An Italian-Style Christmas Feast

From the WebMD Archives

Long before he stole the show as a runner-up on Bravo's Top Chef All-Stars, Mike Isabella was just another Italian-American kid in North Jersey who loved his grandmother's cooking.

Every Christmas Day, Isabella's family would gather at his Aunt Connie's house, where his grandmother and aunts whipped up a holiday feast of Jerseylicious fare.

"There was lots of that classic New York-New Jersey Italian food," he says. "We did lots of pastas, lots of meats, sausages. There was a turkey, lots of different vegetables."

Back then, "they wouldn't even let me in the kitchen," Isabella says. "I didn't mind: I was running around eating all the food. Plus, as a kid, it was all about the presents."

Now, it's all about getting his family together while he does the cooking, says Isabella, who honors his Jersey roots and his grandmother's culinary legacy at his Washington, DC, restaurant, Graffiato, as well as in his cookbook, Mike Isabella's Crazy Good Italian.

Here, he shares the recipe for his favorite holiday main dish:Spice-Roasted Chicken With Pepperoni Sauce and Cabbage. Isabella switches out dark meat for light meat to make the meal healthier.

Serve it family-style with his pepperoni sauce on the side, so your holiday guests can spoon it to taste. "The roasted cabbage and the spice-roasted chicken with the pepperoni sauce -- that's very Christmasy, with full flavors," Isabella says. "It's something a little more unique that you don't see at everyone's house.”

The pepperoni sauce is Isabella’s signature. "I have to keep it on my menu forever," he says with a smile. "People come from all over the country to taste it." Aunt Connie and his grandmother would surely approve.

Pepperoni Chicken

Makes 6 servings


2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

3 Tbsp lemon zest

2 Tbsp lemon juice

2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley

2 Tbsp finely chopped garlic

1 Tbsp smoked paprika

1 Tbsp fennel seeds, toasted and ground

3 whole chicken breasts, cut in half

2 Tbsp canola oil


pan-roasted cabbage (see recipe, below)

pepperoni sauce (see recipe, below)


1. In a mixing bowl, combine the first 7 ingredients to create the marinade.

2. Fully coat the chicken breasts with marinade and place in a large plastic bag or glass baking dish.

3. Refrigerate for at least 2 1/2 hours or overnight.

4. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

5. Remove chicken from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature for about 10 minutes.

6. Heat canola oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, sear chicken, skin side down, approximately 6 minutes until golden brown.

7. Flip each chicken breast over, place in a baking pan, and continue cooking for 30 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer reaches 165 F.

8. Remove chicken from oven and let rest 5 minutes. Serve with roasted cabbage.

Per serving: 241 calories, 18 g protein, 2 g carbohydrate, 17 g fat (4 g saturated fat), 56 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 64%

To serve: Mike Isabella recommends serving family-style: Arrange cabbage in a mound at the center of a platter. Place chicken breasts around the cabbage. Transfer pepperoni sauce to a gravy boat and serve on the side.

Pepperoni Sauce

Makes 12 servings, each 2 Tbsp


1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup yellow onion, diced small

1 thinly sliced garlic clove

6 ounces thinly sliced pepperoni

1/2 tsp fennel seeds, toasted and ground

1/2 tsp chili flakes

1/2 cup canned crushed tomatoes

1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1/2 tsp red wine vinegar


1. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sweat approximately 4 to 5 minutes until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. If garlic begins to brown, lower heat slightly.

2. Add pepperoni and cook 4 minutes.

3. Add fennel seeds and red chili flakes to onion-garlic-pepperoni mix and cook 1 minute.

4. Stir in tomatoes and cook 3 minutes. Add chicken broth and bring to a slight boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer 50 minutes.


5. Remove mixture from heat and let cool slightly. Puree in a blender approximately 2 minutes or until smooth.

6. Pass sauce through a fine strainer to create a smoother texture. Use a rubber spatula to help push the sauce through. Stir in vinegar.

Note: The pepperoni sauce can be made in advance and refrigerated up to 3 days. Reheat sauce before serving.

Per serving: 86 calories, 4 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 15 mg cholesterol, 313 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 77%

Pan-Roasted Cabbage

Makes 6 servings


2 Tbsp canola oil

1/2 cup shallots, diced small

1 cup pepperoni, diced small

4 cups thinly sliced savoy cabbage

1 Tbsp white wine vinegar

1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 Tbsp finely chopped parsley


1. Heat canola oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add shallots and sweat approximately 3 to 4 minutes until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. Add pepperoni and continue cooking 3 minutes.

2. Add cabbage and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted (approximately 10 minutes).

3. Just before serving, add vinegar, olive oil, and parsley.

Per serving: 275 calories, 10 g protein, 7 g carbohydrate, 24 g fat (7 g saturated fat), 39 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 631 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 76%

Pumpkin Risotto

In winter, Isabella reaches for in-season veggies like pumpkin, mushrooms, and squash. And he offers this prep tip from his grandmother: "You have to put love into it, and always stir in one motion in the same circle. My grandmother always told me that when you constantly stir it in one motion, it cooks evenly, and it gets creamy and rich."

Makes 6 servings


2 Tbsp unsalted butter

1/2 cup white onion, diced small

1 cup carnaroli rice

3 cups simmering hot water

1/4 cup plain (no spices or flavoring added) pumpkin puree, canned

1/4 cup shredded or grated, Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted

2 Tbsp finely chopped chives



1. Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat. Once melted, add onions and sweat 4 to 5 minutes or until soft and tender but without any golden or brown color.

2. Add rice, and stir to coat each grain of rice. Toast 3 to 4 minutes.

3. Add simmering hot water, a ladle (about 1/2 cup) at a time, and continually stir rice in one direction. Once that water has been absorbed, add another ladle of water and constantly stir in the same direction. Continue ladling the water and stirring in this way until all the water has been absorbed. The rice should be al dente at this point.

4. Add pumpkin puree and stir in the same direction to combine. Stir in Parmesan cheese.

5. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds and chives.

Per serving: 201 calories, 6 g protein, 30 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 9 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 68 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 28%

Yogurt Panna Cotta With Spiced Pears and Pistachios

When it comes to desserts, "I'm a combo," Isabella says. "I love sweet and salty. I went with the yogurt panna cotta" for this holiday menu "because the yogurt has a cool little tanginess and acidity, and it's also very healthy. Yogurt is universal."

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients for panna cotta

1 envelope (1/4 ounce) unflavored gelatin

3 Tbsp sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup 1% milk

1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped

1 3/4 cups plain 2% Greek yogurt

1 tsp lemon juice

spiced poached pears

2 Tbsp pistachios, roasted


1. In a small pan, mix gelatin, sugar, and salt. Add milk and vanilla bean seeds, stir together, and let stand 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Place on stove over medium-low heat and bring to a simmer -- small bubbles will form around edges of mixture after about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Stir until gelatin dissolves. Set pan aside for 3 to 5 minutes to cool.


3. Pour mixture into a blender or food processor. Add yogurt and lemon juice and blend 20 seconds.

4. Divide yogurt mixture evenly among 6 glass dishes. Cover tops with plastic wrap, and chill several hours or overnight. Top with spiced poached pears and pistachios and serve.

Ingredients for poached pears

1/2 cup white granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

6 whole black peppercorns

2 whole cloves

2 whole cardamom pods

1 cinnamon stick

2 pears, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch cubes


1. Combine sugar, water, peppercorns, cloves, cardamom pods, and cinnamon stick in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. A syrup will begin to form.

2. Remove spices and discard. Add chopped pears. Continue cooking 5 minutes.

3. Remove pears from heat and let cool before serving over panna cotta.

Per serving: 218 calories, 7 g protein, 42 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 5 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 38 g sugar, 159 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 13%