“I have never heard of this feast!” So proclaims my 90-year-old Italy-born Aunt Iris when asked about the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner serving an ocean’s worth of frutti di mare.
It turns out Aunt Iris isn’t alone.
“I had never even heard the expression ‘Feast of Seven Fishes’ before I was launched into a professional cooking career and had begun traveling to Southern Italy,” says Marcella Hazan, icon of Italian cookery, who moved to New York in the 1950s from her native Emilia-Romagna, where she always ate a mix of vegetarian and fish dishes on Christmas Eve. “In my native Romagna, we called the event Vigilia. Our Christmas Eve dinner eschewed meat, of course.”
It’s not that the feast doesn’t exist — to the contrary, it is inarguably one of the most important and sacred Italian culinary events in the calendar year, one that takes days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, of preparation and planning. But as to the importance of precisely how many fish dishes grace the table? It turns out most of us are fishing for something far more fundamental than a lobster claw or a crab-stuffed mushroom or a bowl of zuppa di pesce.
“I’ve done a lot of research on this, here and in Italy,” says Italian cookbook author Michele Scicolone. “All over Italy I’d ask, ‘Do you eat the seven fish on Christmas Eve?’ and the response was always, ‘We eat a lot of fish!’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, but are there seven?’ and they’d look at me like, ‘What is she trying to say?’” Scicolone herself, whose grandparents emigrated from Naples to her birthplace of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, didn’t grow up with a specific number, either; it was a concept she heard about from other Italian-Americans who held firmly to the digit. “My grandfather was a fisherman, and we always ate a lot of fish on Christmas Eve,” she says, “but never seven.”
“Some say seven, some say 12 — everyone has a different number. It doesn’t matter,” says Lou DiPalo, whose eponymous store has been a staple of authentic Italian sundries for decades in Little Italy. “Everyone has different stories, passed down from generation to generation.”
DiPalo’s family settled there more than 100 years ago, his cheesemaking great-grandfather having come over from Basilicata in 1904. Today the neighborhood is Little Italy in name only, but each year on December 24, DiPalo has a customer queue as long as a string of Christmas lights, chock-full of regulars swimming like salmon back to their birthplace. Many new faces are in the line, too, all awaiting their turn to buy regional delicacies appropriate for the traditional feast, like cured anchovies from Sciacca, Sicily, as well as artisan pasta, stuffed olives, chestnut honey and dozens of imported Italian cheeses. “The point is, every single family has their own Christmas Eve dinner, and they have one thing in common: They are all together to invoke memory and share time together.”
When DiPalo talks about the feast, his voice is as serious and solemn as a monsignor’s at midnight Mass. It matters to him, and it matters to his customers who still come from near and far to wait in the December freeze for the components of their special annual meal.
That day the lines are also long at city fishmongers like Agata & Valentina, Citarella and many other tiny, less-celebrated, work-a-day fish shops in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island.
“Oooooo, yeah, it’s a crazy time in the store for fish!” says Louis Balducci, who has to double his fish and shellfish orders to keep up at his Upper East Side Italian destination Agata & Valentina. “Overnight, we have guys cleaning shrimp and squid. We have live eel, merluzzo, fresh scungilli, live snails, fresh anchovies and sardines. We’ll bring in more baccalà [dried salt cod], of course, because it’s so popular that time of year. We have razor clams, sea urchin, head-on shrimp. And we sell more whole fish at that time, like orata and branzino,” he says. “I work on Christmas Eve, always. For the last 25 or 30 years. But I love it! It’s a madhouse, but it’s fun. I love to watch people shopping for that dinner. It’s one of my favorite days of the year.”
Each December, Italian New Yorkers get giddy at the notion of this gut-busting, epic oceanic meal. “Our Christmas Eve feast was usually eaten at Grandma Batali’s table and involved an assortment of dishes we had not seen all year,” says West Coast–reared chef Mario Batali. “As a child I found some of these dishes challenging, but as I grew up, I learned to love many of the suspicious things on the Italian table, and most of those dishes are now present at our Christmas Eve dinner.”
Which Batali has been known to set forth on Christmas Eve at his restaurant Babbo. In fact, many New York restaurants, like I Trulli, the Mermaid Inn, Scarpetta and Hearth, offer a special seven-fish menu on that night each December. Last year at Hearth, Marco Canora, who was raised in upstate New York, served a Christmas Eve fish feast with personal meaning. “It came out family-style. It was all the things I grew up eating, and it was fantastic and people loved it.” Canora, who plans to repeat the feast at Hearth this December 24, recounts the dishes of his formative years the way some kids would talk about what Santa brought them:
In my house growing up, we always had calamari salad, boiled first and dressed while hot with peperoncini, garlic, parsley, olive oil and served with lemon. We had flounder dredged in flour, pan-fried in olive oil and served with lemon. There was always clams casino, my absolute favorite thing to eat. There was always baccalà, cut into cubes, dredged in flour, fried hard and hot and braised in tomato sauce. And we always did some sort of pasta, usually with shrimp. Quickly sautéed with tons of parsley, garlic and white wine and tossed with spaghetti or linguini.
But were there seven — for the sacraments, or perhaps the days the Bible says it took to create the Earth, or for luck, as the number often implies? Or perhaps nine, for the Holy Trinity times three, as some adhere to? Or 12, for the number of apostles in JC’s holy entourage?
No. But Canora’s got a theory as to why not. “I think something is not authentic or real when people want to do it all perfect. If there’s anything food culture is not, it’s perfect. And Italians don’t give a shit about these rules — they’re the most anti-rule culture there is! Rules are for the French. The number seven doesn’t matter. The meal is a heartfelt, imbedded thing. You eat fish on Christmas Eve, and that’s it.”
Still, the seven does matter to some, who see it as a sacred symbol of the holiday. “People come to me with a list!” says fishmonger Stephanie Villani, owner of Blue Moon Fish, who along with her husband, Captain Alex, sell their wiggly, Long Island water-caught wares at the Greenmarkets (on Wednesdays at Union Square, and Saturdays at TriBeCa and at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza). “We only sell local fish, so they can’t get everything from us, but they’ll buy squid, oysters and clams, bay scallops if we have them, flounder, monkfish, skate, herring fillet and smoked eel, bluefish and tuna.”
“We call it the Feast of the Seven Fishes because that’s how it’s known here,” says I Trulli restaurant owner Nicola Marzovilla, who emigrated with his family from Puglia, the heel of Italy’s comely boot, to New York at the age of 10. At I Trulli, on the quiet northern border of the Flatiron District, he has offered his customers a seven-fish special menu on Christmas Eve for the last few years, with drool-over dishes like wood-oven-roasted oysters; spaghetti with mussels, sea urchin, red pepper, tomato and mint; and lobster-stuffed ravioli. But he stresses that it’s really the absence of meat that matters, more than the presence of seafood. “In general, Christmas Eve meal is called the feast of the magro — or no meat — which is based in [the Catholic] religion.” Indeed, in the book Celebrating Italy: The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed Through Its Feasts, Festivals and Sumptuous Foods, author Carol Field writes:
December 24 and 25 are the most important days of the holiday. Christmas is a two-day feast, a traditional celebration whose unchanging menu and form satisfy a deep longing for permanence. While each region has its own tastes and ritual dishes, ever since the Church imposed the penitential rule of mangiare de magro, everyone eats fish on holiday eves to purify the body and get it ready for the big feasts that follow.
Marzovilla admits that the Christmas Eve feast evolved into something more akin to an overstuffed stocking than an exercise in holy day denial. “In Bari, where I’m from, we have a tradition of a very extravagant fish meal. But there is no [red] meat at this meal throughout Italy. What is served depends on where you’re from, the wealth of your family and what’s available.”
Which helps explain my aunt’s unequivocal response about what she and my Aunt Filomena ate as small children in Calabria before setting sail for New York in the 1920s. I pressed her a little further, and then came the explanation that made sense: “We never ate meat on Christmas Eve. Nana would cook baccalà — a traditional San Martino dish. The dried salted cod was traditional because in San Martino, being inland, we were unable to get fresh fish, and the people were too poor to buy [it], so they used baccalà. So you see, there is a reason for everything.”
But maybe the reason is ingrained in another hook to the past as well. From the late 19th century and three-quarters of the way through the 20th, Italians came to America in droves. My husband’s father and mother came from Sicily and Puglia, respectively, in the 1960s as part of that final wave of hopeful working-class Italian immigrants who sailed over on large ships to get their hands dirty and calloused in the good work of building both New York and a better life for their children (God willing, as my Nana Zavatto would say). My mother-in-law, Aurora, the torch carrier for the big fish dinner, would always trudge out to Bensonhurst’s 18th Avenue in the cold on December 23, to wait in the perennially long line at her favorite fish shop for merluzzo, flounder, calamari, shrimp, crab and a hunk of baccalà. She passed away last November, and in a fit of grieving nostalgia I went looking for that fish shop in December; it had closed. A sign for a soon-to-open franchised doughnut store hung in the window.
It’s part of what Scicolone believes is the key to the secret of the seven: “For Italian-Americans, we’re becoming further removed from Italy, our roots. Nowadays, we’re not even speaking the language anymore. It’s why we hold these traditions so dearly — because what else identifies you as Italian?”
And therein, maybe, lies the crux.
“The important thing is to maintain the tradition,” says DiPalo. “That’s what Christmas is — a way to celebrate family and invoke the memories of all the people that have passed on. It brings them back, and we’ll see them alongside us, those who used to make this dish the best, and who wouldn’t eat that one. To an Italian family — and an Italian-American family — what’s special takes place around the dinner table.”