Presepio at the Italian American Museum
Natale in Naples is spectacular. In the city, in Spaccanapoli (the old section of town) the streets are lined with the famous Presepio (Nativity Scenes) that depict detailed scenes that are so intricately carved that the viewer will never be able to take in all of it- that is part of its awe. You can see an authentic Presepio scene at the Italian American Museum in Little Italy. The street vendors are selling Torrone and chestnuts are really roasting on an open fire. Babbo Natale is a recent edition, not there in my mom's childhood. She only had La Befana (The Christmas Witch) - Jan 6 (The Epiphany) who brought children presents or coal.
Then there is Christmas Eve- La Vigilia-The Feast of the Seven Fishes. The number is biblical in its symbolism (seven sacraments, seven days of creation etc). Interesting, when I asked my mom if she new any anything other meaning to the number - she reminded me that some years when money was tight- it was the "Festa di Tre pesce". My mother is a wise guy. In our home Midnight Mass was what we were staying up for and ate fish that night in preparation. From Naples, our fish had to include a Zuppa di Cozze (Mussel Soup), Spaghetti con Vongole (spaghetti with clams), Scungili (Conch), Capitione (eel), Bacala (Cod), Baby Octopus and Fried Calamari (which we now make with Tempura).
Zuppa di Cozze (Image Credit)
Spaghetti con Vongole (Image Credit)
Scungilli (Image Credit)
I remember the fish must always be alive as my dad taught us, so we poked at our conch to see if it was still moving in its shell, there were eels in our bathtub in the morning swimming around ( which we later had to stun and gut open) while they still moved in the frying pan even when they were dead! We ate beautifully crusty bread, Friselle that we topped with our Zuppe di Cozze and later began to add some beer to.
Friselle (Image Credit)
Hazelnuts, Chestnuts and Walnuts were always roasting in the oven- and you had to cut a lit in the chestnuts or they would explode in the oven-happened many times when we missed one. Then came the Fragolina (small strawberries) and playing Tombola (a kind of Italian Bingo but we play for money and cus a lot).
The next day after church we would go to my Aunt Orsola's house- she is my father's aunt and matriarch of the Di Carlo Family- she passed away earlier this year. II remember she would be making cookies for a week and creating dozens of cookie plates that she would hand out to visitors who came to pay her respects on Christmas day. Every Christmas day we stopped there first- so did the town of Chambersburg, Clergy, politicians and we the family. She and her cookie plates will be missed. Filled with Torrone, Pandoro rather than Panettone (which was too candied for us). Other traditional cookies were- ricotta and lemon cookies, Pizzelles, Struffoli, Fig cookies, Biscotti and Almond cookies.
The meal starts with Antipasti plates, salumi, vegetables sotto oilio, cheese plates, olives and crusty bread. (Watch my Salumi and Cheese plate videos for inspiration!). I make spanakopita (Greek) but my family loves them and I am interestedly the only one who can work with phyllo dough (interestingly because I have no patience at all). I fill them with ricotta and Amarenna cherries or Sharp cheddar and wild mushrooms. We eat lasagna that we made- our own lasagna noodles- really thin the way they should be - melt in your mouth. The sauce made from jarred tomatoes we made in our yard in September and my mother makes her delectable meatballs and oxtail ragu- slow cooked and luscious. We end the evening with another Wild and boozy game of Tombola and little Karaoke and then to all a good night...
Watch my presentation La Vigilia: Italian Christmas Food Tradition at the Italian American Museum to hear more stories!
Now that you've heard my Italian Christmas Food Traditions, find out what the FiorellaEats' team eats during holidays (What We Eat for the Holidays) here! Also check out Greek Holiday Bread Traditions for another Mediterranean take on the holidays here!