If you are notoriously known for having eyes that are bigger than your stomach, then Italy is the ideal place for you during the holidays. You will eat some of the most delectable food known to man… but you will certainly eat far too much of it! If you possess a willpower stronger than mine and think to yourself, “nonsense Greg, I always stop eating when I am full” then you are mistaken.
A table like this means it’s impossible to pace yourself
First, it is impossible to “budget” your intake. You will definitely want to sample all the delicious and unique treats on the table. The courses come in waves bigger than Australia’s Gold Coast and there is no telling when they will stop crashing on the table. So even if you simply try a little of everything, you’re still going to eat three times more than a normal meal. But that’s hardly the main reason. If you are a visitor in someone’s home, the hostess is absolutely going to give you the largest portions. And before you’re even done, you should expect seconds. This will continue over and over until a cold sweat starts to break above your brow. The trifecta of being force fed occurs if:
A) you are a man (and therefore expected to eat copious amounts of food)
B) you are a visitor from another country (Italians are very hospitable and eager to show off their regional specialties)
C) you are in a house where a nonna (grandma) is present (as if the hostess herself wasn’t enough, a nonna is guaranteed to guilt you into taking another several portions of food)
This trifecta of food-over-indulgence just happened to me during our six hour dinner on Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve). We are blessed to have wonderful neighbors below our condo. Stefano and Aurelia have become great friends of ours. They are among the kindest and most generous people we have had the pleasure of knowing. They have two sons, Giuseppe and Alessio that Julia loves playing with – and the boys are great with her. But there is an added bonus to knowing them that I haven’t yet mentioned. They are from Napoli (Naples)! “So, what’s the big deal” you say? Well, for starters, it means that they know how… to… live! They enjoy having big parties with lots of friends and family – and always with the most amazing food. We have enjoyed many phenomenal dinners with them and have gotten to know their large extended family as well as some of Naples’ most special food secrets.
A panini tower complete with festive cheese stars
A savory cheese torte with shrimp
Croquette di patate con polpa di granchio (potato croquette with crab meat)
We were thrilled when we got the invite to join them on Christmas Eve – we knew that we would be in for a treat. I think that in our minds, we set the bar as high as possible, only to have our lofty expectations shattered by an event even more amazing than our most creative fantasies. You’ll notice that I just called this dinner an event, as opposed to a meal. That’s because there are a few things in Italy that are more than they appear on the surface. Seeing La Traviata in Milan’s famous opera house, Teatro alla Scala is an event. Experiencing the sunrise over Rome’s Colosseum is an event. Finally, Christmas Eve dinner at Aurelia’s house is an event!
We arrived just after the standard “dinner-time” of 7:30 (there was no need for them to tell us arrival time, everyone just knows when to show up). After roughly 10 minutes of hugs and kisses and then another 20 minutes to decide where everyone was sitting, we sat down to start our meal at 8:00pm. The table was already full of antipasti (appetizers). Normally, I would have the self restraint of a blue ribbon hog presiding over a spread like this. However, this time I paced myself, knowing that this was just the tip of the iceberg (I’ve learned a lot over the past year). It was hard to show restraint around the carpaccio di polpo (octopus carpaccio) and ate more than I originally intended – but, it was pretty light after all.
Even though we had place cards – it still took a little while for everyone to find their proper place
Carpaccio di polpo (octopus carpaccio)
Another round of antipasti appeared, this time calamari (squid) in a spicy tomato sauce. Finally, we moved on to the primo (first course), an impressive pasta full of shellfish. Roughly two hours into the meal and we were only on the first course – fantastic! I was given a plate that was quickly removed because it had been determined (unbeknownst to me) that the portion was not sufficient. A portion much larger and impossibly packed with additional seafood appeared an instant later. The linguine pasta mixed perfectly with eye-popping amounts of clams, shrimp, mussels and calamari.
Aurelia’s niece serves some of the calamari
I couldn’t get a picture before everyone dug in… sorry!
The beautiful pasta dish was presented
My own plate, complete with a fuller portion
You’ve likely noticed a consistent theme to the meal by now. Our dinner was comprised almost entirely of seafood dishes. Jen and I were under the impression that the meal we were enjoying is what is commonly known as, “The Feast of Seven Fishes” and so we asked one of the guests about it. The answer was so perfectly Italian. “No, there is no number of fish. You just eat fish.” That’s it. Case closed. No “Feast of Seven Fishes”. Just fish, because… you eat fish. It turns out that the “Feast of Seven Fishes” is more of an Italian-American thing than an Italian thing. Obviously, there is truth to the tradition of eating fish. However, there is no hard and fast rule about the number of fish – you just eat as much as the hostess has time to cook (this is coming from the Napolitani – the people that started the tradition). If you’re looking for “The Feast of Seven Fishes,” you’re better off booking a flight to the Jersey shore than you would be to Italy.
After the pasta, we were finally able to move to our secondo (main course). Stefano presented a fish that any man would be proud to claim as his own – a fish large enough to feed a small village. In our case, it would feed a small apartment building. They also served another traditional fish, baccala – which is a salted and dried cod. For the preparation, they chose to lightly fry it. Our contorni (side dishes) were fried carciofi (artichokes) and fried cavolfiore (cauliflower).
Stefano and Aurelia bring out the fish
Stefano skillfully divides the fish
The fried baccala
The fried artichokes
At this point in the meal, any normal human would beg for mercy. He would pray that the food would cease to appear. But there is always that tiny little voice (perhaps due to a food-induced hallucination) in the back of his mind saying, “I wonder what’s next.” Well, in this case it was the most amazing platter of gamberoni (king prawns) that you’ve ever seen. Magically, the platter got completely re-filled once the first supply had dwindled. My plate quickly became an overgrown graveyard of prawn shells.
We stopped eating long enough for Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) to bring presents for all the kids
Franco shows us how to balance a coin on the edge of his glass
The nonna next to him had the line of the night – “I don’t drink water at the table. Only wine. Always.”
The gamberoni appear
Not everyone made it the full six hours without a power nap
As we crossed past midnight and into Natale (Christmas), the prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) flowed freely. My guesstimate is roughly eight bottles of the bubbly were popped over the course of the evening. After dinner wound down, the fruit appeared. But not your typical fruit plate – more of your, “let’s go harvest a field of fruit and put it in this basket” type of presentation. Same thing for the nuts. Then we had our first dessert – a carpaccio of pineapple, sweetened with sugar and adorned with currant and blueberries. And then, the main dessert! A homemade yule log made of chocolate and compete with the wood graining and extra trees for decoration. It was delicious. Guess who got the biggest piece – larger than any normal dessert after a regular-sized meal! As if that wasn’t enough dessert, regional specialties from the best pastry shops in Naples appeared. Jen and I searched for any spare millimeter of space left in our stomachs – we simply had to sample each one. Lastly, we needed our espresso and grappa. I went with a barrel aged Brunello grappa – I was pleased with my choice.
Fresh fruit – oranges, mandarins and lychee
A mixture of nuts
A pineapple carpaccio
The chocolate yule log
I love when Stefano appears with any kind of bag of homemade goodies
In this case, it was a unique homemade cookie typical of Naples
The grappa was the last thing to appear
It was nearly 2:00am (six hours later) when we started our long walk home (truthfully, I couldn’t have made it any further than a single flight of stairs). Jen and I crawled into bed, completely satisfied after eating one of the most amazing meals we have ever had. We both gave thanks that Julia was not old enough to wake us at the crack of dawn, eager over Santa’s arrival. Of course, Jen and I were sad to not be with our immediate family this Christmas, but we were grateful that we were adopted by such a warm and loving family here in Italy. And of course, it didn’t hurt that they provided the event of a lifetime.