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Hearty (but healthy)
Holiday Fare
from the
Old Country

While doing cooking demos at the State Fair of Virginia this fall, I was highlighting Hispanic-inspired foods since it was smack in the middle of Hispanic Heritage month. A dark haired woman walked up to me and asked if I was Hispanic. Dressed in a flouncy, off the shoulder senorita-flavored blouse with a flower behind my ear, I confessed that I wasn’t. She then said “So you’re fixing white Hispanic recipes."


I immediately got it.


Just because I was tossing salsa and chilies all over the scrambled eggs and tucking them into taco shells, that didn’t make it real Hispanic food. To cook authentic Hispanic dishes, it probably has to be in your blood, or you need to be trained by your (or someone’s) dear abuela, or spend more than a week’s vacation in Buenos Aires.

My Hispanic-inspired recipes may not have been real, but my Italian recipes sure are. 


Unlike most Americans who are this lovely mulligatawny blend, my siblings and I are of 100% Italian descent. Our family comes from two towns in Italy:  Campobasso, in the heart of olive oil country, which I’ve never visited; and Isola d’Ischia, the Island of Ischia, a volcanic spec off the coast of Naples, where I have spent much time. 


Ah, dear Ischia. This less than 18 square mile island is lushly green, with Mt. Epomeo at its center. The countryside is dotted with hills and wonderful tile roofed structures.  It’s the most picturesque place I’ve ever been. Europeans flock to the island for its thermal springs, black sand beaches and gorgeous villages. In fact, Roanoke artist, Eric Fitzpatrick, often takes a summer trek to the island to paint and relax. 


My great grandmother, Concetta Monti, owned a basket factory in the town of Lacco Ameno on the island, which has fewer than 5000 residents, and is famous for a mushroom shaped rock, called Il Fungo, sitting off the coast. As the story goes, Concetta‘s baskets were of such high quality, the Prince of Italy commissioned her to make a basket for the royal baby he and his wife were expecting to sleep in. 


I didn’t know Concetta, but I did know my grandmother, Rosalie Monti, and was under her feet as she prepared holiday meals with my mother and aunt.


Pre-Christmas was a special time – more about the food than decorating the house or wrapping gifts. The food was abundant, with aromas emanating for days from the kitchen with the cast iron stove and the huge oak table, the one with always enough room for one more chair. 


Gravy (what Italians called tomato sauce) bubbled away, redolent of sausages, meatballs, garlic and fresh basilico (basil), all floating in San Marzano plum tomatoes. Dunking bits of crusty Italian bread in the gravy throughout the day ‘to taste’ was common as folks walked by the stove. This sauce was used to coat whatever pasta course (il primo) was served on Christmas Day.  Layered into lasagna, ladled over Rigatoni or stuffed shells, or my personal favorite, freshly made Cavatelli. The sauce could stand alone, it was so rich and velvety by the end of the day.

If I close my eyes, I can still feel the warmth of that kitchen and inhale the rich aroma of the day.

Fast forward several decades to Christmas dinner at my house.

I try to do it all but I must admit that much of my Christmas day fare is made ahead and frozen. I alternate years when I serve soup and pasta. Back in the day, twenty or more was typical, so you had lots of different foods in small portions. Today, with a smaller family – maybe 10-12 - we no longer include all the courses at one meal. Instead, the dishes omitted on Christmas day find their way to the table another night during the holidays. They just love it all too much.

The years we have pasta, it’s always Cavatelli. Cavatelli are one of the most delectable, delicious - and unique - pasta shapes. Related to Gnocchi (but without the potato and not nearly so heavy), Cavatelli was always - and still is - my family's favorite pasta dish. With thumb-print grooves to nestle the robust gravies and sauces that coat them, Cavatelli are the ultimate Italian comfort food. They are not well known and are usually not prepared on a large, commercial scale. Though you may be able to find them pre-packaged in specialty shops, to truly experience this light but chewy delectable pasta, you should always make them from scratch. Fortunately, Cavatelli is not hard to make and you will easily impress your family members with your pasta-making skills. It is also a pasta you can make ahead and freeze.


Even though I could make and freeze it, I love having the children help make it - always drying it out on our vintage Italian linen napkins and towels.


Speaking of linens – when Grandma Monti came over, she brought a trunk of hand embroidered linens, in her hope chest, which was the Italian linen collection we all received part of. I know millennials eschew ironing, but there’s nothing like sleeping on a freshly ironed Italian linen pillowcase or wiping crumbs off with a napkin that is embroidered with an R and M (Grandma’s initials and mine, backwards). I love using them during the holidays to channel those who are gone but not forgotten.


The other difference today is that everyone helps – grandchildren have been taught how to clear (never scraping dishes at the table or stacking – horrors!). And my sons, both great cooks themselves, have taken over some of the food preparation. My new daughter in law is of English descent, so we’re now decorating the table with crackers and including Yorkshire pudding along with our Christmas roast or leg of lamb. In my childhood, lamb was normally reserved for Easter, but my family often requests lamb at Christmas, especially favoring a rack of lamb chops.


When I started writing this article, my initial thought was that we have the knowledge today to eat a healthier diet, but in actuality – the Mediterranean Diet is the very one the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourages. That’s exactly what this Italian Christmas dinner is all about: 


  • Meat, sure, but in small doses

  • Veggies, cooked and dressed in olive oil and fresh herbs, fill the plate

  • Nuts and fruits

  • No processed foods (home-made pasta, using real eggs and freshly made pasta sauce)

  • An assortment of foods in small portions, sampling all the food colors

  • Abundant fiber and nutrients

  • And red wine

I hope you enjoy my mother’s (and her mother’s) recipe for Cavatelli from the Island of Ischia. I've also include a special holiday recipe for Broccoli Rabe, my favorite vegetable and some tips for a mouth-watering rack of lamb (or the roast beast of your choice). Did you know lamb is one of the highest food sources of zinc? Broccoli rabe - also known as rapini - is a nutritional rockstar, giving you half (or much more) of your RDA of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin K, calcium and iron.


See these two spectacular, authentic Italian holiday recipes as you scroll down below.

Those Italians from the old country just knew how to eat. My family and I are forever grateful to have them as part of our DNA and our life memories. 

Typical Christmas Day Italian Menu from My Youth

Antipasto: A platter, piled high with deli meats and cheeses, olives, shiny artichoke hearts, and roasted peppers, over lettuce leaves and chopped celery – everything glistening with drizzled, pungent olive oil.

Italian Wedding Soup was next – the stock traditionally made with the carcass and leftover bits of Thanksgiving turkey, frozen and made into this fabulous soup with tiny meatballs, chicken and wilted escarole – always served piping hot, at the table from a special soup tureen using a mother of pearl handled ladle.

Pasta:  Cavitelli, our family’s version of Gnocchi, a home-made pasta, with little indentations made in the dough, reminding one of the watery caves under the mountain on Ischia you could row into.

Relish Trays: Sitting on the table, you could find fresh fennel – perfect for digestion - and yet more olives.

Secondo:  The meat course was usually a beef roast - since the Feast of the Seven Fishes preceded Christmas day and everyone was fished-out.









The sides could be oven-roasted potatoes, cooked with peppers and onions and a platter of braised broccoli rabe, cooked in olive oil, garlic and pine nuts. The salad was usually just lettuce and with a crisp vinaigrette – mostly, it went uneaten.

The Break:  As you can imagine, folks could barely move at this point, so it was typical for everyone to disperse while the table and dishes were cleared. Folks went for a walk, took a nap, or opened presents. As a young girl in an Italian family, I helped in the kitchen.

Dessert:  Much later, fruit, nuts, Christmas cookies and Spumoni ice cream were brought to the table where, once again, everyone gathered, ate, and washed it all down with espresso and Italian liquors.

Tips for a

Mouth-Watering Rack of Lamb

This is such a treat at our house - we all love baby lamb chops sliced from the rack.  I give everyone at the table permission to pick them up and eat them off the bone, which we all do. They are super easy, and pretty fool-proof – just don’t overdo the rosemary – a little goes a long way.


Grilling is another option to the broiler, but remember to cook them medium rare.  Any leftovers are great cold the next day.  

Lamb offers high quality protein, vitamins and minerals – especially iron, zinc, and Vitamin B12 - and helps with muscle development. Many people today are deficient in zinc. Lamb is the highest natural source of zinc, second only to oysters.

Mint jelly is sometimes served with lamb. The combination began during WWII when lamb was scarce and instead, mutton, a strong tasting meat from old sheep, was what was available. The mint jelly helped mask the flavor.


Today’s baby lamb doesn’t need anything to mask the flavor, but traditions live on.


2 racks of lamb (often found packed, 2 racks in a package)

1 tablespoon lemon zest, chopped fine

2 ½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. cracked black pepper


Racks of lamb come with 7 - 8 chops, so two racks should give you 14 – 16 baby chops. Some people broil the rack intact and whole, but we slice our rack into chops before broiling. With a sharp knife, slice between each, trying to make them as even as possible.  Some people scrape the bones clean at this point.  I cook them and then scrape them clean – with my mouth!

Pat a bit of olive oil to each side of the chops.  Combine the remaining ingredients in a small bowl:

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 – 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary

2 - 3 tablespoons chopped parsley

Sprinkle this on both sides.  Place on boiler pan and let sit for at least 15 min., or refrigerate for a few hours, then remove and let sit about half an hour, letting them come to room temp.  Turn on broiler.

Place 4-5 inches from the heat source and broil 3 minutes on one side; flip; broil 3 min. on other side.

They are best medium rare.  Alternately, use a grill.

Serve on plates, tee-pee fashion, with the bones sticking up, and with a sprig of rosemary.


Serves 4 (3 – 4 chops per person)

Mary Rapoport, a Certified Family and Consumer Science professional, is employed as Consumer Affairs Director for the Virginia Egg Council. She appears on many local TV stations across Virginia, sharing healthy recipe ideas and cooking tips, works with extension, dieticians, newspaper food editors, and speaks at state and national conferences. In 2016 she was awarded Leader in Family and Consumer Sciences by AAFCS.

Broccoli Rabe with Garlic and Hot Pepper

The cookbook, Entertaining with the Sopranos, lists this recipe for the delectable (sometimes bitter) and nutritious side dish. The TV mobster family hailed from Naples, in Southern Italy, just a hydrofoil ride from the Island of Ischia, so it makes sense that it’s pretty much the way our family fixes it.  If it’s too bitter for your taste, sprinkle with a bit of sugar or add some plumped raisins.  


I sometimes add toasted pine nuts as a garnish. Bake the pine nuts in a 400° oven, watching carefully. Once golden and shiny, it means the oils have been released and the flavor peaked. I use any leftovers in a pasta dish: Toss cooked rabe and crumbled, cooked Italian sausage over cooked pasta of choice, adding a slurp of olive oil and a bit more crushed red pepper – heaven!

2 one-lb bunches of broccoli rabe or rapini

4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

Pinch of crushed red pepper

¼ cup olive oil


Toasted pine nuts (optional)


Trim rabe of any yellow leaves; slice off the bottom of the stalks; cut into 2” pieces; set aside.

Cook garlic and crushed red pepper flakes in oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the garlic is golden – about 2 minutes.

Add broccoli rabe, ¼ cup of water (which helps to soften and steam the greens) and salt to taste.  Cover the pan and cook until rabe is tender – about 5 minutes.  Add a little more water if it all evaporates.

Taste, adding a pinch of sugar, if it’s too bitter.  Serve with toasted pine nuts, if desired, hot or at room temperature.


Serves 8

Fresh Cavatelli

Shaped like little caves, the pasta holds sauce nicely. It has a totally different texture than store-bought, dry pasta.

This can easily be a meal on its own, but Italians call it il Primo, as in the first course.

1# ricotta cheese (low fat but not non-fat)
3 eggs
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups flour
1 cup flour (reserved)

Mix first four ingredients in a large mixing bowl until smooth. Add baking powder and 3 cups of flour, a cup at a time. Place a small amount of dough on a large cutting board or clean counter. Sprinkle with reserved flour and knead gently until it no longer sticks to your hands.


Roll into a tube about ½” thick.

Cut pieces about ¾” long and roll in flour. Press finger into each piece of dough, making a little cave (cavatelli).


Continue with remaining dough, setting dough out to dry on a towel on a baking sheet, about 2 or 3 hours.


At this point, cook or freeze on the baking sheet, then place, frozen in a freezer bag.

Cook in a pot of about 3 quarts boiling water, salted and with 1 tsp. oil. If frozen, just toss in frozen.

When cavatelli come to the top, cook about 15 min. Taste to be sure they are cooked, not still gummy.

Drain, ladle on your best pasta sauce and Parmesan cheese.Serve warm. Makes about 8 servings for a pasta course.

Note: Donna Gail asked if gnocchi and cavetelli were the same thing. Fellow Italians, forgive her, she's Cajun. But others may have the same question. Gnocchi are like little dumplings and can be made with potatoes, various flours, eggs and sometimes cheese.  Cavetelli are the Ischia version of gnocchi – made with indentations to resemble the under-mountain caves you can take boats into – grottoes. The potato version is what you get in most restaurants that serve it. I think they are heavy, while the ones made with Ricotta are lighter. Some people add herbs to the dough. Some serve them with just melted butter and parsley. 

When we had grandkids stay with us in the summer, we always made them – all the kids around the kitchen island rolling these little balls of dough and making the little caves in them. So fun. Would also be fun at Christmas. Making fresh pasta is always a special treat and children especially seem to engage with the process.

Check back with this column in a week or so...I'm going to make cavatelli from scratch and will have a special slideshow of images coming - from start to finish.

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