Italian Christmas Eve Dinner: La Cena della Vigilia

Known as La Vigilia, this Italian tradition celebrates Christmas Eve with a grand seafood feast. Learn how to celebrate at home with our step-by-step entertaining guide.

Christmas is one of the biggest family-centric holidays in Italy. Across the country, it’s customary to celebrate the season with a multi-course meal made up of the finest seafood and vegetable dishes.

Mark Cirillo, writer and editor of CucinaTO, shows you how to celebrate family this holiday with a traditional Italian meatless feast.


Tradition runs deep in Italy. And each of Italy’s twenty regions celebrates the holiday season in its own unique way. But whatever part of the country you’re in, it’s customary to get together with family and to abstain from eating meat at la cena della vigilia (Christmas Eve Dinner).

But don’t be fooled by the idea of abstinence: in true Italian style, this feast is an elaborate, multi-course meal of many fish, seafood and vegetable dishes. And the experience is made even more authentic with the finest ingredients.

Each region also has its favourite dishes: frittelle di baccalà (cod fritters) are beloved in Naples; la pasta e broccoli in brodo di arzilla (pasta, broccoli and arzilla fish soup) is a Roman classic; and Calabrians can’t do without their spaghetti con la mollica e le alici (spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs).

Today the influence of la cena della vigilia can be felt far beyond Italian borders, thanks in part to large expatriate communities living abroad. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is one famous example. On Christmas Eve, Italians observe la vigilia with a meal of seven different fish and seafood dishes.

And why not? Whether you’re going all-fish or just incorporating Italian accents into your Christmas Eve meal, there are endless delicious recipes you can try yourself this holiday season. Here are some menu suggestions to get you started, broken down by the courses of a traditional Italian meal: antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorni e insalate and dolci.

Buon appetito!


Schiacciata toscana all’olio – Also known as ciaccia, schiaccia, focaccia or ciaccino, serve this Tuscan flatbread with Italian extra virgin olive oil and rosemary.

Verdure sott’olio –vegetables (such as sweet peppers, artichokes, olives, etc.) preserved in oil.

Scamorza affumicata al forno – A simple bread baked with firm and smoky Scamorza cheese from Apulia (and some parts of Campania and Molise).

Capesante gratinate – Parmigiano Reggiano PDO au gratin complements the delicate flavor of this baked scallops dish.

Cozze alla marinara – A classic Italian treat, mussels marinara can be served with garlic bruschetta or with spaghetti.

Frittelle di baccalà – Bite-sized cod fritters are a favorite appetizer at any family gathering but a must-have at La Vigilia.

Primi piatti

Spaghetti al tonno – You can’t go wrong with iconic spaghetti topped with preserved Italian tuna, capers and tomato.

Spaghetti alle vongole – While spaghetti is often associated with meat sauce, the long, flat strips of authentic  pasta are usually paired with briny sweetness of clams.

Risotto al nero di seppia – A Venetian specialty, black squid ink risotto is a treat for the eyes as well as the stomach.

Tortellini di zucca, burro e salvia – In Lombardy, winter squash tortellini smothered in butter and sage is an essential part of the Christmas Eve family dinner. 

Secondi piatti

Branzino al cartoccio – The buttery texture of sea bass gets a boost when baked with Italian extra virgin olive oil.

Pesce spada alla siciliana – This simple swordfish dish is made more sophisticated with Italian Mediterranean ingredients like tomato, olives and capers.

Calamari alla griglia – Grilled squid is a specialty of the Abruzzo region and light alternative to more filling pasta plates.

Contorni & Insalate  

Insalata mista – This traditional mixed salad is best dressed with a vinaigrette made from high quality authentic Italian extra virgin olive oil and Aceto Balsamico di Modena PGI or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena PDO.

Insalata di finocchi e arance – the bright, citrussy taste of orange provides a sweet counterpoint to the licorice-like flavoured fennel in this seasonal salad.

Patate al forno – The key to making this classic Italian comfort food is ensuring that the cubed potatoes are baked until they are golden and crisp.

Cavolfiori al Parmigiano Reggiano PDO – Baked with a crunchy crust of grated, purely Italian Parmigiano Reggiano PDO, this dish will please even the fussiest eaters in the family.


Amaretti, cantuccini, ricciarelli di Siena – No Italian holiday table is complete without a classic mixed cookie tray.

Panettone, Pandoro, Panforte — Whether it’s Milanese Panettone, Veronese Pandoro or Sienese Panforte, every area has a traditional holiday cake. And in Canada we’re lucky that we can experience authentic confections from every region.

Torrone – This nougat confection is also available in an array or flavour and textures.

Croccante alle mandorle – The addictive crunchy texture of this southern Italian dessert is provided by the best home-grown almonds.

Fichi secchi – Sweet, dried figs from the Mediterranean region are a staple of most Italian dessert tables.

Have you planned your Christmas Eve menu yet? Any advice you’d like to share or questions you’d like to ask? Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and don’t forget to use the hashtag #MadeInItaly to share thoughts and images about authentic Italian foods!


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