Christmas Eve in Italy: Celebrating the Feast of Seven Fishes, Sicilian Style (Free Italy Travel Advice)
On December 24, la vigilia di Natale,
will sit down to a feast dominated
by seafood. In their Trapani
home on Sicily's west coast, they typically start with an
array of antipasti,
among them marinated octopus and squid salad, smoked swordfish and thin
slices of cured tuna called bresaola di tonno.
And, as Giuseppe points out, that's just the beginning.
“What you eat depends on the family,” says Fiorangela Piccione,
who lives in Siracusa.
She often prepares a fritto misto
of lightly battered and fried fish and vegetables such as artichokes,
fennel and potatoes. Pasta might be dressed with a sauce of clams,
cuttlefish with their ink, or mussels, while eel is simmered with
tomatoes and capers. Also likely to be on the menu is a wonderful
baccalà (dried cod) and potato stew (see
recipe), which Fiora taught me
to make when I was researching my book Seafood alla Siciliana:
Recipes and Stories from a Living Tradition
(Lake Isle Press).
Amore's part of Sicily,
everyone eats what's known as pastizzu
or ‘mpatata in dialect—a pie with a fish and
vegetable filling (shark and zucchini, for example) topped with a
pastry or a bread-like crust. During the
holidays in Sicily, cooks often
carry these concoctions to the house of a friend or relative for the
Sicilian equivalent of a potluck.
These intimate family celebrations have their roots in a liturgical
calendar that, from the 4th century on, distinguished between days when
meat could be eaten and magro or “lean” days when
only fish was permitted. December 24 was a fast day, broken only in the
final hours of waiting for the birth of the Christ child by a
multi-course seafood feast.
Just as the particular dishes can vary from one region or family to
another, so can the number. The idea of serving seven fish dishes or
varieties of seafood is often linked to the number of sacraments or the
days God required to create the world. But the numbers three (Trinity),
twelve (apostles) and thirteen (apostles plus Christ) are considered
equally propitious. And the truth is that many Italian families
don't bother to count—the important thing is
gathering in the dead of winter for a celebratory feast.
The custom of an all-fish Christmas Eve dinner is particularly
meaningful to the many Italian-Americans who emigrated from southern
Italy. Growing up in New York in the ‘40s, my friend Kathy
Manfredi Mackie remembers the sense of anticipation as her
Sicilian-American mom and aunts worked for days on the preparations and
her Calabrian dad shopped for fish on Arthur Avenue or Sullivan Street.
The meal kicked off with a roasted red pepper and anchovy antipasto
and, on another platter, caponata
circled like a wreath around a savory heap of canned tuna. Scungilli
(large marine snails) were in the picture, as were angel hair pasta
with shellfish, squid or tiny shrimp. The main course might be,
lobsters, prawns or baccalà. “We ate late and,
just before we started, someone blew out the candles on the
tree,” remembers Kathy.
Her family still holds to the Feast of Seven Fishes tradition, but when
her large four-generation family gathers around the table these days,
the meal is simpler. The main course is cioppino, a spicy soup Kathy
and her daughters Shevaun and Kelly make with seven kinds of fish,
shellfish, and crustaceans.
Even in Sicily, fish sometimes mingles with meat on Christmas
Eve and, in central or northern Italy, may be absent altogether. Sara
Matthews-Grieco, who rents country
apartments in Valdarno, emailed
me to say: “The Feast of Seven Fishes is more or less
respected in Tuscany,
but for New Year's Eve, which is considered a
vigilia—waiting for the New Year—it's
then that you have an endless series of fish dishes. You have to stay
up eating until midnight so that you can have spumante and panettone
and, above all, grapes (symbolically money) as the New Year comes
If there's a conclusion to draw here, it's the
freedom to take what you please from the patchwork of Italian
traditions to create your own fish-centric holiday celebrations.
Usually I serve one or two fish dishes on Christmas Eve, but this year
I'm going for the full seven, all from the pages of Seafood alla Siciliana.
No need to finalize the menu quite yet, but I know octopus simmered in
Nero d'Avola wine (see
recipe) will, along with
pistachio-crusted shrimp, linguine with a garlicky clam sauce, seared
tuna with sweet-sour onions, and a stunning
salad of shredded baccala
with blood oranges and pomegranate seeds.
And for New Year's Eve? Just one great dish, most likely the
luxurious lobster soup with broken fettuccine I learned to make from
Palermo chef Patrizia di Benedetto.
I'll also make sure to
welcome 2010, in true Tuscan style, by laying in a supply of Prosecco,
Lydecker sampled at least 70 kinds of seafood while
working on Seafood alla
and found all of it delicious except cuttlefish ink and
(tuna sperm sac). Her book takes readers on a Sicilian odyssey as she
explores the island's fish markets, watches fishermen mend
nets, and learns in the kitchens of home cooks and chefs. For more,