a turkey, another ham or beef roast. Before any of that reaches the table, however, there is the traditional first course of pasta e fagioli. Depending upon the provincial heritage of the cook, pasta e fagioli is either a soup or a stew to which tomatoes have or have not been added. Those from the northern provinces prepare theirs as a soup based on chicken stock featuring Northern or Navy beans. A broad pasta such as linguine or fettuccine is served on the side to be added to the fagioli bowl-by-bowl. Those from the southern provinces, who believe the absence of tomatoes renders a dish unpalatable, use a vegetable base that includes tomato paste, prefer Lima or butter beans to the smaller Northern or Navy beans, and put small soup noodles right into the pot.
For Tuscan people, New Year's Day is an excuse to eat beans - which they would add to everything if they could get away with it. For everyone else, a hot, hearty bowl of pasta e fagioli is just a good way to start a winter meal.
In fact, the New Year's Day meal is not just the first meal of the new year. It is the last in several weeks' worth of opportunities to shower family and friends with attention, hospitality and fine food, good wine and even better company. It's the final holiday season opportunity to critique the food, argue over the way it was - or should have been - prepared and reminisce about holidays long past.
It is also a time to start thinking about getting ready for Easter, which, after all, is just around the corner.
Salute At Christmastime, Italians never greet visitors at the door without a smile and a shot of anisette. There are a few reasons for this. First, our etiquette dictates that one must hand something back to the person who brought the cookie tray. A glass brimming with a festive libation seems like a reasonable exchange. Second, there is usually a chill in the December air, and a shot of the anise-flavoured liquor is bone warming. Third - and most importantly - kissing is the preferred greeting method among Italians: a shot of anisette freshens the breath and, many believe, kills any pesky cold germs that may be lurking deep within the guest.
When they finally do get past the threshold, visitors are ushered into the kitchen because that's where Italians do some of their best entertaining. In the time guests have been relieved of their coats and swallowed their anisette, the woman of the house has set the table, got the coffee brewing and lain out platters of capicollo, mortadella and sopressata, a variety of cheeses, crusty bread, fruit, nuts, and torrone nougat candies, all of which are eventually joined on the table by the cookie tray the visitors brought with them. The impromptu repast is always accompanied by a glass - or more - of dry red Italian wine. A pitcher of red wine with slices of oranges floating in is a special winter season treat.
Then, of course, there is coffee. We love it - the stronger the better! Sometimes, though, we think coffee can be lonely on its own. That's why we invented punccino, the perfect winter season warm-up. In a cup, around the rim of which a lemon rind has been rubbed, goes a shot of whiskey into which a teaspoon of sugar has been stirred. Hot, strong coffee is added and, after another stir, a shot of anisette is poured. Another stir and the punccino is ready to be savoured with exceptional company, spirited conversation and, maybe even a good-natured disagreement.
Patrice D. Bucciarelli is a veteran journalist, author and poet. Her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the US and in several international business magazines. Her book, Italian Comfort Food: What Italians Really Eat, is slated for release in 2004.