Donatella Diaries: The Arpaia Family Christmas

Christmas in my home is my favorite time of year filled with traditions. Growing up, Christmas Eve was always the day that I looked forward to the most, especially as a child, since we would open up our gifts at midnight! It’s a more intimate gathering of only 15 to 20 family members and is a celebration of the feast of seven fishes, or il vigli, which commemorates the vigil—the waiting for the birth at midnight of baby Jesus. It’s a beautiful tradition and in my family the birth of Jesus also coincided with the arrival of Santa Claus at midnight as well!

Dinner begins around 6 pm; we start with pasta with broccoli rabe and anchovies followed by shrimp, calamari, octopus, eel, skate and bacala made in several different ways. We finish with fennel, fruit and light desserts. This year has been so busy, especially since I reopened my restaurant Mia Dona (more on that next time) and all the television show appearances (Next Iron Chef, Top Chef and others), that I found myself still wrapping presents on Christmas Eve right after dinner. At 10 pm, we all bundled up and jumped in the car to head to mass at Saint Joachims in Woodmere, my tiny parish that I have been going to since I was a baby.

We get home shortly after 11 pm and we start preparing for midnight. I was put in charge of the hot chocolate and passing the Pandoro, the Italian Christmas cake much like panettone but without raisins and fruit, while my brother opens the champagne for a midnight toast. In our family the youngest family member puts baby Jesus in his crib to complete the nativity scene. Baby Olivia, only four months old, was too young, so baby Sofia, who is almost two, had the honors. She was soo excited! We then began to open presents while listening to Italian holiday music. The celebration continues well into the night!

The next day we open up our home to the extended family of 35-40 relatives who bring some of their special desserts to add to my mother’s delicious menu. We make orecchiette with ragu, meatballs, spare ribs followed by prime rib and a ton of veggies—artichokes, shiitake mushrooms, broccoli rabe with sausage, roasted potatoes with onions. Then we have roasted chestnuts, a variety of cheeses, my Aunt Donata’s ricotta cheese cake, my mom’s cream puffs and honey glazed struffoli. My sister makes homemade limoncello, which she packages in individual bottles and gives as a gift to each visitor.

The room is beautifully set with decorations and Christmas linens that have been passed down through generations. A smaller table is set for the children with presents and toys. It’s funny because all my life I wanted to graduate from the kid’s table and now I would give anything to get back. It’s the traditions like these that cement themselves into my memory and that I look forward to year upon year. Happy Holidays to everyone!


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