In Italy, holiday traditions are deeply intertwined with drinks culture, intersecting as a means of connection and sharing. “Many Italians live outside their hometown for work and return for the holidays, so getting together for drinks before or after big family meals is a daily ritual,” says author and Italian culture expert Katie Parla. Although food and drink are a regular focal point of Italian culture, during the holidays, they truly take center stage. Gathering around abundance is the reason for the season. “The monthlong festivities start with shopping for seasonal foods, like panettone, which is given as gifts when visiting friends and family,” says Parla, noting that the most widely observed winter holidays—December 24, called Vigilia di Natale, and Christmas Day—are generally spent with family and capped with an outing for drinks and card-playing with friends.
Of course, aperitivo, the kickoff of any Italian communion, is ever-present throughout occasions and seasons. Here, tips from the experts on how to holiday Italian.
Aperitivo, Holiday Style
“During the holidays, aperitivo is even more celebrated as you catch up with friends in bars and cafés before spending the holidays with family,” says Massachusetts-based chef Karen Akunowicz, who lived and cooked in Italy before opening her own enoteca stateside. “On holidays, aperitivo is typically spent in the home, and lasts longer as everyone celebrates together.” MARTINI & ROSSI® North American brand ambassador Fabio Raffaelli says that sparkling wine is a great place to start, but a spritz is also always appropriate. Parla adds, “The word ‘aperitivo’ has different meanings depending on where it is practiced.” She confirms that in its ancestral homeland of northern Italy, it is typically a low-ABV cocktail, like a spritz, or a short pour of still or sparkling wine. “The aperitivo definition has gotten stretched in the central and southern parts of Italy to include any pre-dinner drink.”
Set the Table
The Italian table heaves under the weight of hearty bounty during the holidays, the meals defined by seemingly endless courses that vary from region to region. Parla says that often, a holiday meal will start with a massive antipasto spread of mixed hot and cold dishes, before heading into primo (pasta, rice or polenta, depending on the region), then secondo (fish for Christmas Eve, meat for Christmas Day), contorno (a vegetable-based dish) and a steady parade of dolci (desserts), including yeasted breads like panettone and pandoro.
Drinks With Dinner
Wine is the go-to pairing with each Italian holiday course; Akunowicz says that vermouth can also be an option. But after the dolci are cleared, says Parla, coffee appears, followed by a digestivo—amaro, limoncello, grappa or even a special-occasion whiskey. Raffaelli suggests serving a sparkling dessert wine like MARTINI & ROSSI Asti Spumante. And, if guests feel up for it, the party rolls on out the door. “Outside the house, people meet up at cafés, wine bars and pubs, and drink just about anything you can imagine,” says Parla.
Feast of the Seven Fishes
An Italian American tradition, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a day-to-night affair with each course featuring a different seafood dish. “You can bring the Feast of the Seven Fishes into your home in so many different ways,” says Akunowicz. She recommends starting with a few tinned fish and crackers, shrimp cocktail, or freshly shucked oysters with lemon, followed by a cacciucco (fish stew) filled with calamari, whitefish, lobster and clams. She concludes the meal with a whole roasted fish, topped with salsa verde. The editor-in-chief of Punch and author of Spritz, Talia Baiocchi, likes to pair a different drink with each course of the Italian American meal. “It’s the perfect example of stretching the meal out—making a real day and night of it,” she says. “The idea is that protracted eating and celebration are synonymous in Italy and in Italian American communities. That will always be the tie that binds.”