Many Italian Christmas traditions are from Lombardy, when it comes to food. Here are some of the best holiday dishes from this northern region.
Italy is a country of traditions. When Christmas comes around—that time of year when traditions are most sacred of all—this country shines. Did you know that many of Italy’s favorite Christmas food traditions originate from Lombardy? Here are some of this northern region’s most beloved traditions, from internationally popular to barely known beyond the borders. You just might be inspired to host a Lombardy-themed Italian Christmas feast.
An Italian Christmas feast from Lombardy
Aperitivo and antipasti: appetizers
Holiday meals start with an aperitivo with sparkling wine like a local Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Nero Metodo Classico or Franciacorta (also made with champenoise method, or metodo classico). Flutes of bubbly are served alongside platters of local cheese and cured meats like soft, creamy, and delicate stracchino, pungent blue gorgonzola, and prosciutto.
All over Italy, this is one of the most popular ways to start the meal: cheeses and meats vary according to local favorites, and it all makes for an easy and quick but elegant starter that everyone loves. Serve with mostarda di Cremona, or fruit preserves made with large pieces of different fruit in a spicy, mustardy syrup.
If you want to go all-out authentic, serve nervetti in insalata. But beware that not everyone will want to try this—it’s beef cartilage cooked until tender for three to four hours and seasoned with garlic, parsley, onion, and beans.
Primo: first course
Risotto alla Milanese is usually the only first course you hear about from Lombardy, but this region excels in homemade stuffed pasta. The most famous is pumpkin tortelli, originating from Mantova. This delicious pasta is prepared with pumpkin, mostarda, and amaretto, and it has a unique sweet-and-sour taste that’s not often associated with Italian cuisine. It’s served with butter, sage, and parmigiano to complement rather than cover the flavorful filling. A fruity, medium-bodied Oltrepò Barbera DOC from Lombardy is the perfect match for the sweet and savory flavors.
Pumpkin tortelli are usually eaten for Christmas Eve dinner, while people prefer to eat soup for Christmas lunch: a capon broth with small, stuffed pasta bobbing around called casoncelli, made by stuffing paper-thin pasta with minced meat, breadcrumbs, sausage, eggs, parmigiano, and amaretti.
Secondo: main course
Second courses vary from dinner to lunch (you didn’t think Italians feasted for only one meal of the day, did you?). Tradition dictates fish for Christmas Eve dinner and roasted meat at lunch the following day. The Feast of the Seven Fishes might be the best-known tradition outside of Italy, but Lombardy has its own tradition: stewed or grilled freshwater eel. A fatty, sweet meat that absorbs sauces well, eel is best paired with an acidic bubbly to refresh your palate—you might even choose a sparkling rosato, metodo classico, made from Pinot Nero.
Cappone ripieno, or stuffed capon, is the most popular lunch course. The stuffing is a delicious mix of mortadella, minced beef and sausage, eggs, parmigiano, and bread soaked in milk, and it’s often served with mostarda di Cremona. An even more famous dish served up and down the peninsula is cotechino con lenticchie, or pork salami served with lentils; closely related but a bit more particular is zampone, minced pork stuffed inside the foot skin of the pig—also served with lentils. Both come from Modena in Lombardy.
It doesn’t matter how much you’ve eaten—you can’t skip dessert on the holidays. In December, the risen sweet bread called panettone is everywhere, stacked in mountains of cardboard boxes and cellophane all over Italian shops, bakeries, and supermarkets. Originally from Lombardy, panettone can also be found year-round in Milan’s most famous pastry shops.
According to legend, panettone was created when Toni, the chef for Ludovico il Moro (Duke of Milan), accidentally burnt the dessert he’d prepared for Christmas Eve. To remedy his mistake, he repurposed the dough he’d been rising for bread: he added eggs, sugar, raisins, and candied fruit. He saved Christmas and invented “Pan de’ Toni,” or “Toni’s bread.” You’ll find variations on this legend, of course, as well as on the recipe—made with chocolate chips or only citrus fruits, for example—but the original recipe is still the most popular. And you can’t go wrong with pairing panettone with sweet, sparkling Moscato d’Asti (which you won’t find locally; these bubbles come exclusively from Piedmont).
Other famous desserts are torrone, a nougat made with almonds and egg white (origins contested—several regions take credit); torta sbrisolona, a wonderfully crunchy, butter-almond cake from Mantova; bignolata, or cream puffs (found all over Italy); and crema al mascarpone, or mascarpone whipped with liqueur and chocolate chips (mascarpone is of Lombardy origins). Mouth-watering!