Perhaps the single most popular time for Italians to take a vacation the week of “Ferragosto,” the summer holiday that falls on August 15. This is the time when shops and restaurants close, people head to the beach or the countryside, and all of Italy is on holiday.
Although it might seem like a European version of a Labor Day picnic, the origins of the holiday purportedly go back to ancient times, when it was basically a harvest festival. As with so many ancient feast days, it was appropriated by the Church, and Roman Catholics will recognize the date as being that of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. In the 20th Century it was declared a national holiday by none other than Mussolini.
Regardless of its origins, it remains the time when Italians take a break, relax, exit the hot cities for the countryside or beaches, and of course eat!
So what does a Ferragosto menu traditionally feature? A lot of grilled meats and seafood, fresh produce, and watermelon (called cocomero or anguria—we used to buy it off the back of a truck in Piazza Vittorio in Rome on hot August evenings). The grilled meats, one should note, are not the standard hamburgers and hotdogs one finds at American summer celebrations, but whole animals roasted over the open fire: suckling pigs and lambs, pigeons and other small fowl, even goat. But you will also find grilled sausage spirals and offal, and a lot of grilled fish and seafood.
Try a recipe for grilled chicken kebabs.
One of the hallmarks of Italian cuisine is that it is traditionally simple, with fresh ingredients simply dressed to let the flavors shine through. So a classic grigliata will feature a wonderful meat (when possible bought from the local shepherd down the road, or in the city from your favorite neighborhood butcher) or seafood seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled, and drizzled with olive oil. In the case of meat and game it might be served on a bed of laurel or other fresh herbs to give it a slightly herbal aroma, but nothing fancier than that.
Of course, it’s best eaten al fresco, outdoors, whether that is on a picnic or simply on your patio. And best served also with some local wine. When I lived in Italy Ferragosto meant so much vino sfuso (bulk wine) served out of unmarked bottles next to the grilled feast and fresh local bread.
What are your summer traditions? Have you ever celebrated Ferragosto in Italy? If so, what did you eat?
By Peg Kern
Sign up to receive our newsletter, which includes travel tips, recipes, promotions, and information on our best cooking vacations.