The Feast of the Seven Fishes
Five local chefs and two Italian grandmas serve up authentic recipes for this traditional Italian Christmas Eve feast.
Photography by John O’Donnell
Styled by Joanne Sabato and Claudia Sidman of Joi Us
Published January 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM
An Italian Christmas Eve tradition interpreted by five professional chefs and two talented grandmothers.
Ever try to navigate the fish markets on Christmas Eve day? Lines stretch out the door, people clutch numbered paper tickets, and the business side of the counter looks like the commodities exchange on a day when oil goes through the roof. Yet despite the chaos, there’s a happy holiday buzz. Everyone seems to know each other and with neighbors catching up on gossip, the line is more like a linear cocktail party than a queue for fish. To the uninitiated, it’s as mysterious as it is overwhelming. What the heck is going on here?
The answer is The Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian tradition dating back hundreds of years. On Christmas Eve day, the Catholic Church calls for a day of abstinence, a vigilia di magro, in which no meat can be consumed. In Central and Southern Italy, and in our sizeable Italian-American community, this edict often takes the marvelous form of a seafood feast incorporating seven different fish. (The number seven is thought to represent the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.) What’s served depends on what’s fresh, available, and, of course, what the family likes.
To bring this sumptuous feast to your own family’s table, we’ve called on five county chefs and two authentic Italian grandmothers to share their most cherished holiday recipes. So grab a spot on line, and make sure you’ve got plenty of big platters and garlic on hand. We’re going to do some serious, family-style cooking. Appropriately enough, all recipes serve eight.
Gamberoni al Forno (Above)
(Courtesy of Babbone Fine Italian Cuisine)
“This dish is in the style of the Abruzzi region of Italy,” Federico Terzano, Babbone’s owner, says. “My momma Teresa got this recipe from her mother, who got it from her mother, and so on. Growing up, Christmas Eve dinner was at my grandmother’s house in Yonkers and we would have as many as fifteen or so fish dishes. We usually had about forty people so we needed a lot of food. We used every fish from the market prepared every which way.”
3 lbs U16 shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup butter
1½ Tbsp fresh garlic, minced
½ cup pimento, diced
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup lemon juice
freshly ground pepper to taste
paprika to taste
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped (reserve ¼ cup for garnish)
8 oz Greek feta cheese, crumbled
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 350°F. Rinse shrimp. Pat dry and set aside.
Place butter and garlic in an au gratin dish large enough to hold the shrimp and microwave for 1½ minutes. Stir in pimento, white wine, lemon juice, pepper, and paprika.
Arrange shrimp in dish with tails facing center of dish. Mix together breadcrumbs, feta, and ¾ cup parsley. Spoon some of bread mixture atop each shrimp.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Shrimp are done the moment they turn pink (do not overcook or shrimp will be tough).
Sprinkle with parsley and serve with lemon wedges.
Babbone Fine Italian Cuisine, 502 New Rochelle Rd., Bronxville, (914) 665-4722
Tuna Fish Sauce Sicilian Style (Above)
(Recipe by Rita Turiano, Managing Editor John Bruno Turiano’s mother and the proud grandmother of 9)
“This is easy to make,” Grandma Turiano assures. “You know it’s a Southern Italian recipe because of the presence of olives, capers, and anchovies. In the North, where I’m from, they aren’t likely to use those ingredients. Many people are scared of anchovies, but in this dish they can’t be seen so everyone eats them—even the kids!”
Says her son John: “I’m the first one to grab for the bowl of capellini with tuna fish sauce and start eating. Until, that is, my nephews and nieces scold me: ‘You dork, Uncle John, you have to wait until everyone is seated and served before eating!’”
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, diced fine
1 medium onion, diced fine
1 celery stalk, diced fine
2 cans (1 lb) whole plum tomatoes, undrained and coarsely chopped
½ cup tomato sauce
2 tsp dried basil leaves
¼ tsp black pepper
2 cans (2 oz) anchovies, drained on paper towels, then puréed 5 seconds in blender
20 pitted medium olives, drained and chopped
1 can (6 oz) Italian tuna, drained
¼ cup capers, rinsed to remove salt
1½ lbs capellini or other thin pasta
In a pan over medium heat, sauté garlic, onion, and celery in olive oil until tender. Add plum tomatoes, tomato sauce, pepperoncino, basil, black pepper, and anchovies. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to medium heat. Cook 25 minutes or until mixture thickens.
Add olives, tuna, and capers and simmer for approximately 5 minutes. Taste sauce, and add sugar and/or salt to taste.
Serve over pasta.
Stuffed Clams (Above)
(Recipe by Orsolina Iallonardo, Assistant Editor Marisa Iallonardo’s grandmother)
“My grandchildren don’t like seafood much,” says Grandma Iallonardo, “but they’ve always loved my clams. I even make sure to save some for those family members who can’t make it on Christmas Eve but will stop by the next day to eat them—they’ll even eat them cold!”
Says her granddaughter Marisa: “I love all the food my grandmother cooks, but her stuffed clams are my favorite. She only makes them twice a year—on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. As soon as we walk into her house, we head straight for the clams!”
12 large closed clams
1 cup water
¾ cup breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp Parmesan cheese
½ tsp salt
1 Tbsp parsley, minced
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
paprika for color
lemon slices and parsley sprigs to garnish
Scrub the shells of the clams with a vegetable brush to remove any residue. Place clams and water in a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil.
Using a clam knife or similar utensil, open clams and separate the open shells. Discard the clams that don’t open. Cut out the clam meat and chop. Keep water from the pot for later use.
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a bowl, combine breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, parsley, olive oil, and garlic. Add chopped clams and mix together. If the mixture looks dry, add about 2 tablespoons of the water from the original pot. Brush the inside of each clamshell with olive oil, so mixture doesn’t stick. Scoop a tablespoon of clam mixture and put into each half shell. Place all the clams on a rectangular shallow baking pan, and gently pour water to just cover the bottom of the pan so that the clams are sitting on a bed of water. (Make sure not to wet the interior of the clams.) Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Reserve remaining liquid to moisten clams while baking if necessary.
About 6 minutes into baking, sprinkle paprika over each clam. Clams are ready when they are lightly browned.
Serve on a large dish garnished with lemon slices and fresh parsley sprigs.
Squid on Garlic Crostini (Above)
(Courtesy of The Fish Cellar)
“I’ll do this dish in the fall and winter as a special,” Chef Lisa Graziano says. “It’s not difficult to make and doesn’t have a strong fish flavor.”
2 lbs squid, cut in ¼-inch rings
½ bulb garlic, chopped
¼ cup dry vermouth
8 oz clam juice
½ cup tomato purée
2 sprigs fresh oregano, diced
salt to taste
½ Tbsp crushed red pepper
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Wash squid and strain liquid. Set aside.
In a 6-quart pot, sauté garlic until golden brown. Add vermouth slowly and cook for 1 minute. Add clam juice and bring to simmer. Add tomato purée, oregano, salt, and red pepper. Cook for 10 minutes on low heat. Raise to medium heat, and add squid. Cook the squid until it turns white (2 minutes at most).
Serve atop garlic crostini (garlic bread) with fresh parsley and a squirt of lemon.
The Fish Cellar, 213 Main St., Mount Kisco, 914-666-4448; http://www.fishcellar.com
Sicilian Baccala Salad (Above)
(Courtesy of Conte’s Fishmarket)
“Some people have an issue with baccala because of the salt factor,” Owner Rob Conte says. “Once you get the salt out, however, it becomes mild. This Sicilian recipe is at least one-hundred years old, from my grandmother on my mother’s side.”
2 lbs soaked baccala (salt cod), boneless and skinless (Canadian is preferred)
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup Italian parsley, chopped
juice of three lemons
½ cup olive oil
3 red and 3 green hot cherry peppers, seeded and chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Place baccala in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a slow boil and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until cod starts to flake. Drain well.
Put garlic, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, and hot peppers in a large bowl. Add salt cod to bowl and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Transfer to holiday platter and serve slightly cooler than room temperature.
Conte’s Fishmarket, 448 Main St., Mount Kisco, (914) 666-6929
Favorite Christmas Eve Eel (Above)
(Courtesy of Anna Maria’s Restaurant)
“This is a very traditional dish, popular in Naples where my family is originally from,” says Anna Maria’s Chef and Owner Anna Maria Santorelli. “It was my father’s specialty and the dish reminds me of him.”
2 lbs eel (purchase skinned)
1 cup flour
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup butter
Wash eel, then cut into 1½" to 2" pieces. In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, salt, pepper, and then roll eel pieces in the mixture.
Heat olive oil and butter over medium-high heat in a skillet and fry eel until well-browned. Set aside on paper towels to drain.
1?8 cup olive oil
½ cup minced onion
1?8 cup minced garlic
1½ cups tomato, chopped
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp parsley, minced
1 tsp basil
1 cup chicken broth
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
2 lbs linguine
Heat olive oil in a deep skillet. Sauté onion and garlic (do not brown). Add tomatoes and blend in tomato paste. Stir in parsley, basil, chicken broth, salt, and pepper. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes over medium heat. Add drained eel to sauce, and then cover and simmer for another 15 minutes.
Serve over linguine.
Anna Maria’s Restaurant, 18 Chatsworth Ave., Larchmont, (914) 833-0555; www.annamariascatering.net
Red Snapper Livornese (Above)
(Courtesy of F.I.S.H.)
“My wife is Italian,” says F.I.S.H.’s Chef and Owner Bill Rosenberg, “and I’ve had the seven-fish dinner at her parents’ home in Yonkers. This recipe is similar to a dish I’ve enjoyed there. Red snapper is a versatile fish, and it takes on the strong flavors of the olives, capers, wine, and garlic quite well.”
8 red snapper fillets (6-oz each) with skin on
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic, sliced
4 Tbsp capers
2 cans (35-oz) Muir Glen tomato strips in juice
1 bottle Pinot Grigio
pinch of chili flakes
24 kalamata olives, pitted
20 basil leaves, shredded in strips
Season snapper with salt and pepper. Heat ¼ cup of the olive oil until glistening. Add snapper fillets, skin side down. Weigh down with sauté pan (do not move pan). Cook for 2 minutes, than flip and cook for an additional two minutes. Remove from pan.
Discard used olive oil; add remaining fresh oil and garlic. Toast until golden brown. Add capers, tomatoes, wine, chili flakes, olives, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer.
Add half of the basil leaves and snapper fillets and cook until warmed through.
Pour onto a platter, top with remaining basil, and drizzle with olive oil.
F.I.S.H., 102 Fox Island Rd., Port Chester, (914) 939-4227; www.fishfoxisland.com