What L.A. Italian Chefs Are Cooking for Christmas
It's all about the 3 Big F's: Food, Fights, and Family. This how the Italian chefs of Los Angeles are getting ready for the big day...
Christmas is almost here and we can’t wait to sit down and make a list of what we are planning to eat, to prepare, which recipes to follow, what to come up with… just to surprise your guests. For us ITALIANS, Christmas is the big event—together with Easter—comparable only to your Thanksgiving in terms of what I’d like to describe as the 3 BIG “F”: food, fights and family.
Food, because we EAT an enormous amount of food during the course of the day. As a matter of fact, we sit down at lunch and finish eating well after dinner with frutta secca (nuts, nuts, and more nuts) coffee, panettone, tombola (tom-bo-la, a board game) and grappa. Or amaro.
Fights, because this is the best time to see all your relatives. In my family, this means all 21 cousins, 3 uncles, 3 aunts, and 2 nuns and we have the best fights of the year amongst yourselves.
And lastly, Family, because family is the best thing in the world and this feeling is well represented while cooking, especially during Christmas, where we all get together.
But since we are talking about food, in order to help you plan your Christmas menu, we asked some of the best Italian chefs in Los Angeles what they prepare at Xmas for their own family, what they eat, and what their favorite Christmas dish was when they were kids. Why? So you can steal their ideas….
Piero Selvaggio, Valentino (Santa Monica)
“For my family, kids & friends I prepare two menus. Christmas Eve is all about the fish. We start with crostini di baccalà (salt cod crostini) and simple spaghetti ai frutti di mare (spaghetti with mixed seafood), then crusted branzino with lentils, followed by panettone allo zabaglione (an egg yolk-based sauce).
Christmas day is the day: cotechino with Castelluccio lentils, tiny ravioli “del plin”, filled with taleggio cheese, and if I find the right duck…honey glazed duck for everyone. At night, walnuts, chestnuts and cannoli. Merry Xmas to al of you. Il Selvaggio.”
Paola Da Re, Pasta Sisters (Mid City)
“A simple tradition for all my Christmases was the bollito misto… a delicacy consisting of various tougher cuts of beef and veal, cotechino, and a whole hen or capon, gently simmered for 2–3 hours in an aromatic vegetable broth, You would then use the broth to do passatelli in brodo. Mom also prepared lingua bollita (boiled tongue) on the side, because it is not good for the broth.
What’s missing? The most important signature of the dish: salsa verde, handmade of course. And now, I do the same for my kids on Christmas Day. When making salsa verde, make sure to finely chop parsley, garlic, and anchovies, and add extra vergin olive oil, salt & pepper. My secret? I add some inside crumbs of bread, which I previously soaked in white wine vinegar”.
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Alessandra Manias, Saor Project
“Saor Project is all about family dinners… and Christmas for me is also family friends and the traditional Christmas Eve Mass in Pordenone, my hometown. Back home, Mom makes some of her best dishes, with no regards to religion or regional flavors. We start with antipasti misti (mixed appetizers): salumi & formaggi, aka cheeses such as gorgonzola with mascarpone and walnuts, or formaggio di malga, made with unpasteurized cow milk, while we wait for the piatto forte, or main dish, of our Christmas: anatra all’arancia, i.e. duck in orange sauce, which we use also for our homemade tagliatelle.
At the end fo the meal, there comes a dish that I love to to cook: Pandoro Tiramisu, which combines pandoro, the traditional Christmas cake from Verona, with tiramisu. I make mine in the shape of a Christmas tree. Following a recipe passed down from generation to generation, I intersperse coffee-soaked layers of pandoro with a spectacular mascarpone cream. Buon Natale.”
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Francesco Lucatorto, Otium (Downtown LA)
“I have a beautiful memory of a dish that my grandmother used to make for the Vigilia, that is Christmas Eve, something so simple and at the same time so delicious and innovative. Basically a table side build lasagna, with thin pasta sheets glazed in a butter sauce, layered with a porcini mushroom and beef bolognese sauce, parmigiano reggiano, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
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Her tip: Soak your dry porcini mushroom in warm, rosemary-infused water before using them in your recipes. Nonna is 94 and still going strong today! Felice Natale everyone!”
Luca Moriconi, Culina (Beverly Hills)
“Christmas in casa Moriconi meant lasagne, lasagne and more handmade lasagne. My father loved hunting, so we always had a wild boar stew with olives in brine. Now that I have my own family, I do the same. I make lasagne with the help of my wife and kids and, instead of wild boar, we eat chestnut-stuffed roasted capon. Buon anno!”
Antonio Toni Murè, Barrique (Venice)
“Christmas brings back memories of mamma Rosalinda e aunt Irene making tons of spinach-filled ravioli. I helped because since I was a kid, I had small hands and they were perfect to seal ravioli and tortellini. This is also WHY I became a chef, how I got into cooking. Originally from Sicily, we had lots of fish: antipasti di pesce, shrimp and calamari fritturina (mixed fried seafood), involtino di pesce spada (grilled swordfish rolls, stuffed with capers and seasoned breadcrumbs). My favorite dish as a kid was a baked leg of lamb, covered in crispy potatoes and onions.
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Now, for my wife Francesca and my kids Gaia and Chiara, on Christmas day I prepare caviar, langostine and shrimp tartare, a scallop carpaccio with burrata emulsion, and pulled pork, which I cook the night before with Argentinian cherries sauce.”
Luciano Pellegrini, Valentino (Santa Monica)
“When I was a kid, our Christmas was centered around the iconic insalata russa, aka Russian salad (funny that in Russia they call it Italian salad, go figure!), which consists mainly of vegetables and mayonnaise. Mom also used to make tortellini in broth, roast beef with roasted potatoes, and to finish panettone with gelato.
Now that I am a chef… here’s my Christmas menu. Hors d’Oeuvres: Corn bisque shooter; Shrimp ceviche; Maple syrup-Guinness glazed Wagyu beef. Main courses: Crespelle gratin; Butternut squash tortelli with white truffle; Potato gnocchi with butter and sage; Roasted turkey meatloaf with Mashed potatoes and oven roasted Brussel sprouts. Desserts: chocolate tart; Crème brûlée; Christmas log; Mixed chocolates.”
Gianbattista “Gianba” Vinzoni, Beverly Hilton (Beverly Hills)
“As a kid, we used to go to Giulia and Pippo, my grandparents from my mom’s side. We sat down at noon and got up around midnite, with just a single break around 5 PM for grappa & caffe. Since they had a woodburning oven, everything they prepared was salty and savory, starting from salumi (mortadella, culatello, coppa), to savory pies such as torta pasqualina with wild herbs and torta di zucca (squash cake). Then came ravioli di carne in sugo —grandma used to make 700 x day—roasted lamb with roasted potatoes, and wild hen stuffed with Parmesan cheese, eggs and marjorana. For dinner, we would have minestrone alla genovese, i.e. with pesto, and zampone or cotechino with lentils.
After all of that, the kids in the family would stand on a stool and recite their Christmas poems and sang Christmas songs. Before tombola (board game similar to bingo), the adults had vino, amari and grappa, while us kids shared dates, nuts, pandoro, torrone and panettone.
Now, for my family Christmas lunch at my in-laws’ house in San Francisco, I am preparing porchetta and roasted branzino with bok choy, Asian mushroom medley, and a tomato and chorizo sauce.”
Barbara Pollastrini, Personal Chef
“I am Roman, so my story starts with the beautiful view of a fully lit Piazza di Spagna, with the smell of hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts. I remember me and my mom going to the market to buy the necessary ingredients for our Christmas lunch/dinner. Cannelloni, capon, wild hen, tortellini in brodo, various shellfish and last but not least, my fav dessert of all time: struffoli con canditi from Naples, deep-fried balls of dough about the size of marbles [pictured in the cover image]. Crunchy on the outside and light inside, struffoli are covered with honey and other sweet toppings.
Michele Lisi, Nerano (Beverly Hills)
“Ahi tuna tartare with chives, lemon, Taggia olives, extravirgin olive oil, and crispy salsify on top for garnish. Then, squid ink tagliolini with uni and bottarga, which is one of my favorite dishes. Pan roasted Alaska black cod filet, with a nice and crispy skin, served with fennel confit, chanterelle mushroom sauce and fresh thyme, finished with a touch of white wine. Puff-pastry wrapped pears, vanilla sauce and fresh wild raspberries. Another dessert that I do often for Christmas is tiramisù, but using panettone instead of ladyfingers”.
Mirko Paderno, Estrella (West Hollywood)
“On Christmas Eve, as soon as I finish working at the restaurant, I relax with salumi (cured meats) and a nice Negroni. On Christmas day, thanks to my hunter friend Orazio, I prepare ducks, geese and quails, followed by a traditional spiedo bresciano, a meat skewer from Brescia, in Lombardy, with pieces of lard, pork, quails, even rabbit, mixed with sage, white onions and potatoes.
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As if this was not enough, we eat polenta with gorgonzola together with the wild game meats. At night, some spinach ricotta ravioli in a rustic, free-range chicken broth. Buon appetito!”
Cover photo by Barbara Pollastrini. Credit for other photos as indicated. All rights reserved.