We received a lot of questions from our readers about celebrating Christmas and the New Year in Venice, and what to do, see and eat during the holidays. So this guide is for you if you are visiting during this magical season!
Here are our tips, itineraries and secrets you need to know to fully enjoy the season, coming from a Venetian family. Taste the delicious coffee, cakes and cookies we eat during Christmas and the New Year, and then again, on January 6, when Venice celebrates La Befana, our traditional Christmas feast.
Of course, here in Venice we celebrate Christmas on 24/25 December, Boxing Day on 26 December, and the New Year like elsewhere in Europe. But there is a fundamental difference, to this day: The generation of my grandparents still considers January 6 as Christmas, which is the ancient Venetian Christmas feast. So yes, Venice was independent and still has a patriarch, not bishop, and other festivities that recall the Orthodox church and the traditions of the Levantine countries.
Celebrating Christmas as we do now wasn’t happening until the 1990s when I was a child: Until then, simple dishes (piatti di magro) were eaten on Christmas Eve. We’d eat polenta and much else, or as you can see in the image below, of Calle Canonica next to Piazza San Marco, seasonal vegetables and herbs and also winter artichokes (!) went into simple dishes, and even focaccia! Simple but very tasteful and fresh from the Lagoon gardens.
Between 20 December (solstice) and 6 January, Venice smells of citrus fruit and red salads. Radicchio and fragrant bergamot. Our festive food looks red, just like the amaryllis and poinsettia plants – stelle di Natale used to decorate tables and windows during this time.
We’ll now take a look at the menus and treats, traditional and more modern, Venetian Christmas or New Year’s Eve Dinner. And there are 20 recipes plus itineraries for breakfast, coffee breaks, cookies and cakes for you to discover and enjoy the festive season here in Venice.
Cold appetizers. Your dinner in Venice starts with aperitivo and a plate of starters, such as branzin or baccalà (stock fish) served in tiny glasses, in saór or on colorful winter salads. These seasonal greens and salads consist of red beets, anchovies, endives and rosolia (winter herbs growing in the estuary). Usually, oven-warm bread is served in a basket, enriched with dried tomatoes, oregano and olives. As side dishes, you’ll often get a dip made from fresh cream, or a Venetian parsley and special winter greens sauce (salsa verde) flavored with a hint of anchovies.
Warm appetizers. Many restaurants serve crostini, tiny bruschette topped with boilt eggs, paprika-flavored or curry cream, olives or baccala‘ (stockfish) cream. And there are the ever-present arancini di riso (rice balls filled with minced meet, sugar peas, and herbs).
First Course. This is usually pasta with fish or sea food (canoce, vongole), but you also get pasta with red salmon in a yellow mustard seed sauce. Especially in winter, Venice has a tradition of eating baccalà, stockfish imported from Northern Europe. We also love freshwater fish caught in the rivers of the estuary, such as carps! A change, so to say, from pesce azzurro (“blue fish” from the Mediterranean Sea).
In addition to pasta, Venetians love creamy soups, minestre (vegetable broths) and risotti. Not just on festive days could you taste the famous pasta and beans soup, sopa de fasioi. Risotti at Christmas are often flavored with tartufo (truffles), fish from the Lagoon or the estuary: El go’ is a fish eaten in risotto, so we recommend that you ask for a risotto di go‘, it’s our winter specialty!
Of course, your first course on a cold December night could be sopa de pesse – Venetian fish soup. There are of course many ways to make fish soup on the coast of the Mediterranean sea, but here in Venice, we season it with onions, tomatoes, potatoes and cooked vongole and cozze, and white wine! It makes a hearty winter dish, like the excellent fish soup made from branzin that you could taste at Al Giardinetto da Severino.
Some restaurants also serve sopa de anguila (eel soup with tomatoes) for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, an ancient recipe of la cucina povera. This soup was, and still is, a favorite dish in the southern Lagoon, Pellestrina and Chioggia.
If you don’t like fish soup, you could try sopa de vino, a simple wine soup flavored with thick cream and lots of pepper, white wine – vino di casa and slices of bread toasted with cinnamon. My personal favorite!
Sorbetto. By now, I’d feel rather full, and it’s time for a little refreshing in-between course. Sorbetto in December comes flavored with fruit now in season, like freshly pressed orange and pomegranate juice. My favorite is sorbetto alla menta, mint-liquor-flavored sorbet.
Main Course. The main course is served with winter salads and/or vegetable dishes. We eat fish to celebrate here in venice, like pesce di San Pietro, caught in the Lagoon, or branzino. You could also order veal in a thick sauce made from gorgonzola cheese sauce, and side dishes like endive, parsley, chives and baked potatoes. Below, you can see squid and winter herbs at Ristorante Gran Canal. Of course, you could order turkey (tacchino) in Venice to celebrate.
Side Dishes. Your chance to taste our delicious Venetian winter treats! Red, orange and yellow carrots. Fennel in saór. Baked potatoes. Fried tomatoes, flavored with bread crumbs, parsley and grated parmesan. What about a warm salad made from cavolo nero (black cabbage) flavored with balsamic vinegar, or fried radicchio and other winter salads, white-and-green cicoria?
Desserts. Tiramesu was first created in the area around Treviso, and to celebrate, we love to flavor it with amaretto or liquore di maraschino, cherry-flavored liquor. A favorite version of mine is the raspberries and dark chocolate tiramesù flavored with rose syrup.
Tip: Many restaurants offer complementary pieces of pan d’oro (not so often panettone) for free if you order coffee. And the baicoli cookies these days often come with marzipan and lemon icing :-)