New Year's traditions around the world usually celebrate rebirth, renewal, and the hope for good fortune. Capodanno, as Italians refer to the New Year, is no different. Each New Year's Eve, Italians share foods and rituals to ensure health and richness in life for the coming months.
Prosperity is a top priority for Italians during New Year celebrations, and unsurprisingly, the best way to do this is by eating something special. Perhaps what is surprising though is Italians believe prosperity comes from eating a simple dish of lentils.
Lentils may not seem especially luxurious, but that's not the point. The little golden-colored legumes are said to look like golden coins, and filling up on them, Italians claim, will ensure gold coins will find you in the new year. So popular is the tradition that friends and family often pass around bags of dried lentils as gifts. Symbolically this represents spreading wealth and the hope of sharing in the prosperity.
The lentils are also typically eaten with pork sausage known as cotechino. This hefty sausage takes its name from the cotica, pork rind. Originally created in the Emilia-Romagna region, the sausage is made of pork meat, lard, and pork rind. These thick sausages require a long braising, usually at least three hours. The long cooking time is required to melt the fat and other cheaper cuts of meat but ultimately renders a smooth and tasty sausage. The sausage also includes a unique mix of spices that varies by sausage maker and regional taste. Typical flavors include allspice, coriander, and cinnamon, but some recipes even include vanilla extract.
Cotechino consists of cheap parts of the pig, meaning it was not historically an especially luxurious food. However, it has earned itself a place at New Years as a symbol of good fortune, likely from a period of scarcity when many Italians went hungry, and scrap meat sausages were a delicacy for meager budgets.
Usually, the cotechino is braised, sliced into medallion-shaped pieces, and served over the lentils. There are variations on this. In Modena, a popular way of preparing the sausage is to wrap it in beef. This dish is known as Cotechino in Galera, meaning Cotechino imprisoned by the beef.
Italians will also eat zampone, a pig's trotter, with their lentils. In this case, the leg of the pig is stuffed with sausage filling. Zampone is said to date to the 16th Century when Pope Julius II was leading a siege of Mirandola, a Duchy in Emilia-Romagna. Worried the Pope would seize their pigs, locals stuffed their sausage meat into the pig legs hoping to hide it.
Zampone and Cotechino are made from the same filling. Cotechino sausage is made by stuffing the meat into an intestine casing instead of the leg. Both are sold as either a partially preserved sausage or raw, and both versions must be cooked for a long period to melt the sinew.
Both zampone and cotechino originated in the style of cucina povera, the poor kitchen. Especially in the 19th century, the working class in Italy rarely had access to meat, and these kinds of sausages that used scraps such as skin, ears, and snout were one way the poor had access to meat. Today, since the sausages have evolved into more of a celebration meal served on the New Year, the fillings typically have less scrap and more muscle. Pork is popular at this time of year not just because it pairs well with the legumes, but because it represents the bounty of life and the fullness yet to come.
Another way Italians ensure their prosperity in the new year is by eating twelve grapes. An old Italian proverb instructs that the person who eats grapes on New Year’s Eve will count his money all year round. The tradition has a direct correlation in Spain, where people must eat twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight. Dried fruit like dates, raisins, or figs is also considered fortuitous in this regard, but without any specific quota.
Not everyone wants financial wealth. For Italians interested in expanding their family, they eat pomegranate seeds. The fruit has been a symbol of fertility since Roman times. It's the same reason Italians will wear red on New Year's Eve, often as red undergarments.
Meanwhile, in Naples, just in case you didn't get enough fish on Christmas Eve, the New Year's Eve dinner, Cenone di Capodanno, is usually a feast of seafood. But for families looking for an easier New Year's celebration, baking a lasagna is also an option. Lasagna became popular because this one-pot dish can be prepared ahead of time and serves a large number of people. The tradition includes buying factory-made lasagna noodles rather than making pasta from scratch. The reason for the store-bought pasta? Ensuring prosperity in the new year.
Italians aren't only concerned with ensuring prosperity though. During New Year's Eve, they also celebrate the La Festa di San Silvestro, the feast of Saint Sylvester. Pope Sylvester I served the Papacy from 314 to 335 before dying on December 31. His reign coincided with Constantine the Great, who shifted the center of the Roman empire to Constantinople. To honor San Silvestro, fireworks and sparkles are lit. In smaller villages, locals often light bonfires in the piazzas. Everywhere, the crowds count down to the stroke of midnight. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, celebrating the life of Saint Silvestro does not guarantee prosperity.