New Year’s in Italy is celebrated in a big way
In the Italian language, adding one” to the end of a word makes something bigger. So, if “cena” which means dinner, “cenone” must be a very big dinner. And it is. On New Year’s Eve, Italians, with friends and family gather around a table, at home, in neighborhood trattorie or hotel restaurants for an enormous meal known fondly as the Cenone.
And that’s not all that’s big the night. Often sponsored by cities and towns, fireworks displays are spectacular, and, yes, extremely noisy. So are the fireworks shot off from Italians’ terraces, balconies or rooftops.
So if planning to spend New Year’s Eve in Italy, pack a big appetite and perhaps some ear plugs, as the revelry lasts almost till dawn.
What to eat that eve depends largely on where you eat it, as variety in regional cooking is one of Italy’s gastronomical riches.
But from north to south, a traditional New Year’s dish is cotechino and lentils, a hearty pairing that calls for an equally hearty bottle of red wine to wash it down (after a brindisi, or toast, to the New Year, with some sparkling spumante). Cotechino is a kind of thick sausage made from ground pork rind and mashed pork parts such as shoulder and cheek. It is a specialty of the Emilia Romagna region, and one prized version is made in Modena.
Lentils are essential on Cenone menus. Since the legumes loosely resemble tiny coins, the superstition holds that eating them will assure you of wealth in the new year. Italian cooks have their favorite kinds of lentil, with many willing to pay extra for more renowned kinds, such as those from Castelluccio, an Umbrian town in the Apennines.
With such attention to its local dishes on New Year’s Eve, the Emilia Romagna region not surprisingly features some of the more dazzling traditions to bid farewell to the old year. Bologna boasts the Rogo del Vecchione (The Blaze of the Old One). A figure some four-stories high, made of papier-mache, wood or straw, is set ablaze, and fireworks are exploded, too. If that sounds wild, New Year’s Day in Bologna brings a more classic form of entertainment — a free-admission ball, in the afternoon, where dancers can waltz, polka or otherwise twirl to their delight in a Great Ballroom is on tap for the first day of 2020.
Not to be outdone, the elegant town of Ferrara in that same region, in a historical recreation of a 1554 fire at Estense Castle, ignites a blaze that sets up clouds of colored smoke.
For those in search of a more quiet, reflective manner to mark the arrival of a new year, the Umbrian hill town of Assisi has a prayers service led by Franciscan friars. An Umbrian Cenone menu is likely to feature chickpeas and truffles.
While many will have their Cenone at homes of families and friends, where they will dig into plates of steaming lentils, there are departures from traditions. This year, for example, the port city of Genoa is putting on a Cenone in its famed Acquarium. Not coincidentally, a traditional Ligurian Cenone is centered around dishes of fish, not meat.
While a Cenone at a restaurant can be pricey, free entertainment abounds.
Rome offers a mega-concert that goes on for hours, after the midnight fireworks light up the sky. One popular open-air concert place is the sprawling grounds of Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman entertainment venue. One good vantage point to see the pyrotechnical shows is the Janiculum Hill, affording a view of the city’s signature monuments such as the Pantheon.
Milan’s heart is the square outside the magnificent Gothic Duomo, or cathedral, and that space provides the venue for its ring-in-the-new-year concert.
The custom of hailing the new year by throwing out the likes of broken chairs and cracked pottery from windows and balconies has largely faded away, to the relief of those passing by in the streets below. But some revelers in Naples and other parts of the south, still cling fondly to the usage, so beware if taking a stroll to burn off some of those Cenone calories.