Ask Gabriella Marchetti about the Feast of the Seven Fishes and she’ll probably give you a look like you just served her a bad clam.
My mother, who was born and raised in Italy’s Abruzzo region but has lived in the U.S. since the 1950s, has always maintained a distance between her own Italian culinary customs and those she perceives to be Italian-American. The Feast of the Seven Fishes—the elaborate seven-course fish dinner that many families of Italian descent serve on Christmas Eve—falls into the latter category.
“I never heard it called that,” she said when I asked her about it recently. “Non esiste in Italia.” Translation: It doesn’t exist in Italy.
That is not to say Italians don’t eat seafood on Christmas Eve. They do, lots of it. So did we at our home in New Jersey—pasta with tuna-tomato sauce, braised calamari, shrimp, skate wings, eel (both roasted and sautéed) and more. We just never assigned a number to the meal or called it the Feast of the Seven Fishes. To us it was either la vigilia (the vigil), as the feast is called throughout Italy or, more often, Christmas Eve dinner.
No matter what you call it though, this seafood extravaganza is becoming more popular, and not just in the homes of people of Italian persuasion. In recent years, restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon (fish wagon?), offering special seven fishes’ menus on Christmas Eve and in the days leading up to the holiday. In some cities, including Chicago, Hartford, New York and Philadelphia these events are so numerous that food websites now post roundups of which restaurants are participating.
Dean Gold started serving a “Feast of the No Less Than Seven Fish” at Dino, his Washington, D.C., restaurant, in 2006. This year the dinner debuted on Dec. 16 and continues through Dec. 24. “It’s fabulously popular,” Gold says. “Christmas Eve is one of our busiest nights.” The dinner attracts not only extended Italian-American families, but also many of Dino’s regular clientele as well as younger food enthusiasts. “It creates a sense of community among our customers.”
Theories abound as to the origins of the feast and the significance of the number seven. Most are tied to Roman Catholic traditions dating back to the 4th century that required members of the church to refrain from eating meat during certain holy days. But cookbook author Amy Riolo, who writes about food and culture and whose family hails from Calabria, says it’s possible that the tradition predates Christianity and is rooted more in celebration than in abstinence.
“Fish was a celebratory food in ancient Egypt,” says Riolo, who writes the blog Dining with Diplomats. “At one time people worshipped the Nile. The river flooded naturally twice a year and provided them with a bounty of fish. There were festivals around these occurrences.” Many of these pre-Christian festivals were Christianized as the church’s influence grew.
The number of courses or type of fish served at the meal is open to interpretation, Riolo says. Some maintain that the number seven stands for the seven sacraments, and others say it refers to the number of days it took God to create the universe. Other variations on the feast call for nine types of fish to be served, signifying the Holy Trinity times three and still others say the correct number is 13, for the 12 apostles and Jesus.
“Not many people observe these numbers in Italy,” Riolo says. “It’s much more popular here. Americans love themes.”
We also love traditions. Not surprisingly, everyone’s traditions are different and Christmas Eve menus vary from place to place and from family to family. Frank Fariello grew up in Rye, N.Y., but spent Christmas Eve at his Nonna Angelina’s house in the Bronx. “Spaghetti with clam sauce was a fixture on our Christmas Eve table,” says Fariello, whose blog Memorie di Angelina pays homage to her recipes.
Like me, Fariello knew nothing about the Feast of the Seven Fishes until well into adulthood. He decided he liked the tradition and incorporated it into his own Christmas Eve dinners. Among the traditional dishes he has served over the years are fritto misto (mixed fried seafood), baccalà (salt cod) and roasted eel. More important, though, was the significance of the meal. ‘To me the tradition was really about abundance and variety as much as being lucky.” Fariello says now he celebrates Christmas Eve with extended family, including three nieces who don’t care for fish. So they compromise, serving a meatless and fishless pasta course, mostly for the nieces, followed by fish for the rest of the family.
Maggie Debelius is Irish-American but she married into an Italian-American family and so celebrates the Feast of the Seven Fishes with her husband’s family. The first time the Arlington, Va., resident hosted the dinner about a decade ago, her son was an infant. Her menu was decidedly non-traditional and included Pepperidge Farm goldfish, Swedish fish, fish sticks, lox, a can of tuna and Dogfish Head beer. Oh, and crab cakes. “I was sleep deprived,” she confesses.
Mary Louise Gerlach, also of Arlington, says she is fed up with the labor required to pull off a Seven Fishes dinner—cleaning and prepping the fish, cooking and serving it all. “I’m making beef tenderloin,” she says about this year.
As for my family, we did finally embrace the concept of the Seven Fishes dinner, thanks in large part to my brother-in-law Tony, who brought the tradition with him when he married my sister. Although our menu has changed over the years, there are a couple of favorites that we all insist on, including my mother’s braised calamari and her tuna-tomato sauce, which is spicy and savory and, best of all, counts as two fishes because it has anchovies. We’ll still probably need to pull open a tin of smoked oysters or sardines to reach that magic number seven. Or maybe we’ll pass around a bag of Swedish fish.
What are your holiday food traditions? We’d love for you to share them in the comments section below.
No matter what else changes on our Christmas Eve menu, the meal always begins with a bowl of pasta with this savory sauce, rich with chunks of tuna and punched up with anchovies and capers. Fedelini are thin noodles that are slightly thicker than angel hair pasta. They absorb the sauce well. They can be found in well-stocked supermarkets. Substitute angel hair pasta (capellini) if you can’t find fedelini. This recipe is adapted from my book "The Glorious Pasta of Italy" (Chronicle Books, 2011).
- 2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, with their juice
- 3 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
- Generous pinch red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 (5-ounce) tins imported Italian solid-pack tuna in olive oil, drained (reserve a little oil)
- 8 best-quality imported Italian or Spanish anchovy fillets in olive oil, coarsely mashed with a fork
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, drained and finely chopped
- 2 (1-pound) packages fedelini or capellini (angel hair)
Fit food mill with disk with smallest holes and set over a bowl. Pass the tomatoes through the mill to puree them and remove the seeds. Discard seeds. If you don’t have a food mill, you can skip this rather fussy step and just use a potato masher to mash up the tomatoes in a bowl.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, put pureed or mashed tomatoes. Add garlic, 1 tablespoon parsley, salt, red pepper flakes and olive oil. Turn heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, 20 to 30 minutes or until the oil rises to the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low if necessary to prevent sauce from spattering or burning.
Stir in the tuna (with a drizzle of the reserved oil), anchovies, capers and remaining 2 tablespoons parsley. Cook sauce on medium-low heat for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until it has thickened in consistency and the flavors have come together.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a rolling boil while sauce is cooking. Add pasta and stir to separate noodles. Boil pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander set in the sink, reserving about 1 cup of cooking water.
Return pasta to pot and spoon a generous quantity of sauce—several ladlefuls—over it. Gently toss pasta to coat with sauce. Add a splash or two of reserved cooking water to loosen sauce if necessary. Transfer dressed pasta to a warmed serving bowl or individual bowls and spoon a little more sauce over the top. Serve immediately.