The Salt
3:17 am
Mon December 24, 2012

At Christmas, A Roman Holiday Revolves Around The Food

Originally published on Fri December 28, 2012 11:05 am

The city of Rome may be the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, but as far as bright, glitzy decorations, Christmas there has always been a rather sober affair.

And yet at Christmastime, there's one area where Romans pull out all the stops — the dinner table.

Even with the economic crisis, outdoor markets, grocery shops and fishmongers are crowded with customers.

As in many Catholic countries, where the time leading up to the holiday was traditionally marked by fasting, the Christmas Eve meal in Rome is primarily based on fish, says Isabella Michelini, a tour guide and expert on local culinary traditions.

"We usually do, in Rome, short-cut pasta. It could be penne or rigatoni, with tuna sauce. Then we have some fried fish," she says. "And afterwards we have salad. That's on Christmas Eve."

But on Christmas Day, Michelini says, the meal is more sumptuous. It usually starts off with lasagna, followed by a meat course.

"It could be turkey, it could be guinea hen stuffed with meat, and Parmesan cheese and some herbs," she says. "It could last for four hours."

Not everyone wants to cook two big meals at home in a row. So Roman restaurants are gearing up for big family crowds.

At the restaurant Pierluigi, owner Lorenzo Lisi points out that Roman cooking has its roots in poverty. With the Church hierarchy dominating the city for centuries, an epicurean cuisine never really evolved.

But that doesn't mean Roman dishes aren't tasty. He says a typical second course on Christmas is lamb ribs cooked scotta ditto.

"Scotta ditto means 'burn your fingers.' On the ribs there is just a really thin layer of meat so you cannot actually use forks and knives to eat it," he says. "So that's why you have to use your fingers and most of the time you burn them, so it is called scotta ditto."

The meal would not be complete without lots of sweets. One local product is pan pepato, a thick fruit cake with a name that means "peppery bread." It's made with figs, apricot marmalade, raisins, chocolate and wine.

Tour guide Michelini is particularly fond of torrone, nougat made of honey and pistachio nuts — and as hard as a rock

"You take a very big knife," she says, "and with this heavy knife, you hit it and so all the pieces jump out, and then you pick up your piece and you eat it."

Buon appetito and buon Natale!

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, part of the holiday tradition for some Catholics in the United States and elsewhere is to spend Christmas Eve watching television coverage of the pope's midnight Mass at the Vatican. Earlier this month, Vatican officials announced that the Nativity scene that's part of the celebration was donated, which would mean some savings.

This is a noteworthy announcement, because recent leaked documents showed a few years ago, the Vatican spent more than $700,000 to set up a manger scene. Now, as that traditional Mass takes place at the Vatican, elsewhere in Rome, Christmas is celebrated with few flashy decorations. The city's just not known for that. But there is one area where Romans pull out all the stops, and that's at the dinner table. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli sent us this postcard.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Even with the economic crisis, outdoor markets, grocery shops and fishmongers are crowded with customers. Isabella Michelini is a tour guide by profession and an expert on local culinary traditions. As in many Catholic countries, the Christmas Eve meal, she says, is primarily based on fish.

ISABELLA MICHELINI: We usually do in Rome, short-cut pasta. It could be, like, penne or rigatoni, with tuna sauce. Then we have some fried fish.

POGGIOLI: Fried fish.

MICHELINI: Fried fish. And afterwards, we have salad. That's on Christmas Eve.

POGGIOLI: But on Christmas Day, Michelini says, the meal is more sumptuous. It usually starts off with lasagna, followed by a meat course.

MICHELINI: It could be turkey. It could be guinea hen stuffed with meat and parmesan cheese and some herbs.

POGGIOLI: You're making me hungry.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHELINI: It could last, like, for four hours, you know, because with everybody, you know, at the table and enjoying this lunch.

POGGIOLI: Not everyone wants to cook two big meals at home in a row. So Roman restaurants are gearing up for family crowds.

At Pierluigi, owner Lorenzo Lisi points out that Roman cooking has its roots in poverty. With the church hierarchy dominating the city for centuries, an epicurean cuisine had never really evolved. But that doesn't mean Roman dishes are not tasty. He says a typical second course on Christmas is lamb ribs cooked scotta ditto.

LORENZO LISI: Scotta ditto means burn your fingers, and on the ribs, there is just a really thin layer of meat. So, you cannot actually use forks and knives to eat it. So that's why you have to use your fingers, and most of the time, you burn it. So it's called scotta ditto.

POGGIOLI: The meal would not be complete without lots of sweets. One local product is pan pepato: a thick fruit cake literally called peppery bread. It's made with figs, apricot marmalade, raisins, chocolate and wine. Tour guide Michelini is particularly fond of torrone: nougat made of honey and pistachio nuts, and as hard as a rock.

MICHELINI: You take a very big knife, and with this heavy knife, you hit it. And so all the pieces jump out, you know, and then you pick up your piece and you eat it.

POGGIOLI: Buon appetito, and buon Natale. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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