For the last five years, Francesco and I spent Christmas either with friends in Virginia or with my parents in California. Great times were had, awesome meals were eaten, but spending Christmas in Italy is the ultimate nirvana – (and he had not spent December 25th with family in all these years). So, early in the summer when we begin our vacation planning for the year, we looked at each other and went straight to the computer. We opened our preferred cheap flights website and typed: FROM: Washington Dulles TO: Rome. In a heartbeat, it was done. We were going to Italy for Christmas! (And extra nirvana: my parents and brother would be there as well!)
My mind, of course, went straight to Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day lunch. It’s just how I am wired; I associate holidays, and memories, with food. Since we were spending the holidays with my in-laws, I was curious to find out their Christmas tradition. In my family, the biggest celebration happens on Christmas day and lunch is usually an unforgettable feast with local food from the Lombardy region: polenta, chiodini mushrooms and some sort of meat – Panettone and Pandoro covered with a mascarpone cream were a must for dessert. Talk about watching your weight.
As it turns out, my in-laws’ biggest culinary feat usually happens on Christmas Eve. Dinner is served around 8pm and the menu is predominantly seafood based. (Poor husband of mine hates fish of all shapes and sizes….he had to settle for pasta al pomodoro).
Just remembering the dinner gives me goose bumps. I was served a myriad little bites of perfection: pan-fried mussels, a polenta-based shimp cocktail served in a small terrine covered in a spicy tomato and chili sauce, fried codfish and my ultimate favorite, steamed octopus served with salt, pepper, parsley and a drop of olive oil.
There are not many things I don’t like, but that night, what was put on my plate made me quiver. Francesco’s dad painstakingly sliced smoked duck breast and elegantly placed it on a buttered toast. So, imagine my face when I was presented with four slices of bright red meat and was encouraged to take a bite.”Thanks, but no thanks?” I reluctantly put that thing in my mouth and chewed. Oh God, what was I thinking? It was borderline idyllic. The flavor practically burst in my mouth, overtaking, as if for just a moment, my senses. More, please!
First course, as if the appetizers didn’t fill me up enough, consisted of pasta with a delicate tomato-based sauce with tuna and black olives. Don’t let the simplicity fool you. First, the olives were from the olive tree that greets you as you step into my in-laws’ front yard. They were tangy, salty and mixed well with the subtle flavor of the cooked tuna.
The dinner was much more than just a meal. Sitting at the large wooden tables were four generations of my husband’s family, talking over each other, critically dissecting the food in front of them. There was something personal about each of them in their food. The olives were my mother-in-law’s great conquest; the codfish, a family recipe my husband’s aunt revived for the occasion; the polenta-shrimp cocktail, a last-minute genius concoction by my father-in-law.
It’s clique to say that the only way Italians really talk to each other is through the food they prepare, but I found it to be true. Especially during the holidays. So much history, emotions and feelings in those dishes that I, for once, learned a bit more about them without opening my mouth. Well, I actually open my mouth to eat the food, but what I meant is….you get the point.
Desserts were varied and without a doubt too caloric, too full of this or that, but who cares. I was in Italy, enjoying a restaurant quality meal and was not about to chicken out on the best part.
My mother-in-law’s juicy peaches with simple syrup and a healthy dose of whipped cream made my night. Gorgeous to look at and quite easy to make – a fresh alternative to boring chocolates or ricotta cakes. But there was more.
Panettone and Pandoro are the staple Christmasy desserts, but Francesco’s grandma, Luisa, had a trick up her sleeve. She made il rotolo, a favorite among my husband and his brothers.
It’s not a hard dessert to make and it takes less than 30 minutes to make, but oh boy…it went fast. One word: Nutella. A rolled cake dough with Nutella blissfully embracing its inner parts. I could have eaten just that and I would have been a happy camper. Really. With Nutella around, I lose control.
If you think that Christmas is the end of your food-related fantasies, think again. December 26 is still a holiday, Santo Stefano, and you eat like you have not stuffed yourself to the brim for two days. Tortellini in brodo was served, probably my favorite dish of all, with lasagne (a much better result than my attempt) cold cuts and more desserts.
Our time spent in Milano with my family was also filled with food and related food coma. I was starting to doubt I would fit into my jeans at that point, but when you are in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? So I kept going. The food from the Lombardy region is much different than that of the Lazio region, where Rome is located and where Francesco is from. Our cuisine is heavier, simpler, often made from leftovers, very little seafood and lots of meat and potatoes.
My favorite dish in all the land happens to be very heavy, impossibly unhealthy. It’s called Pizzoccheri: it’s whole wheat pasta with cabbage, spinach, potatoes and a boat load of different cheeses. The more, the merrier.
We actually drove three hours to try the so-called best pizzoccheri in Lombardia. Oh, and to see my cousin and her family. We were deep into Valtellina, a valley in Northern Lombardy bordering Switzerland, following unbeaten paths, getting lost and finding our way back, when we finally arrived at a small, unattractive barn with a trattoria sign hovering over its door.
The service was family style: you eat what the cook has prepared for the day and that’s it. You don’t like it? Too bad. After a few appetizers, the moment I had been waiting for arrived. A steaming plate of pizzoccheri made its way to my seat at the table. I have eaten my parents’ pizzoccheri and loved it every time, but this was from another planet. The cheese, real Fontina cheese from Valtellina, was gooey, it melted in my mouth like cotton candy. It was superb and I am not exaggerating. Major success. I went home full and happy.
Needless to say, our trip was fantastic. Spending time with family and eating good food is my kind of fun.