A traditional Italian Christmas is about lavish food. Fish, meats, potatoes, salad... "It's all on the table," says Angela Fileccia Lichtenberger. "If we sit down to eat at 1 or 1:30 on Christmas Day, we'll be there until 4 o'clock. It just goes on and on and on."
Lichtenberger grew up in Palermo, Sicily, immigrated to the United States, started a family and eventually opened Angela's A Taste of Italy, a compact, generously stocked Italian grocery and catering business where everyone is treated like family and every day feels a little like Christmas.
It's all about faith and food during the Italian holidays, according to Lichtenberger. Although her sons are grown now, and she does less cooking at home, she smiles as she describes her family's traditions.
On Christmas Eve, no meat is served. Families gather for a feast of seven, 12 or more different fish dishes. As a girl, she recalls, "We would go to my grandma's. My cousins were there. We'd have dancing, play cards and have 12 fishes, some cod, octopus, mussels, squid, vegetables, antipasto.
"Then we would get in the car, go to midnight Mass and drive to Mondello's Resort where it was like the Fourth of July. We would sit at the shore where the fishermen were catching fish and cooking them right there in front of you. We would eat them fresh, right out of the sea, squirt on a little lemon juice, drink beer and stay up until morning. My grandpa and I. It was the best time."
At home in Illinois in the years following, Lichtenberger recalls, "On Christmas Eve day, I used to cook all day. Beer-battered fried cauliflower and all kinds of other vegetables, fish, antipasto. We would have snacks in the evening, then go to church for 8:30 Mass, come home about 10 o'clock, eat supper, then have panettone (sweet bread) and champagne. Then we would go to bed."
The 12 fish translated to two favorites: cod soaked in salt water for 48 hours, and fried squid. Sardines, smelts and anchovies replaced the usual prosciutto on the antipasto platter for that one night.
Detailing Christmas Day, she continues, "We would have Christmas dinner around 1 in the afternoon, at least seven courses. Ravioli, cannelloni or some other kind of pasta, always a pasta; a meat course of beef tenderloin, prime rib, grilled sausage, potatoes and vegetables. And salad, bread, good wine, coffee, fruit, dessert and lots of cookies.
"In Italy, we would start baking cookies December 15th. Here, when my sons got out of school for their vacation, we would bake for the two days before Christmas." One other concession to the American Christmas was opening presents on Christmas morning. In Italy, Lichtenberger's family opened presents on January 6th, in the tradition of La Befana bringing presents to children on Epiphany Eve.
According to the Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, by Tanya Gulevich, among the most popular Italian desserts are the sweet panettone bread, amaretti almond cookies, cannoli pastries filled with ricotta cheese and candied fruit, and struffoli fried dough balls. "Eating struffoli is like eating peanuts," says Lichtenberger. "You can't stop with one."
Watching Lichtenberger's animated face as she recalls Christmases surrounded by family, delicious food, faith and folklore, she is ageless. Peaceful in her spirit and joyful in her work, she still daydreams. "Some day I'm going home for Christmas."
Here is Angela Fileccia Lichtenberger's recipe for Arancini, "Little Oranges," Rice Ball
"We eat this on Christmas Eve. We usually put prosciutto inside the balls, but since we do not eat meat on Christmas, we only stuff them with mozzarella."
3 cups chicken broth
1 3/4 cups Arborio rice
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 to 3/4 cup flour, just enough to coat the rice balls
2 cups breadcrumbs
2/3 cup diced whole milk mozzarella
Peas for filling, optional
Vegetable oil for frying
Bring broth to a boil in a saucepan, remove from heat and cover.
Melt butter in heavy medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add rice, stir one minute. Add wine and stir often until the wine is absorbed.
Add hot broth 1/2 cup at a time and simmer until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender and creamy. This will take about 30 minutes.
Mix in Parmigiano, salt, pepper. Cool completely. Mix in one egg. Cover and chill.
Place flour in one bowl, beaten eggs in another bowl, breadcrumbs in a third bowl.
Shape 1/4 cup of rice into ball, poke a hole in the middle, put cube of mozzarella into the center (and a few peas if desired), press the rice over the filling.
Coat ball with flour, then egg, then bread crumbs.
Fry balls in oil until they are golden and crusty. Drain on paper towel, serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes about 12 rice balls.