Cenone di capodanno (New Year's Eve dinner), December 31th

‘Cenone di Capodanno’ is Italian for ‘big feast of new year’s eve’. The basics of the event are pretty much the same as everywhere else in the world: people go to big parties to celebrate the countdown for the new year among dancing, fine dining and alcohol, or they flood the main square of their town in spite of the cold to watch fireworks together and maybe listen to a live concert.

What is uniquely Italian however is the custom of family feasts at home – something that younger generations tend to shun in favor of more lively home parties with their friends, but that remains traditionally very strong all over the country and especially in the south. Here the “cenone” is often the only occasion in the year for all the family members to meet and dine together, including those relatives who normally lead separate lives. The other important aspect of this tradition has an ancient origin, going back to the medieval age, when poverty was so widespread that new year’s eve was one of the few times when people could enjoy a proper meal, complete with expensive treats such as dessert or certain dishes. Having such a rich dinner meant saving for it, but it also turned the meal into a propitiatory ritual of sort – being able to afford better food at the beginning of the year supposedly attracted good luck and more chances for enjoying such victual during the following months.

This, and the ancient Catholic tradition of foregoing meat dishes during the holidays, influenced the menus leading with time to a number of standard new year’s eve recipes that are still very common today. Among the staples there are vegetable ravioli soup, big fishes, “exotic” fruits and traditional winter holidays desserts like panettone, pandoro and torrone. Another classic dish is cotechino or zampone con le lenticchie (pork sausage or pig’s trotter and lentils) where the lentils represent coins, hence eating them is supposed to attract riches in the coming year.