The holidays are here and in Italian-American homes that means it’s time for the traditional “Feast of the Seven Fishes”. This grand Christmas Eve meal came to the United States by Southern Italian immigrants to New York City in the late 1800’s. As with many other immigrant traditions, it was a nostalgic nod to an old world custom to feel closer to home…and in this case additionally a way to celebrate the sea.
The long standing tradition of enjoying fish on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic religious custom of abstaining from meat and dairy products on the eve of certain holidays, including Christmas. In Italy the tradition goes by several different names: La Vigilia di Natale (Vigil of the Nativity), Cenone (great supper), Cena della Vigilia di Natale (the supper of the Vigil of the Nativity) or simply La Vigilia.The Vigil (La Vigilia) all commemorating the wait for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.
There’s no agreement when or where the “Seven Fishes” was popularized but here are some fun theories! The number seven is rooted back in ancient times and can also be tied to several Catholic symbols: in fact, seven is repeated more than 700 times in the Bible. Also, according to the Roman Catholic Church, there are seven sacraments, seven days of the Creation, as well as of course the Seven Deadly Sins. Hence a seven course, seafood focused meal! In some Italian-American families, there is no count to the number of fish dishes with an abundant, overflowing table being the norm.
Traditionally this celebration on the 24th includes a nativity scene and a trip to church for midnight mass with the Feast of the Seven Fishes served in the early hours of the morning, after mass.
In Italy this holiday dinner menu is intensely regional. What you find on the plate in one city may not be the same in the next. In Naples expect frittelle di baccalà (cod fritters). In Rome? La pasta e broccoli in brodo di arzilla (pasta, broccoli & arzilla fish soup) while in Calabria you may see spaghetti con la mollica e le alici (spaghetti with anchovies & breadcrumbs).
Typical “fishes” include baccalà (salt cod), frutti di mare (shellfish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungilli (conch meat) and vongole (clams). Fried vegetables are also a popular accompaniment to the fish; such as fried artichokes, pickled vegetables, and fried squash blossoms.
But wait there’s more! Following the Feast itself there’s dessert, which typically includes crunchy biscotti, panforte, and a fluffy holiday panettone served into the wee hours of Christmas morning.
Want to plan your own Feast of the Seven Fishes? Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Play a mix of holiday music that’s a fun nod to the tradition with Christmas music from Italian-American artists like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louis Prima and more.
- When it comes to wine pairings, stick with white Italian varieties like Prosecco or Franciacorta (for bubbly lovers), Sangiovese, Verdicchio, Pinot Grigio or a medium bodied Chianti for the red wine lovers.
- As guests arrive and have their first drinks, open the feast with a couple of seafood apps like Shrimp Cocktail or Crab Dip.
- Get out your ladle for a soup course of classic Zuppa de Pesce.
- Next offer a cool, fresh salad to break up this multi-course meal – Calamari Salad is a fantastic traditional choice
- The feast continues with a seafood pasta course! We love a gorgeous White Seafood Lasagna, Spicy Lobster Pasta, or Spaghetti and Clams.
- Next offer multiple main courses of fish or seafood paired with sides for the main event of this feast. Go for over the top dishes with a beautiful presentation like grilled lobster tails, whole roasted branzino, our Grilled Halibut with Herbs and Pecorino, sides of baked salmon or our gorgeous Atrani Salmon Pinwheels (Tip: if your local fishmonger has eel, bake some for an authentic touch!)
- Keep your dessert course light with traditional Italian cookies or biscotti, some sorbet, or chocolates. If you like you can offer small glasses of anisette, grappa, or espresso too!
- As your event ends it’s always fun to send your guests home with a party favor like a sea-themed Christmas ornament, some cookies, a panettone, or small bottle of homemade limoncello.
Buon Natale from all of us at Locatelli!