Feast of the Seven Fishes: only in America

AFR photo by Domenica Marchetti

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.

 

Makes 8 servings

Fedelini with Christmas Eve Tuna-Tomato Sauce

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).

Ingredients

  • 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)

Instructions

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.

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57 Responses to Feast of the Seven Fishes: only in America

  1. Avatar of Eddie Ribo
    Eddie Ribo December 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    So NOT true. This Christmas Eve Feast is traditional all over Italy and has many historical elements to it. I personally have been in Italy many times during the Christmas holiday and have personally witnessed the special dinner. As Mario Batali has written: “hat is the Feast of the Seven Fishes? According to Mario Batali, “It’s what Italians do when they say they’re fasting.” More precisely, the Feast is a meal served in Italian households on La Vigilia (Christmas Eve). In many parts of Italy, the night is traditionally a partial fast, during which no meat should be served. But in true Italian style, this proscription has morphed into something very unfastlike indeed: course after course of luxurious seafood dishes, often as many as 7, 10, or even 13. “No one’s quite sure of the significance of the number,” says Batali. “Some families do seven for the sacraments. Some do ten for the stations of the cross. And some even do 13 for the 12 apostles plus Jesus.”

    Regardless of the religious symbolism, for most people the main point of the meal is to gather family and friends and enjoy delicious food.”

    So, not sure where the reference that begins this article comes from, but as far as I can see it is a false statement and article.

    Read More http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/holidays/christmas/batalisevenfishes#ixzz2Fipa2IQE

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 21, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

      Welcome Eddie. Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment. While it is true that people all over Italy enjoy fish and seafood ~ lots of it ~ on la Vigilia, the dinner is not known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and there is not the emphasis on the number of fish and/or seafood dishes served. Assigning a number to the courses or types of fish carries much more significance and emphasis here in the U.S. As for how many courses or different fish, the article does go into the various speculative explanations on what those numbers might mean, though there is no one definitive answer.

      I’d love to know if you are celebrating with a Feast of Seven Fishes this year, and if so, what are you making?

      Cheers and buon natale,
      Domenica

      • Paolo @ DisgracesOnTheMenu December 23, 2012 at 11:23 am #

        I am Italian and this is the first time I hear of the “Feast of the Seven Fishes”! While it might have Italian roots, it doesn’t exist in contemporary Italy. Thanks Domenica for the wonderful article and for starting the discussion!

      • Avatar of Eddie Ribo
        Eddie Ribo December 23, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

        Buon Natale,

        Well your response is interesting, but in southern Italy it is indeed a feast of the seven fishes. I present a second observation directly from Lidia Bastianich, noted Italian chef and author from her blog:
        December 19, 2011
        Festa dei Sette Pesci

        The Feast of the Seven Fishes, also known as la Vigilia, is a southern Italian tradition that commemorates waiting for the birth of baby Jesus.

        There are plenty of explanations for how seven dishes became the norm, including the seven Catholic sacraments, the days of the week, and the seven sins. Some people even celebrate with as many as 13 dishes! In typical Italian fashion, the meals eaten on this day vary from region to region and town to town. Even in America, every family has one dish that epitomizes this celebration.

        .

        I have been in Italy many times visiting my family for the Festa dei Sette Pesci, and I can assure you that it is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years!!! All the Best, Eddie

        • Bobby December 26, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

          My family is from Portici, outside of Naples. We visit Italy each Christmas and have always celebrated with the Festa dei Sette Pesci on Christmas Eve. It is an ancient tradition that travelled across the Atlantic to America with Italian immigrants. I do not understand why the author claims that it does not exist in Italy, this is NOT true. Your facts should be checked before posting, especially if this site is to share true roots. Bobby

          • JoAnn Dilibertto December 29, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

            Yes, I agree that it is important for authors to research completely before posting information that they deem to be “true” . This is poor journalism at best. Our family is from Castbuono in Sicily, and the feast of the seven fishes has always been celebrated there, so I don’t know where the author gets off saying “only in America”. Check your facts!! JoAnn

    • Mark A. D'Agostino December 10, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

      The Feast of Seven Fishes has been in my family for centuries. My family’s tradition is NOT a typically American. Although, I have improved upon on some past recipes…but, it remains the same as it was several generations ago.

      The problem with some Americans is that they truly don’t know what authentic Italian food is.

  2. Sterling December 22, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    This sounds great! When do you add the tuna? Many thanks.

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 22, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

      Thanks for the catch Sterling. The tuna goes in with the anchovies and capers (we inadvertently left out the word ‘tuna’). I hope you give it a try. It’s one of my favorites.

  3. Dana December 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    My mother is 2nd generation Italian American from Michigan and she never heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I have lots of Italian American friends who celebrate it. I wonder if it is more popular in certain areas of America?
    Interesting article!

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 22, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

      Dana, thanks for reading! I think you might be right. I know it’s celebrated by Italian-American families in New York and New Jersey, where I grew up. Still, I never really heard about it until it started to become a popular special dinner at restaurants. I lived in Michigan for a number of years (my husband is a Michiganian) and don’t recall hearing about it there.

      • Edward Lynch December 2, 2013 at 2:03 am #

        Thanks Domenica, Don’t forget Philadelphia too we have a huge Italian

        population here and I don’t know one Italian family here that doesn’t celebrate the

        feast of the seven fishes its tradition and one must fast from eating meat products

        on this day. And I’m a medigon.

        • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
          Domenica Marchetti December 2, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

          Edward ~ how could I ever forget Philadelphia?! I know that on Dec. 24 plenty of fish will be consumed in that city (and beyond), though I still maintain that the phrase “feast of the seven fishes” is more Italian-American than Italian-Italian. I had to google ‘median.’ I had never heard it before. Oh my! Merry Christmas to you and thank you for reading.

  4. Rosetta Costantino December 22, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    I have to agree with you Domenica, there is no such thing in Italy. I was born and raised in Calabria and never heard of it. My husband is from Sicily and never heard of “Seven Fishes Feast”. I heard about it here and people asked me about it and I told them that it doesn’t exist in Italy, I asked many Italians from different regions and nobody has ever heard of this in Italy. I think it was started here in the US by Italian-Americans, it would be fun to know how it all started. Christmas Eve “La Vigilia” is celebrated throughout Italy and we all eat seafood but there is no particular number of fishes that have to appear on the table. In Calabria we call it “Il Cenone” as it is a huge supper and it is tradition to eat 13 things (the dinner is all based on seafood but the 13 things include desserts also). I just did a typical Christmas Eve dinner cooking class last Saturday and you can see what a typical Christmas Eve menu would look like in Calabria. http://www.cookingwithrosetta.com/class-cenone-12-15-12.html
    Buon Natale!

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 23, 2012 at 9:13 am #

      Ciao Rosetta,
      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment. And for the link. Your Christmas Eve cooking class menu looks fabulous. The sauce with tuna and bottarga sounds very much like my mother’s Christmas Eve sauce, except for the bottarga. I imagine it’s delicious. We also make something similar to your cicirata, but we call it cicerchiata. I love seeing the many name and recipe variations from region to region, province to province, and so on. That’s one of the things what makes Italy endlessly fascinating to food lovers.

      Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo!

  5. Scordo December 22, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    I think the validity of the “feast of the seven fishes” isn’t very important, rather the idea of celebrating Christmas Eve with seafood dishes is the key takeaway. So, whether you have squid, dried cod fish, swordfish, etc. in a tiny village in Calabria or seven fish (such as shrimp, flounder, clams, etc.) in New Jersey simply enjoy Christmas and all the wonderful food.

  6. Simona December 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    Thanks Domenica for your directness. In my experience, telling people that this Feast does not exist in Italy touches a delicate spot. So, I am glad you brought it up and I am glad Paolo, Rosetta and other people commented. I would like to add a couple of notes. My parents grew up in Sabina (Lazio), rather far from the sea. Our Christmas Eve’s dinner, as I have written about it even recently, included spaghetti col tonno (a variation on the recipe above), marinated eel (for my mother) and pescetti (marinated small fish). We had no fresh fish, because before frozen fish became available, that’s what people had access to if they lived inland. Our Christmas Eve’s dinner was certainly richer than our usual dinner (we also had battered and fried cauliflower), so on that day we had a lighter than usual lunch. There was no meat, of course, until the pranzo on Christmas, when we had homemade cappelletti in brodo.

  7. Avatar of Eddie Ribo
    Eddie Ribo December 23, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    There is lots of history that shows the validity of the existence of the feast throughout southern italy. Here is another one from noted writer Kate Mazzarella:

    the seven fishes signify the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church
    FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES
    By Kate Mazzarella-Minshall

    The holidays are a magical time and to the Italians, La Vigilia di Natale is considered the most magical and festive night of the year. Italians share a rich culture, a zest for life, a love of good food and strong religious and family values. Holiday meals are an integral part of our social culture, and while every culture has its own traditions, no culture celebrates tradition with more passion than the Italians. Christmas Eve is a special time for family and friends to gather together to celebrate, reminisce about the past; create new memories and share a delicious meal of seasonal foods.

    Cena della Vigilia di Natale, the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner, known as Festa dei Sette Pesci or Feast of the Seven Fishes, is a meal without meat honoring the midnight birth of the baby Jesus; a custom that originated in Sicily and has since spread throughout Italy and around the world. Italians and Italian-Americans alike still celebrate this old-world custom that has been handed down from generation to generation.

    There are several religious theories that support the origin of this symbolic feast but the most popular belief is that the seven fishes signify the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. The meal is also believed to bring buona fortuna in the New Year.

    In order to honor the tradition, a variety of seven different fish must be served, and while the menu and preparation varies from region to region and family to family, traditionally it is a meal that begins with antipastos and bread, an abundant feast of seven types of fish, pastas, vegetables and ending with an assortment of i dolci. This celebratory feast captures the spirit of Christmas, offers Italians a chance to unite with their families while honoring their faith.

    However you celebrate this season of miracles, may you be surrounded by the love of family and friends, and may the spirit of Christmas fill your heart with peace, joy and hope for the new year.

  8. Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
    Domenica Marchetti December 24, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    Hi everyone,
    I didn’t quite know what I was starting when I posted my Seven Fishes piece but I want to say that I am thrilled to see this discussion taking place. American Food Roots is all about sparking thoughtful conversation and it’s quite clear that people are passionate about this subject. Love it!

  9. J December 26, 2012 at 9:51 am #

    My husband was born in Scandiano, Reggio Emilia and our Christmas Eve dinner was never referred as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, in fact he had never heard of it referred to it in such a way. Our Vigilia has always consisted of fish delicacies and no meat.

    I was only asked if we did it due to the tradition of the Seven Fishes until I came back to the US. That day I did some research and I did find some information on this mostly on southern regions of Italy, but nothing for the Emilia Romagna region.

    We have had to modify our traditional Vigilia menu due to the fact that we don’t find all the items needed in North Carolina.

    In Italy our menu always consisted of brodetto di pesce e lumachine (fish broth and snails), insalata di polipo, (octupus salad – yes, no octopus in Charlotte), spaghetti alle vongole, coda di rospo, (monkfish), all the other items were left to the discretion of the cook, until Christmas arrived and we could savour our delicious cappelletti in brodo.

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 28, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your traditions, J. We, too, have had to modify our fish menu to reflect the types of fish that are readily available here as opposed to my mother’s native Abruzzo. We’ve also changed some offerings over the years to accommodate differing tastes. My mother used to make eel every year, but she was really the only one who liked it so eventually that fell off the menu. For a number of years, we made both sauteed and fried skate wings. But we’ve left the fried skate off the menu for the last couple of years because it made our already messy and chaotic kitchen even messier. This year we kept it ‘simple’ with the tuna-tomato sauce, braised calamari, sauteed shrimp, and sole involtini. And of course we did the cappelletti in brodo on Christmas day, which was a welcome fish-free dish!

  10. Avatar of Karen Sievertson
    Karen Sievertson December 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    We do the feast of the seven fishes every Christmas eve. It started as a tradition at my mother-in-laws house and after her passing we have continued to do it, but in much more of crazy good dinner! We have the anchovy spaghetti, smelt, shrimp, oysters, a baked white fish recipe that came from my husbands grandfather from Abruzzo, white bean and tuna, mussels, crab and lots of sides to compliment the meal. So much work, but so good and fun with the people special to us.

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 31, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

      Karen, your lineup of fish dishes sounds out of this world. I’d love to know more about the baked whitefish recipe, as my family is from Abruzzo. Thanks for sharing your Christmas Eve tradition. Wishing you a delicious 2013.

      • Karen Sievertson January 1, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

        This is the recipe we do each year.

        Baked Whitefish (For 8 Servings)

        This recipe is adapted from many similar versions closest to what Pat remembers eating at his grandfather Pasquale’s as a child. He was from Abruzzo and when he came to the U.S. he lived in Windber PA. Pat remembers it was cooked on a wood stove and was incredibly delicious. We now make this for our holiday Feast of the Seven Fishes.

        2 tablespoons chopped parsley
        1 tablespoon chopped garlic
        3 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
        1/2 can anchovy fillets, chopped
        1 can whole anchovy fillets
        1 tablespoons chopped capers
        1 1/2 cups fine, dry, unflavored bread crumbs
        8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (more if needed)
        Salt and pepper
        1 tablespoon butter
        4 whitefish fillets, skin removed

        Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash the fish, and pat it dry.

        Mix the parsley, garlic, grated cheese, anchovies, capers, bread crumbs, 4 plus (as needed to mix) tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper together in a small bowl.

        Lightly coat the bottom of a large baking dish with olive oil. Place two of the fillets in the pan, spread two-thirds of the mixture from the bowl over it, lay two whole anchovy fillets over the top of each of the two fillets, then cover them with the other fillets. Spread the rest of the mixture from the bowl over the tops, sprinkle with a bit more of the bread crumbs over the top and drizzle lightly with melted butter.

        Place the baking dish in the oven. Bake 20 to 25 minutes depending on the thickness and size of the fillets. Do not over cook. Serve immediately.

        • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
          Domenica Marchetti January 2, 2013 at 6:52 am #

          Karen, this sounds delicious ~ classic. I’m going to make it for my family. Happy New Year!

  11. peppe sidoti December 31, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    Scusate, scrivo in italiano, spero che molti possano comprendere ugualmente, non sarei altrettanto sicuro del mio inglese. Sono siciliano, ma vivo a Firenze da moltissimi anni, e mi interessa molto capire come il patrimonio culturale si trasformi nelle migrazioni. A mia memoria, nella Sicilia orientale e nella Calabria meridionale non esiste la festa dei sette pesci. La cena della vigilia di Natale è sempre di magro, e gli spaghetti con le vongole sono uno dei primi più diffusi, il fritto di baccalà e altro fritto misto anche, il grongo (eel) in bianco è diffusissimo e si condisce la pasta, anche. Ma alla fine della cena è d’obbligo offrire sette frutti secchi e sette frutti freschi. Quindi un numero sette nella cena della vigilia c’è e anche il pesce. Ma l’Italia è piccola, ma è inutile dirlo, ci sono tantissime differenze talvolta anche fra un quartiere e l’altro di una stessa città.
    Buonissima la pasta con il tonno, spesso la prepariamo anche in bianco, senza il pomodoro con solo tanto prezzemolo fresco.
    Grazie per il bel lavoro che fa e per l’ospitalità. Buon anno.

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 31, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

      Peppe, ti ringrazio per avere scritto. Io cerco di scrivere in italiano, quindi mi scusa se faccio qualche sbaglio grammatico. Secondo me, l’Italia e’ fascinante esattamente per questo ragione che dici tu ~ anche se e’ piccola come paese, e’ piena di storie, tradizioni, ricetti diversi. Dovunque vai, trovi una nuova tradizione, un nuovo piatto. Ogni volta che vengo in Italia, scopro sempre qualcosa di nuovo.

      Io non avevo mai sentito la tradizione di mangiare sette frutti secchi e sette freschi. Mi piace moltissimo! Magari l’anno prossimo presento questa tradizione a tavola mia.

      Grazie di nuovo per il tuo commento. Buon anno anche a te,
      Domenica

      • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
        Domenica Marchetti December 31, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

        For those who don’t speak Italian I’d like to offer a rough summary of Peppe’s interesting comment:

        He writes that he is Sicilian but has lived for many years in Florence. He does not recall any seven fishes traditions in Sicily or in Calabria. However, he notes that Christmas Eve dinner was always meatless, and featured such dishes as spaghetti with clams, fried baccala’ (salt cod) and other fried fish, eel in ‘white’ (ie tomato-free) sauce and also as a condiment for pasta. At the end of the meal, it is customary to offer seven varieties of dried fruit and seven varieties of fresh fruit.

        He also notes that while Italy is small in geography, it is filled with countless different and diverse traditions, not only from city to city but even from neighborhood to neighborhood.

        This is the first I myself have heard of the tradition of serving seven dried fruits and seven fresh fruits. I love this idea and I think I may adopt it next year at my house!

        • peppe sidoti January 2, 2013 at 5:12 am #

          Grazie ancora per aver tradotto il mio intervento. Mi piace aggiungere un altro aspetto di questo dialogo fra le due sponde, a riconoscere tradizioni che vanno ma che anche ritornano. Mi è successo di ritrovare sapori e ricette, perse qui in Italia, attraverso i ricordi e le tradizioni rinnovate in America. Un solo esempio, ho assaggiato con commozione un capocollo (salume tipico) fatto in Canada da calabresi di 2° e 3° generazione, in cui ho ritrovato il gusto che in Italia si sta perdendo per cedere alla moda del piccante esagerato.
          La ricerca delle radici americane del cibo può talvolta servire anche a ridare valore alle nostre, e questo mi sembra bello.
          Ciao e buon lavoro.

          • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
            Domenica Marchetti January 2, 2013 at 6:55 am #

            Peppe, grazie per la tua risposta. Cio’ che dici ha molto senso. Se non ti dispiace faccio di nuovo la traduzione. Ti auguro un buon anno ~ Domenica

          • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
            Domenica Marchetti January 2, 2013 at 7:39 am #

            I’d like to translate this reply from Peppe, who makes an excellent point.

            He notes that while traditions can be lost, they can also be found. In his own experience he has found recipes and flavors that have been lost in Italy but remain in North America. One example, he says, was a capocollo (a type of salumi) that he tasted, made in Canada by a second- and third- generation Calabrian family. The capocollo tasted the way it used to once upon a time in Italy but seems to be harder to find nowadays as Italian producers now make it spicier to accommodate modern tastes. Looking to our American roots, Peppe says, can help Italians rediscover their own, and this is a good thing.

            This is such an important point, and speaks directly to the kind of experiences we at AFR are trying to shine a light on. Thank you so much, Peppe, for sharing your perspective.

  12. Karen Sievertson January 1, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    It does not matter if you have remembered this tradition at all, If you love the food and what it represents it doesn’t matter. Love the food, learn the history of it, make your own “new” traditions. It’s all about the food we love and what we share with our family and friends. Nothing is more precious than cooking side by side with my 8 year old grandson who prides himself with the knife skills I taught him at 5 years old for his for his “Cooking with Andrew” show on YOUTUBE.

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti January 2, 2013 at 7:41 am #

      Karen ~ how wonderful that you have brought your grandson into the kitchen. You are giving him skills, and memories, that he will carry with him throughout his life.

  13. afoodobsession January 3, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    Domenica,

    Love the post and love the fact that you have given me a good reason to scratch my head every time I hear the term Feast of the Seven Fishes…All my Grandparents were from Italy…coming here at various ages..my Grandparents from Sicily and my Grandparents from Avellino and Matera all taught us the Seafood only meal on Christmas Eve…note I said, seafood only…not this Seven Fishes moniker…somehow, that , like so many Italian and then Italian-American traditions is based in fact and then there are regional both in Italy and in America which dictate how it’s carried on or called. NEVER did my Italian born-Speaking grandparents or my parents and family call it the Seven Fishes…I didn’t hear that term until into my adulthood..not saying in many families and regions it’s called that…in other’s, it’s just La Vigilia, the Christmas Eve seafood only dinner..generally consisting of whatever is the available fish and/or the families’ place of origin…baccala fritta, zeppole con alici, smelts, pulpo or seafood salad, scungilli in hot sauce, fried shrimp, zuppa di mare over linguine…vongole al forno…(screams Napoli)…shows the usual suspects in our house, greatly influenced by a grandmother born in Avellino and raised in Napoli. Scarola pizza too.. eggplant meat(non)balls..cheeses, fruits, italian cookies…the usual…so many Italians and Italian-Americans get very defensive when you question their tradition or say it’s not what everyone who is Italian does…lol…the answer is, we are all right…it’s the evolution of our food ways from Italy…probably the most un-Italian thing Italian-Americans (myself included) do is to overload a table with tons of dishes…more than likely, in Italy, it may only be one pasta, one antipasto, one secondo..that’s it…unlike here where we compete at family holidays to see who has the best and the most on their table…
    By the way, i still never refer to it as Seven Fishes because it’s not my families tradition…but if it’s yours, then call it what it is for you..

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti January 3, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

      Many thanks for reading and for sharing your traditions and perspectives. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “we are all right.” What I love most about this discussion is seeing how important family traditions are to all of us, whatever name we give them. I hope you’ll keep reading ~ there will be more exploration of Italian and Italian-American traditions. Cheers, D

  14. Joe January 3, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    Domenica,
    Excellent article. My Nonna or my Godmother never did 7 fishes on Christmas Eve. Yes there was fish, but usually only a couple of dishes, notably spaghetti with tuna (or clams) and a fried fish such as haddock or cod. My Sicilian ladies worked in/ operated restaurants over the years, so they were plenty tired when they got home, and that would have been too much work! They did honor the tradition of a meatless meal on that night, and I miss their fabulous cooking.

    Wishing you a prosperous 2013!

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti January 3, 2013 at 10:44 pm #

      Joe ~ thanks so much for chiming in. I agree ~ cooking a big fish dinner would be the last thing on my mind if I had been doing it all day/evening in a restaurant! This brings to mind a point that I did not get the opportunity to make in this piece but hope to explore another day and that is all of the other meatless dishes that go along with these big seafood feasts. At our house, some of the vegetable dishes are even more beloved than the seafood dishes.

      As for missing your Nonna’s dishes, I hear you! I have made my mother share many of her recipes with me (many of them appear in my books) and I’m so grateful that she’s been so generous about it. It’s so important to preserve these stories and recipes.

      Cheers and Happy New Year,
      D

  15. Leonardo Ciampa January 15, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    Unfortunately, this post — and, even moreso, the comments that followed — have fallen into a common trap. It exemplifies an ongoing debate between Italians and Italian-Americans, and — if I may say — there are several major misconceptions on the part of the Italians. Italian natives often feel strongly that any tradition not from their particular town is “un-Italian.” Ms. Marchetti is from Abruzzi, a mountainous region where, of course, there would not be feasts with 7 or 13 fishes. By contrast, the coast of Sicily is an entirely different culture, where it is not unusual to eat fish almost every day. During the Ellis Island years, immigrants came to America and had 9 kids, who each had 9 kids … This is why a small town in Italy might have only a few thousand inhabitants, but in America there might be a million people who are descended from it. (You can’t imagine how many thousands of Bostonians have ancestors from Montefalcione, a small one-horse town in Avellino.) There really ARE towns near Vesuvius that serve Spaghetti and Meatballs. Just because your town in the province of Venice or of Bolzano does not, that doesn’t make it an “un-Italian” dish. I don’t know which town or towns in Sicily started the feast of 7 (in some cases 13) fishes. But I know that the tradition was not invented in America in the 20th century. Thus, the very title of this post — “only in America” — was already inaccurate. It is the very sort of inaccuracy that is unhelpful. A Neapolitan could declare, “Bagna cauda is ‘un-Italian’.” This sort of thing only reinforces the prejudice between North and South and between Italy and America.

    • Avatar of Peppe Sidoti
      Peppe Sidoti January 16, 2013 at 5:17 am #

      Scusate se rispondo in italiano, ma non mi fido del mio inglese:

      E’ vero, posta malamente la questione non aiuta nessuno. Ho tentato di chiarire come in Italia le differenze regionali oggi, e maggiormente in passato, siano molto più evidenti e forti di quanto possano essere immaginate oggi negli Stati Uniti. Certamente l’uso di servire un numero fisso e un po’ esagerato di pesci o di frutti può essere stato tipico di molte famiglie e di interi paesi. Non credo però che nella cattolica Italia qualcuno abbia chiamato la vigilia del Natale con il nome di festa dei 7 pesci. Mi sembra che questa denominazione la abbia resa autonoma dalla ricorrenza cristiana o cattolica, e quindi adatta a famiglie di qualunque culto o di più culti o senza culti. Per questo la festa dei 7 pesci come tale, autonoma dal festeggiamento del Natale, credo si debba considerare più tipicamente americana e soprattutto italo-americana. Ma non mi stupirebbe affatto se tra qualche anno anche in Italia si cominci a celebrare la Festa dei 7 Pesci. Anche da noi con gli amici arabi, cinesi o ebrei sarebbe più facile festeggiare insieme una festa dei 7 pesci piuttosto che un natale o una pasqua.

      • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
        Domenica Marchetti January 16, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

        Hi all,
        I’m working on translating Peppe’s comment, so please stay tuned…

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti January 16, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

      Hi Leonardo,
      Many thanks for adding your voice to this lively discussion. It’s a valuable perspective and, in fact, I don’t think our views are that far apart, though I would disagree that Italians believe that food outside of their own region is “un-Italian.” Perhaps a question mark at the end of the headline “only in America” might have framed the story more clearly. The story does not mean to say that the custom of eating fish on Christmas Eve doesn’t exist in Italy; only that the tradition of eating seven (or nine or thirteen) is far more prevalent here in the U.S. than in Italy ~ possibly for the very reason that you suggest, and also (more recently) because more and more restaurants are offering seven fishes dinners. And yes ~ I’ve had spaghetti and meatballs at friends’ houses in Naples (though the meatballs are smaller than what we typically get here). Is your family from Montefalcione? I’ve never been, though I did have a friend from Avellino. Thanks again for sharing your perspective.

      • Leonardo Ciampa January 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

        Dear Domenica, Peppe’s response is, indeed, well worth translating! His, and your, responses were very correct in all of their points. And I agree with you: we’re certainly “on the same side.” To answer your other question, my father’s family was from Montefalcione (AV). My mother’s parents’ families were from Mineo (CT) and Salemi (TP), respectively. Thank you for this wonderful blog, which I know several of my friends enjoy greatly.

  16. Avatar of Jamie Schler
    Jamie Schler February 3, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    Wonderful piece. We are not Italian but lived in Italy for seven years in and then outside of Milan and had many many Italian friends and often celebrated holidays with them. I never heard of this tradition until years after we moved away from Italy and then I think it was when I was researching French traditions. But it is fascinating to read all of the comments and see how certain traditions thrive in certain families and certain areas while just not found in other families and areas.

    But while we were living in Italy, I learned how to make a tuna-tomato sauce for spaghetti. I haven’t made it in ages and now must try Domenica’s.

  17. Avatar of Betty Ann Besa Quirino
    Betty Ann Besa Quirino February 28, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    What an interesting feature! I’ve always been curious about this feast, having heard about it from friends here in New Jersey. That said, we have our own customs and traditions in the Philippines for Christmas and the holidays, which I tried to keep alive here in our American home. Food has always been the centerpiece of course. I always bake the traditional Ensaimadas (Filipino brioche), bibingka (rice cakes with cheese, butter, eggs on banana leaves), Tupig (sticky rice logs baked with molasses), and my late mother in law’s signature dessert “Tocino del Cielo” (tiny custards topped with caramel). We culminate the holidays with a traditional midnight feast on Dec. 24 called “Noche Buena”. I’ve posted a lot of what I serve on my blog and my Pinterest boards. And even if it’s no longer Christmas, I still cook and serve this traditional family delicacies because I’d like my sons to always remember their heritage.

  18. Patricia Sette April 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    Okay, so here I am after Easter, but I just came across this site as I was trying to research customs at old “festas” held in Italian communities in America.

    I come from South Hackensack, New Jersey, with grandparents who came from Naples and L’Aquila (sp? – it means “the eagle) in Abruzzo. We would share the evening with Italian-American neighbors and friends whose ancestry stretched to other Italian cities and villages. I never once heard the term “seven fishes” applied to this meal – except when my non-Italian-American friends would inquire about it!

    Our dinners always included a range of appetizers, including broiled stuffed mushrooms with anchovy filling, fried smelts, spaghetti with oil and anchovy, baccala (both in a hot stew and as a cold salad) and finally the “main course” – an array of fried fish, pften flounder, haddock, scallops and shrimp. Then we finished with delicious fried Italian pastry – not big, heavy dough, but delicate pastry, with powdered sugar. I forget its name for the moment. We called this meal “Christmas Eve” dinner and it was my favorite few hours of the year.

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti April 30, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

      Hi Patricia,
      I only just read your comment. I’m not sure how I missed it earlier. Thanks for adding your voice to this great debate. And thank you for describing your Christmas Eve dinner. It sounds fabulous. If you think of the name of the dessert pastry, please let me know. I’m curious!

  19. Patricia Sette May 18, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

    Hi Domenica!

    Thanks for responding. I love your informative and upbeat blog. So little is upbeat on the internet, so this blog is a jewel.

    My mother had the same name as you: Domenica. I love that name, and wish I had it myself!

    The pastry I was referring to was called in English “bows.” Was it “farfellette” in Italian? The pastry was formed like a bow or knot, then fried, cooled and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Some of the better bakers among us had an extremely delicate hand and made this a fragile and particularly welcome treat – others made a klunkier version, but it was also welcome.

    Domenica, I wrote a poem about Italian ladies making their holiday meals. If you want to email me, I will send it to you. These ladies were making more than treats and meals, you know? They were passing down history to us, and connecting us forever to family and to the past.

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti May 19, 2013 at 11:55 am #

      Ciao Patricia,
      Thanks for your kind words. I’m so glad you’re enjoying American Food Roots. It’s funny ~ for many years I never knew anyone else who shared my first name. Once my byline started appearing in newspapers I started hearing from a few here and there.

      I think ‘farfallette’ is one name for the dessert you described. But, as is often the case with Italian recipes, there are probably other names as well. Crostoli is another. If you search our recipe archives you’ll find a recipe for crostoli by AFR member Adri Barr Crocetti.

      And yes, I would love to read your poem. You can email it to me at domenica [at] americanfoodroots.com.

      Many thanks!

  20. Calogero LoGrasso December 15, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    The feast of the seven fishes is totally an American Italian thing. My parents are from Riesi. It’s a small town in the province of Caltanissetta, Sicily and they’ve never heard of it. Southern Italians and Sicilians were mostly impoverished people. I seriously doubt they had the money to afford a lavish dinner featuring seven fishes. Maybe families in fishing villages but that’s still highly unlikely. In Riesi, which is in the interior of the island the paesani of that mostly agrarian community slaughtered a pig for Christmas. For Easter lamb and roasted artichokes. Fish is typically eaten on Fridays.

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 21, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

      Lamb and roasted artichokes. I know it’s Christmas time, but now you have me looking forward to Easter. Thanks for your comment and Buon Natale!

  21. Sikulu December 16, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    Grazie Peppe macari ju sugnu sicilianu e non abbiamo mai festeggiato in questo modo la Vigilia di Natale.

    @JoAnne DiLiberto, I am also Sicilian with family from the same town as you and I find it highly doubtful your ancestors celebrated with seven or more fishes. As someone else pointed out, Sicilians typically lived a very poor, harsh life with few abundant resources. They could not afford such a lavish celebration of multiple types of fish, even though it’s an island surrounded by a fish-filled sea. If you’re family is from C.buono, then you know it’s in the middle of the mountains (le Madonie) and nowhere near the water. La cucina madonita typically features a lot of pasta, vegetables, and game (mostly chicken, but also rabbit, and pork)! Living in Sicily, you rarely saw fish as part of the cuisine in the interior of the island. Yes it was available, but before modern transportation existed, it could take hours if not days for country people to reach the sea and vice versa (usually by foot or by donkey). For fish to reach Caltanissetta for example, it could have taken up to two days. Even more drastic, for someone to reach Palermo from Ragusa, it could take 10 hours on the back-road superstrade before the highway autostrade were built. So imagine how long it took by donkey? Maybe a week! Because of this difficult topography of the island, multiple local cuisines developed independently of each other over the last 6,000 years people have been living in Sicily, and even though fish is available almost everywhere today, it wasn’t the case years ago, so people did with what they had and these culinary traditions developed accordingly. As a Sicilian-American, educated in both Sicily and America (outside of NYC), I can see the distinct differences between Sicilian (or Italian) and Italian-American culture, cooking, and traditions. Maybe your family, and the families of other posters on this board, picked up the traditions of other people over the years and now you assume it was your family tradition in the old country? I don’t know. I do know that many Italian-Americans of Neapolitan origin who I’m friendly with celebrate Christmas Eve with fish faithfully year after year. This could be because Naples is a city on the water and fishing is a big part of their lifestyle. I don’t know for sure. However, I do know that this is not the custom of Sicilians on Christmas Eve. Yes, seafood is eaten, but only one or two types of fish, and only part of the meal which usually consists of lasagna, cavateddi, chickpea fritters (pani e panelli), stuffed breads (‘mpanata), riceballs (arancini), fish soup with cuscusu, and broccoli and eggplant incorporated into the various plates somehow. On Christmas Day, Sicilians incorporate these things into their meal, adding, or substituting sausage, chicken, pork, rabbit, and/or lamb for the fish. I’m not saying what other Italians or Italian-Americans do is wrong, but this is the traditional 110% authentic way Sicilians celebrate the holiday.

    At the end of the day, everyone’s family tradition is equally important, so celebrate the holiday in your own unique way and enjoy… Buon Natale!

    • Avatar of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti December 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

      Many thanks for your detailed and thoughtful comment Sikulu. Your entire meal description ~ the pani e panelli, the arancini, and the fish soup ~ sounds delicious. And I agree with you: ultimately, it’s about celebrating one’s own tradition, whatever it may be! Buone feste!

  22. Phyllis Lombardi Kommert December 22, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    My family was from Abruzzi. When I was young the Christmas Eve dinner was special. I never heard it mentioned as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but the menu consisted of Shrimp salad, capellini con acciughe/olio, (pasta w/anchovy/olive oil), capellini con calamare pomodoro, (pasta w/squid/tomato sauce), baked baccala, baked halibut, fried eel, smelts. A toast before dinner with Asti Spumante, red and white wine with dinner, an array of pizzelle, cannoli, and the Italian candy in little boxes, I know it was nougat (torrone?) served with coffee for dessert. My father owned a Italian market. my mother started at least a week before, soaking the dry baccala, baking, etc. Then on Christmas Day another huge meal. I don’t know how she did it! Such happy memories!

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