December brings renewed excitement to the Roman and medieval towns of Central Italy. There is magic in the air.
The hard work of the fall harvests is done. The grapes have been picked, pressed and tucked away to ferment and age with grace. The olives have been tirelessly harvested and processed to produce the year’s new olive oil (olio nuovo), a premium grade Umbrian olive oil that is rated among the finest in the world.
December Is A Magical Time In Central Italy
As winter days become shorter, holiday lights begin to herald the arrival of Christmas and the promise of a New Year. Music ensembles entertain and delight. Dinner menus fill with enthralling time-honored holiday dishes. Joyful families and extended families, friends and friends of friends, neighbors and shopkeepers gather in warm-hearted celebrations.
Italian goodwill abounds. It is a marvelous time to share the exuberant appreciation of life for which Italians are rightfully famous.
Italian Towns Light Up In December
A Building LIghted By Projectors On The Main Square In Assisi, Italy
Nearly all towns in Central Italy are decked out with colorful twinkling LED lights. Many displays are fashioned in a creative kaleidoscope of ornate holiday designs. The advent of powerful high definition laser light outdoor projectors has added a surreal dimension to the festivities.
Another Building LIghted By Outdoor Projectors In Assisi, Italy
I eagerly look forward to taking visitors to my favorite Italian towns in December. Civic pride and tradition propel the construction of temporary yet extravagant holiday displays in the old historic town center (centro storico). The intriguing displays can include ice-skating rinks and all manner of imaginative presentations that entice you to wander around with a bit of holiday wonder.
I vividly recall a recent December visit to the small town of Todi, a medieval community that is quite unknown to foreigners. The main square was festooned elaborately with huge illuminated displays surrounded by inviting wooden walkways and tall evergreens. The site included a small artificial pond fed by a gurgling stream of water accompanied by surround-sound background melodies. Civic leaders and community volunteers had transformed the town center into a nighttime wonderland.
A Christmas Display With Skating Rink in Todi, Italy
The nearby town of Gubbio is a delightful destination in any season. But in December, it is exquisite.
A Festive Street In Gubbio, Italy
Each year, the town erects a massive display of Christmas lights that depict an enormous outline of a Christmas tree on the face of Monte Ingino mountain which rises impressively behind the town.
According to Guinness Book of World Records, Gubbio has “The World’s Largest Christmas Tree”. This gigantic tree measures 1,500 feet wide at the base and is 2,400 feet tall (450 meters by 750 meters). You can see the outline of the “tree” from miles away.
The World’s Largest Christmas Tree in Gubbio, Italy
Although many displays feature a traditional approach to Christmas themes, other light displays convey a more contemporary look via the latest theatrical stagecraft technology.
A Large Traditional Christmas Tree in Assisi, Italy
(Note The Car On The Lower Right)
Another Christmas Tree In The Centro Storico In Perugia, Italy
Throughout the year, most Italian townspeople observe a long-held tradition of taking a relaxed walk around town (fare una passeggiata) in the early evening with family and friends. December brings the opportunity to wear festive holiday clothing and to see what others are wearing. When encountering friends, it is customary to exchange greetings (buona sera) and express best wishes (auguri).
Pre-Covid, A Large Crowd Gathers On The Main
Shopping & Pedestrian Street In Perugia, Italy
The passeggiata offers a great opportunity to stop and grab a table at a café on one of many squares (the Italian plural word for squares is (piazze) or along the main pedestrian throughfares (strada pedonale). Blankets are often provided under the warmth of outdoor heaters while you enjoy a hot mug of mulled wine, a tasty glass of the local wine, a cup of a hot and frothy cappuccino or a quick snack. You can also sample some traditional holiday sweets.
Traditional Holiday Foods
Food is king in Italy. And Italians can be quite passionate about food. Holiday gifts of sweet cakes are frequently given, much appreciated, and frequently the subject of much debate about which type of cake is the best.
There are two traditional types of holiday cakes: panettone and pandoro.
The origin of the word panettone dates back to the Roman empire, when the ancient Romans sweetened leavened cakes with honey.
Panettone is derived from the Italian word “panetto” which means a small cake loaf. However, in Italian, when you add the suffix “-one” at the end of a word, it changes the word’s meaning to “large”. Thus, panettone is a “large bread cake”.
The Roman version was enhanced in the 15th century in the northern city of Milan. This is the traditional panettone cake served today throughout Italy.
Panettone features a distinctive dome-shaped top with a cylindrical base. Over the years, many different types of panettone have been created but the traditional version contains candied orange, citron, and lemon zest as well as raisins. The dough is similar to American sourdough in that it needs to rise three times before being baked. Panettone is served in a wedge shape and is lightly moist with a spongy texture.
Pandoro was created centuries ago in the northern town of Verona, the purported home of Romeo and Juliet. The word pandoro combines two Italian words: bread (pane) and “of gold” (d’oro) to create the name “pandoro.”
Pandoro is light and airy due to the egg batter which is used to make it. It has a light vanilla taste and is a bit drier than panettone. Pandoro is dusted liberally with powdered sugar prior to serving.
One day I asked my good friend Laura which cake she thought was the best. She responded with a bit of surprise that I would even ask. She stated unequivocally that the answer is obvious: panettone is superior.
She then mentioned that the best artisan crafted panettone was made in Sicily by the Fiasconaro family. This family has been making panettone since the 1950s.
I later discovered an impressive company website highlighting the family’s history and their longstanding tradition of producing high quality sweets. You can visit their website (in Italian only) HERE.
Laura is an extraordinarily kind person and one of my dearest friends in Italy. After our discussion, unbeknownst to me, she frequented a high quality sweet shop (pasticceria) in the nearby town of Spoleto.
She bought me an artisan panettone made by Fiasconaro and presented it to me as a surprise gift. I say “presented” because their panettone is a genuine work of art.
All of Fiasconaro’s panettones are beautifully packaged with a trademarked design, created by the fashionable and well-known Italian firm: Dolce e Gabbana.
Artisan Panettone From Fiasconaro With Dolce & Gabbana Packaging
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 distancing restrictions, Laura and I could not share the panettone in-person.
I took the panettone home and was a bit worried about opening the package for fear of destroying a work of art and its beautiful packaging. But since Italy is the land of high quality food, I could not resist.
The Fiasconaro panettone was remarkable. It was light, airy and slightly sweet. It had a strong and very pleasant smell of lemon with the taste of candied lemon peel. I was touched once again by Laura’s generosity.
Many panettones are large enough to require several meals to finish. This one was smaller and perfect for two people for dessert.
New Year’s Eve – Vigilia di Capodanno
The end of December culminates with a huge dinner on New Year’s Eve (Vigilia di Capodanno). The New Year’s Eve dinner serves as a symbol of abundance for the New Year. Here in Italy, abundance is to be savored and celebrated.
Most Italians go out on New Year’s Eve to enjoy a fixed-priced one seating dinner (cenone).
Cenone is a combination of the word for dinner (cena), and the suffix that I talked about earlier (one). So cenone means “big dinner” and when Italians say “big dinner” they are referring to a really big dinner.
A cenone is a multiple course dinner which is so large that it generally takes place over four or five hours. Each course features several “mini-courses” so there is a lot of food.
This year with the Covid pandemic, no restaurants were allowed to be open but many created a special takeout menu. Without the restaurant ambience, the service, and with the need to reheat each course at home, the meal was not the same as in past years, but very enjoyable nonetheless.
While reminiscing about the better times to come in 2021, I pulled out last year’s New Year’s Eve menu from one of my favorite restaurants. This restaurant is called “Pinturicchio” and is located less than 100 meters (300 feet) from my house.
Their 2019 cenone dinner was sublime. It featured:
Five different small appetizers (antipasti). These were:
A large prawn (shrimp) with green pepper and rosemary and a dollop or two of olive oil.
A scallop with parsley and a touch of creamy mashed potatoes on the side.
Tuna tartare with lime juice.
A zucchini souffle’ with a truffle mushroom cheese sauce poured on top. The menu noted that the truffle mushrooms were fresh from a nearby town.
A small salad of lentil beans with some celery and orange. The menu also noted that the lentils were locally grown just 20 kilometers or 12 miles away.
Lentils represent money and coins and are always served on New Year’s Eve in Italy. They are served to give everyone good luck and good fortune in the New Year.
Two first courses (primi piatti) featuring pasta. These were:
A first pasta course featuring homemade gnocchi with a lobster ragu sauce.
A second pasta course featured homemade tagliatelle (narrow noodle pasta) with black truffle mushrooms from Norcia. This town is about 60 kilometers (24 miles) away. Norcia is widely-known among Italians for producing high-quality foods of many different types and especially salami’s (salumi) and prosciutto (a type of dry-cured ham that is very popular).
Two second courses (secondi piatti) featuring fish and beef.
The first secondi featured a salmon fillet topped with fresh wild herbs which came from the mountains above the town of Spello.
The second secondi featured sliced beef with sea salt and fresh vegetables.
One dessert (dolce).
The desert featured a dark, chocolate cake with a mandarin orange sauce.
At midnight the restaurant served prosecco from Northern Italy. Prosecco is a tasty sparkling Italian wine that is slightly sweet. Prosecco is a bit less bubbly than champagne.
Throughout dinner, they served white and red wine from a local producer just one kilometer outside of town, along with coffee, sparkling water and still water.
You can imagine how these dinners easily become four-or-five-hour extravaganzas.
Hope For The New Year
New Year’s Dinner culminates at midnight, when the skies light up with fireworks all over Italy.
New Year’s Eve Fireworks Display With Assisi In The Background
From our balcony, we could see a major fireworks display from a nearby town. In the meadow below were dozens of smaller fireworks displays set off by assorted groups of New Year’s Eve revelers. The fireworks lasted for about 45 minutes after the clock chimed midnight.
After finishing the lentils on New Year’s Eve, I reflected a bit about what will occur in 2021. I mused about how fortunate I am to live in Italy. How lucky I am to see, experience and learn new things; to meet interesting people; and to have dear friends like Laura.
It is my fervent hope that the lentils (and the vaccines) will bring us all good luck and that we will all return to live a more normal life in 2021!
A Chef Finalizing An Antipasto
Antipasto – The word “antipasto” is derived from the Latin root meaning “before” and “pastus” which means “meal.” Thus, this course precedes all other courses. It is a delicious combination of cheeses, vegetables and meats. The plural is “antipasti.”
In Umbria, a traditional antipasto might include local prosciutto ham, various types of local salami’s, or local cheeses. There are however a wide variety and types of antipasti. You can easily order a vegetarian antipasto too.
Auguri – This word comes from the Italian verb “augurare” which means “to wish.” Auguri literally means “well wishes”. You can also say “auguri” to someone who is having a birthday or during holiday occasions. You often hear this word during the month of December. You can wish “auguri” to friends, shopkeepers and even distant acquaintances.
Bruschetta – This word is commonly mispronounced among English speakers. It is properly pronounced in English as “brew-skate-tah.”
Bruschetta consists of toasted bread with toppings. You can make a simple version – just with oil, salt and garlic – or more elaborate versions. The more elaborate versions can include: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, mushrooms, peppers, other vegetables and more.
During the fall olive harvest Italians like to use unfiltered olive oil from the first crushing of olives in October to make their bruschetta.
To make this type of bruschetta, toast some Italian bread (which in Umbria is unsalted). Then rub an olive clove once across the toasted bread. Do this once so that the bread does not get too a strong garlic taste that might interfere with the flavor of the olive oil. Then crack sea salt over the top. Last, lightly pour some olive oil across the top of the bread. You are ready to eat.
Unfiltered olive oil has a short shelf life. It is good only until the end of the year in which the olives have been harvested, a matter of only three months or so. For this reason, it is difficult to find unfiltered Italian olive oil in the U.S, Canada or Australia. The good news is that you can substitute other fine olive oils throughout the year to make bruschetta. It just may not be quite as robust as olio nuovo but it is surprisingly tasty.
Capodanno – New Year’s Day. This translates as the “top of the year.” New Year’s Eve is called the “Vigilia di Capodanno.”
Cenone – This is a large dinner with multiple courses that is served over multiple hours during New Year’s Eve. The derivation of the word is dinner “cena” with the addition of big or large at the end “one” means a big dinner. This dinner truly lives up to its name “cenone.”
Universal Italian Street Sign To
Direct You To Center Of A Town (Centro Storico)
Centro Storico – The old historic center of a town.
Dolce – This is the word for “sweet” which is the dessert course.
Fare una passeggiata – This means “to take a walk.” Italians love to go for walks. In many towns, there is a specific street where old and young alike take a walk for exercise; to peer in shop windows; to enjoy the out-of-doors; or to be seen by friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends.
Olio Novello From The Producer Filotei In Nearby Norcia
Olio Nuovo or Olio Novello – This means “new olive” which is the first extra virgin olive oil off the press each season. This olive oil is in its most intense, raw state. It has a quite pleasant, strong taste and smell which literally explodes in your mouth. Olio nuovo is a beautiful, darker, green color.
Pandoro – Pandoro is one of two traditional Christmas cakes in Italy (the other cake is Panettone-see below). Pandoro, which means “golden bread” is the more recent creation having been created centuries ago in northern Italy -- in the town of Verona.
Pandoro is light and airy due to the egg batter that is used to make it. It has a light vanilla taste and is a bit drier than panettone. Pandoro is dusted liberally with powdered sugar prior to serving.
Panettone – Panettone is a Christmas cake which features a distinctive dome-shaped top with a cylindrical base. Over the years, many different types of panettone have been created but the traditional version contains candied orange, citron, and lemon zest as well as raisins. The dough is similar to American sourdough in that it needs to rise three times before being baked. Panettone is served in a wedge shape and is moist with a spongy texture.
The Massive Piazza del Campo In Siena, Italy
Piazza – When the Romans built their towns, they started with a grid system with two main thoroughfares. The piazza which is created is an open-square where these roads meet. Roman piazzas are often dominated by an imposing temple on one side, a civic building on another side, and finally another side with a central marketplace.
Our nearby town of Assisi was created using this traditional Roman layout and you can see it today on the main square, the “Piazza del Comune.” My personal favorite piazza in all of Italy is probably the enormous, “Piazza del Campo” in Siena, which is about a 2-hour drive away.
The Regions Of Italy
Regione – This is the word for “region” which is similar to an American state or Canadian province. There are 20 regions (regioni) in Italy of which five regions have been given a special, autonomous status.
Secondo Piatto – This is the main course of an Italian meal. It often consists of fish or meat but vegetarian second courses are becoming more prevalent.
Strada Pedonale – This is a street reserved exclusively for pedestrians. Some streets are designated a “strada pedonale” later in the day so Italians can fare una passeggiata.