“I have never heard of this feast!”
So proclaims my Italy-born, 90-year-old Aunt Iris when asked about the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the much-revered Italian-Catholic culinary tradition for lovers 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, although she always ate fish on Christmas Eve in her native Emiglia-Romagna. It’s not that the Feast doesn’t exist—to the contrary, it is inarguably one of the most important and sacred food-centric events in the calendar year for Italians—be they American-born or from the Old Country—and one that takes days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, of preparation and planning. But as to the importance of precisely how many fish 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 Bensonhurst-born 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 here in 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, who grew up spending holidays at his Italian grandmother’s Bensonhurst home, and whose eponymous store over in Manhattan’s Little Italy has stocked authentic Italian food for decades. “Everyone has different stories, passed down from generation to generation.” Although the shop doesn’t sell fresh fish, specialty sundries have drawn lines around the block each December 24 for a century, as customers stock up on cured anchovies from Sciacca, Sicily, artisan pasta in all shapes and twists and sizes, stuffed olives, chestnut honey and dozens of imported Italian cheeses. Every year, once the family locked the shop’s door, they always headed to Bensonhurst for their own traditional celebration.
“When we finally closed the shop at night, that’s when Christmas Eve began.” DiPalo and his parents and siblings would get to Grandma’s house long after other households’ dishes were washed and put away, only beginning their feast around 9:30 or 10:00 at night. “We used to skip the antipasto because we wanted to get right into the meal,” he recalled recently. His grandma made special fish dishes, including pasta with sautéed clams—vongole—and whiting—merluzzo: “I remember the fish swimming in the pot,” DiPalo says wistfully. Next up, grilled fish, and often lobster oreganata, baked with breadcrumbs and olive oil. It sounds lavish but DiPalo says that compared to others’ Eve dinners, their meal was modest: “We didn’t have the multitude that others make, because our shop was very demanding. We gave more attention to our customers’ [dinner] than to our own—but when we got home we would eat and would laugh and eat some more until 12:00 or 1:00 at night.”
His voice is as serious and solemn as midnight Mass, and the tradition clearly matters to his customers, too—even far-flung eaters make the annual pilgrimage to Little Italy, giddy at the notion of this gut-busting, epic oceanic meal. And back here in Brooklyn, old-school Italians and in-the-know eaters have their own mecca: Coluccio’s.
Louis Coluccio is the third generation to run the 50-plus-year-old Italian pork store on 60th Street and Third Avenue in Bensonhurst. Founded by his Calabrese grandfather, Dominic, in 1958 on a wheel of provolone and a prayer, this is the place where Brooklynites find an Eataly-eat-your-heart-out array of just-off-the-boat pastas, olive oils, cheeses, cured meats and all other canned, jarred, fresh and dried delectable specialty sundries.
Yes, you still hear Italian spoken in the aisles, and yes, December 24 is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. But for Louis, Christmas Eve is less about the bottom line than it is about the ties that bind.
“Growing up, when my grandmother did Christmas Eve it was a four-hour feast in her basement with the entire Coluccio family,” recalls Louis of the annual fish-kissed feasts of his childhood, whose highlights included baccalà—both baked and fried—and pasta with lobster. Over the decades, his generation began spending holidays with various in-laws, but Louis proudly reports that two years ago, he and his wife finally hosted their first Christmas Eve dinner—for 35, complete with all the fishy trimmings. “It was a blast. I love it, it’s my favorite holiday—the gifts are secondary. It’s all about food and family.”
For those not up to cooking the massive meal, traditional spots like Bamonte’s, run by the Italian family of the same name since the turn of the last century in Williamsburg, and Tommaso’s, a Bensonhurst staple owned by Tommaso Verdillo, that for many years has done a seven-fish dinner with a set price (this year, it’s $50) for tradition seekers.
“It’s a four-course meal but you will always have seven fish within it,” says Verdillo. They hit the magic digit thanks to a fish salad replete with “octopus, calamari, sepia, shrimp and scungilli, all followed by mussels, baked clams, linguini with crab, lobster, shrimp and, of course, baccalà.” For the chef and some-time singer, who serenades little ones on Christmas Eve with holiday carols in his dining room, baccalà is a favorite dish, complete with a fish tale: “In recent years, a friend’s wife whose family is Calabrese brought me the stomach of the baccalà, stuffed—and it wasn’t good, it was sensational! The only place you can find it today is in Chinese stores. I bought the dried gullet it and paid $60 a pound! But now I make that dish for us, my family.”
But it’s not just old-school Italian eateries that are in on the Eve act—these days, modern hotspots offer their interpretation of the feast, too. “Christmas Eve rocks,” says chef Saul Bolton, whose Michelin-starred namesake restaurant on Smith Street has offered the Feast of the Seven Fishes for the past seven Christmas Eves. “It’s one of the truly cool New York City nights, when a blanket of silence and tranquility overtakes the city. Nights like these, few and far between, are what the idealistic, romantic chef lives for.” He drapes his special sea-centric menu in such haute ocean dishes as mackerel crudo and swordfish confit.
The famous Franks also offer meals of memories. Each December 24, at Carroll Gardens’s beloved Frankies 457 and Prime Meats, owners Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo plump up the holiday menu with the things they grew up eating with their respective grandparents each Christmas Eve: grilled calamari and octopus, rock shrimp aioli, branzini, corvina ravioli, Arctic char crudo with Sette Anni pepper. “And one of my favorites,” Falcinelli says, with all the implications of hungry nostalgia: “linguine with clams.” But were there seven at their tables—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 still, the number 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 rod-and-reel husband, Alex, sell their wiggly, Long Island water-caught wares at the Saturday Greenmarket at 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.”
But some of Italian heritage stress that it’s really the absence of meat that matters, more than the presence of seafood. After all, Christmas Eve dinner is often referred to as the feast of the magro—or no meat. 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 di magro, everyone eats fish on holiday eves to purify the body and get it ready for the big feasts that follow.”
But what is served depends most on what part of the country you’re from, the wealth of your family and what was generally available. Which explains a lot to me about my aunt’s unequivocal response about what she and my Aunt Filomena ate as 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 a concoction of 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 dwindling into three-quarters through the 20th, Italians came to America in droves. My husband’s father and mother came from Sicily and Puglia, respectively, in the ’60s as part of that final wave of hopefuls who sailed over on large ships; the last group of working-class Italian immigrants 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). They both passed away recently, and the keeping of tradition has passed to my husband and his sister. My mother-in-law, Aurora, the torch carrier for the big fish dinner, used to love to 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 dried baccalà, to cook the next day. 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 donut store stood in its place. 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 of the mystery of the Feast of the Seven Fish. “The important thing is to maintain the tradition. 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,” says DiPalo. “To an Italian family, and an Italian-American family, what’s special takes place around the dinner table.”