Celebrating Carnevale: History, Tradition and Food

Posted on 13 February 2018

Happy Mardi Gras!

When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think of New Orleans; the parades, the floats, the beads, the food, the celebration. But did you know that Mardi Gras is also one of the great Italian holiday traditions? And that it all started with ancient Roman culture?

The ancient Romans, of course, were predecessors of the Italian people.  And, like all good Italians, they liked nothing better than a good party full of good food, laughter and friends.

De Nigris Carnivale

To celebrate the winter solstice, the feast of ‘Saturnalia’ took place in mid-December, honoring Saturn, the god of seed and sowing, and Opalia, goddess of plenty. And ‘Lupercalia’, an ancient feast celebrating fertility, was held in February and is also thought to be a forerunner of Mardi Gras, although it’s also linked with Valentine's Day.

When the Christian religion grew in ancient Rome, its leaders decided to use these pagan festivals to their advantage rather than try to outlaw them.  So, the celebrations of ‘Saturnalia’ and ‘Lupercalia’ became incorporated into the Church’s preparations for the celebrations of the resurrection of Christ - Easter Sunday.

Carnivale Balsamico Village

Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter, starts a period of Lent fasting and abstinence.  Knowing that this period of lean was coming, the idea of Carnival or ‘Carnevale’ was born and combined with those ancient Roman feasts to create ‘Mardi Gras’, literally ‘Fat Tuesday’.

Italy celebrates Carnevale with a huge winter festival celebrated with parades, masquerade balls, entertainment, music, and parties. And, of course, delicious food.

As we celebrate 2018 as the Year of Italian Food, here are some traditional Carnivale dishes to help you celebrate the season. 


Castagnole sweet dough balls are a delicious Italian sweet, soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside. A traditional recipe during Carnivale time.We love this recipe from An Italian in My Kitchen. 


A properly-made lasagna is a dish of consummate beauty and one of the most beloved Italian food dishes in the world. Check out this recipe from Walks of Italy.


Chiacchiere (literal translation: “little gossips”) are thin fried pastries common in Italy during Carnevale. They are called Chiacchiere due to the noise and crunch made while eating the crisp dough. Check out this recipe from Taras's Multicultural Table.


Sanguinaccio is a sweet custard made with dark chocolate and flavored with fresh pig blood (yes, you read that right). Check out the recipe on Life in Italy.

Buon appetito!