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Christmas Time in Roman Cuisine

Torrone e frutta secca

Christmas is an opportunity to be with the family and enjoy the pleasures of eating. Meals must be prepared with care and passion and, for this reason, people begin several days before. What kind of food do we find on the Roman tables?

The Roman tradition for both dinner on Christmas Eve and lunch on Christmas Day included strictly seafood-based dishes, preferably focusing on small fish. Usually, in the night between 23 and 24 December, the Romans went to the cottio, the fish market that in Papal Rome took place at the Portico d'Ottavia in the ancient Jewish ghetto. Then, Pope Pius VII moved it to a fish market in Via delle Coppelle, where it was held until the Italian Unification. Later, it was transferred again to San Teodoro and, in 1927, to the Mercati Generali area. The cottio, therefore, survived twists and turns throughout the history of Rome, and over time became a special event that attracted illustrious travellers, lords and ladies dressed to their finest.

The 24th dinner and 25th lunch traditions have been kept alive in Roman families to the present days. Taking a look at some menus of the past, we can see that fish and seasonal vegetables are still the undisputed protagonists on the table, accompanied by the delicious Christmas sweets.

The Christmas Eve menu usually includes an appetizer based on peeled shrimp, octopus, marinated eel and pickled vegetables; a first course consisting of arzilla broth and spaghetti con le vongole veraci (spaghetti with clams); a second course such as roasted fish or peeled prawns, accompanied by the classic fried side dishes - strictly cauliflower or broccoli, artichokes, courgette fillets, humpbacks, codfish fillets, potatoes, apples and ricotta. To conclude the dinner,  oranges, mandarins, clementines, dried fruit, walnuts and hazelnuts and, last but not least, traditional desserts such as pangiallo and torrone.

On 25 December, the traditional Roman menu is equally as sumptuous: stracciatella (egg-drop soup) or cappelletti in brodo (meat-filled pasta served in broth), followed by cappone in brodo (capon in broth) with an aromatic sauce made of parsley, anchovies, vinegar, capers, garlic, breadcrumbs, and oil; breaded lamb chops with a side of fried vegetables, sautéed chicory or boiled cardoons sautéed in butter and parmesan. Again, the meal ends with seasonal fruit and desserts.  

Once, traditional desserts such as Pangiallo and Torrone could be found at the famous pastry shops such as Scurti in Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi, Panelli in Via Dogana Vecchia, Loreti in Strada Papale, and Giuliani in Via del Teatro Valle; today they are somewhat of a rarity. The Roman version of pangiallo has origins dating back to the Ancient Roman Empire. The custom was to make and distribute this dessert during the winter solstice as a good auspice for the return of long sunny days.

Find out here the traditional Pangiallo recipe by Ada Boni.

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