Feast of the Seven Fishes
Throughout Italy, the traditional Christmas Eve meal is known as la vigilia, or “the vigil,” where red meat is not on the menu. But if you ask a native Italian about the Feast of the Seven Fishes, you’ll likely get the fish-eye—this seafaring feast earned its name in America. As waves of Italian immigrants arrived on our shores beginning in the 19th century, so did the adaptation of the seven-fish feast on Christmas Eve.
Here, seven chefs give us their favorite dishes to try.
Fish and seafood supplied by Mt. Kisco Seafood
Jump Straight to a Recipe
Courtesy Ken Vedrinski, owner/executive chef, Trattoria Lucca, Charleston, SC
Vedrinski discovered his love of cooking in his Abruzzo-born Italian grandmother’s kitchen. “For us, they serve a lot of crudo where my family is from on the Adriatic,” says Vedrinski. His restaurant offers an annual Feast of the Seven Fish dinner. “My grandma always did this.”
- 8 ounces kosher salt
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 oranges, zested and juiced
- 2 tablespoons fennel seeds, toasted and ground
- 1 tablespoon chili flakes
- 1½ pounds flounder fillets (or another light white fish like sole)
- ⅓ cup white balsamic vinegar
- 4–5 ribs of celery, finely diced, plus leaves, roughly chopped
- 6 large basil leaves, torn
- ¼ teaspoon Calabrian chili oil
- Olive oil, to taste
Combine salt, 4 ounces sugar, orange zest, fennel and chili flakes. Press mixture into fish and cover entirely. Place fish in dish, and cover in plastic wrap. Chill for 1 hour.
Wash off rub with water and pat dry. Place fish on a clean dish. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Combine orange juice, vinegar, 1 tablespoon of sugar, celery, basil and chili oil.
Add salt, to taste.
Remove fish from refrigerator. Brush platter or plate with olive oil. Place fish on platter, and slice as thinly as possible. (Cut straight down, not on angle.) Drizzle with olive oil. Top with marinade. Serves 6.
Illuminati 2017 Costalupo (Trebbiano d’Abruzzo). Ultraripe aromas of tropical fruit, Satsuma orange and perfume waft from the glass. This is plush and ripe in feel, boasting a wealth of yellow apple, pear and sweet orange flavors, with a mild vein of acidity offering balance.
Courtesy Cesare Casella, chef/dean of Italian Studies at the International Culinary Center, New York City
These whole, fried sardines melt in your mouth. Use a squeeze of lemon and the freshest fish you can find. “I like cooking with sardines in a simple way to bring out the quality of the fish,” says legendary Tuscan-born chef Casella. “The key to this dish is the freshness of the ingredients and the quality of the frying oil.”
- 1 quart peanut or grapeseed oil, for frying
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons fine cornmeal
- Coarse salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 pound cleaned sardines
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed slightly
- 1 sprig fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 sprig fresh sage
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- Lemon wedges, for serving
Fill a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch over halfway to top with oil. Clip on a thermometer and heat to 325°F.
Combine flour and cornmeal on plate, and season with salt and pepper. Place sardines in a perforated or fine-mesh strainer. Toss with flour-cornmeal mixture. Shake off excess.
Place sardines in fryer basket or on a mesh strainer, and slide carefully into hot oil. Fry, stirring to cook evenly, just until golden brown and crisp. After 2 minutes, add herbs.
Remove sardines with spider strainer. Place on sheet pan covered with wire rack or paper towels to drain. Season with salt. Serve immediately with lemon wedges. Serves 4.
BiancaVigna NV Brut (Prosecco). Refreshing, fun and refined, this crowd-pleasing sparkler offers ripe Bartlett pear, green apple and a hint of nectarine drop. Crisp acidity and a lively perlage give it a vibrant edge.
For 41 years, Mt. Kisco Seafood in Mount Kisco, New York, has earned a reputation as one of the finest fishmongers in the area. Take owner Joseph DiMauro’s advice on how to nab the freshest seafood the next time you shop.
Sight, Touch, Smell. There are three easy rules to ensure your fish is the freshest, says DiMauro. Clear eyes, firm flesh (“When you press on it, it should bounce back like a trampoline,”) and a fresh smell.
“Of course, some fish will smell like fish, but not the kind of smell that makes you back your head off,” he says with a laugh. “Some fish, like triggerfish and certain snapper and salmon, have different odors. For example, if you put your nose to the belly of extremely fresh Canadian salmon, it should smell like cucumbers or watermelon.”
Poke Your Clams, Play Your Mussels. If your clams or mussels are open before cooking, should you toss them? Not necessarily, says DiMauro. Once out of the sea, they search for water, which is why the shells might crack open a bit.
For clams, DiMauro says to give them a little tap. If they close right up, they’re okay. For mussels, “take any open ones and press up and down a few times, like a castanet. If it closes it’s fine.” If not, toss it. Also, ask for the bag tag, which should list who the dragger or digger was, as well as the date and area harvested. It’s required by law.
Long Live the Lobster. “If they’re live and kickin’, they’re fresh,” says DiMauro. However, if you see a lobster with one antenna longer than the other, it’s likely it’s been in the tank awhile. “When sitting too long in a tank, lobsters will eat [each other],” he says. Also, winter is a lobster’s best season, since they’re at their meatiest.
Be Shrimp Savvy. DiMauro says that 99% of the shrimp you see at your monger were previously frozen, simply because most were sourced far away. However, some shrimp spots are better than others, and wild is always preferable to farmed. Mexico, Panama and Honduras pass DiMauro’s quality test.
A quick tip for buying the best shrimp? Give them a sniff. If you smell iodine, don’t buy them.
Here’s a visual cheat-sheet for seven different ways to pair wine and fish.
Courtesy Carmelina Pica, Enoteca Maria, Staten Island, NY
On New York City’s Staten Island, Jody Scaravella’s restaurant, Enoteca Maria, has a different nonna (grandmother) prepare the food of her region on a rotating schedule. The Naples-born Pica is renowned for her fresh, bright seafood salad, a southern Italian staple at any Christmas fish feast.
“We make a lot of things, like this fish salad, baccalà and shrimp. We make capitone, the eel,” says Pica of her family’s traditions for the vigilia. “We make everything, all kinds of things, for my family.”
- 1½ pounds squid, cleaned
- 1 pound medium-sized shrimp, cleaned
- 1 pound octopus, cleaned (can also purchase high-quality canned version)
- ½ cup parsley, chopped
- 1 medium size red onion, chopped small
- 5–6 pieces celery, center stalks only, diced
- 1 red sweet pepper in vinegar, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 lemons, juiced
- ½ cup green and black olives, chopped
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Boil squid (15 minutes), shrimp (3 minutes) and octopus (1 hour) individually. Strain and place into bowl. Refrigerate until chilled.
Slice squid into ½-inch rings. Chop shrimp and octopus in small pieces. Mix with remaining ingredients together in large bowl. Serves 8–12.
Mastroberardino 2017 Nova Serra (Greco di Tufo). White spring flower, ripe orchard fruit and white almond aromas take center stage. On the round, fresh palate, a light mineral note adds depth to mature yellow apple, juicy pear and tangy lemon zest.
Courtesy Michael Vincent Ferreri, executive chef, Res Ipsa Cafe, Philadelphia
For a dish to receive prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale (PAT) status, says Ferreri, owner of Philadelphia’s charming Res Ipsa Cafe, it has to have certain ingredients prepared in a certain way. “Pasta con le Sarde is one of the only [PAT] pastas —it’s the national dish of Sicily,” he says. “It’s a fun way for us to really showcase what we do, which is almost entirely seafood.”
- Pinch of saffron
- ¾ pound fresh sardines, 5-inches each (about 3–4), cleaned, boned, heads removed and chopped into ½-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- ½ cup parsley, chopped
- Olive oil
- 1 pound bucatini
- Canola oil
- 1 large head fennel, white part and stalk diced, fronds chopped and reserved
- 1 cup golden raisins
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup pine nuts, toasted
- Juice of 1 medium orange
In medium-sized pot over medium heat, add saffron to 1 quart water. Warm until saffron begins to release its color. Set aside.
In a medium-sized bowl, marinate sardine pieces with ⅓ tablespoon chopped garlic, one-third of parsley and just enough olive oil to coat sardines. This can be prepared 1 day in advance.
In large pot, boil fresh water and cook pasta until not quite al dente, about 7 minutes. Drain and pour pasta onto sheet pan to prevent sticking or clumping. Drizzle with olive oil and let cool.
In sauté pan large enough to accommodate pasta (two pans may be used, if necessary), coat surface with 2:1 ratio of olive and canola oil. Over medium-high heat, add sardines and sear, about 1–2 minutes. Add remaining garlic, fennel, raisins and salt. Sauté for 3 minutes, or until it just starts to brown but fennel maintains crunch.
Add pine nuts and half of remaining parsley. Use orange juice to deglaze pan, scraping up any brown bits with wooden spoon. Once juice has cooked down, about 1 minute, add pasta and saffron water. Cook about 3 minutes, or until pasta is cooked to desired doneness and ingredients emulsify into sauce.
Add fennel fronds and remaining parsley. Serve in warmed bowls. Serves 6.
Graffetta 2017 Grillo (Sicilia). Aromas suggesting crushed tomato leaf, citrus and exotic fruit leap out of the glass. On the medium-bodied palate, tangy acidity perks up juicy grapefruit, white peach and pineapple packed in syrup.
Courtesy David Pasternack, Esca, New York City
It isn’t an Italian Christmas Eve without baccalà, or salt-dried cod. While many families make this into an antipasto-style salad, Pasternack cooks his cod into a luscious, spicy ragù that clings gorgeously to polenta.
Pro tip: When you make polenta, Pasternack recommends an even ratio water to milk for the cooking liquid base to produce ultra-creamy results.
- 2 pounds baccalà, boneless
- 1 large onion, diced
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 jalapeño, seeded and sliced thin
- 24 Calabrese olives, pitted, liquid reserved
- 1 24-ounce can cherry tomatoes, run through a food mill to separate seeds
- ¼ cup fresh chopped parsley
In large, deep-rimmed baking pan or dish, immerse baccalà in water for 3 days, changing water twice per day. Dice into 1-inch cubes.
To make ragù, sauté onion and garlic until tender. Add jalapeño, olives and a dash of olive juice, and cook until just tender. Add tomatoes and simmer for 20 minutes, skimming off any foam.
Add baccalà. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until fish breaks apart and becomes incorporated into thickened sauce. Serve over polenta. Top with parsley. Serves 6–8.
Rocca di Castagnoli 2015 Chianti Classico. This opens with aromas of black-skinned berries, cooking spices and aromatic herbs. On the savory palate, polished tannins and fresh acidity accompany black cherry, crushed raspberry and clove. Drink through 2022.
Courtesy Paolo Laboa, chef, Solo Italiano, Portland, Maine
This cake-styled dish takes effort, but its layered, flavor-packed results are worth it. Don’t be confused by the name, though. In this instance, capón isn’t fowl, but a Ligurian word for a particular red, mullet-like fish popular in the region. Halibut makes a great substitute.
- 1 pound carrots, roughly chopped
- 1 pound beets, roughly chopped
- 1 pound green beans, roughly chopped
- 2 pounds yellow potatoes, roughly chopped
- 1 pound cauliflower, roughly chopped
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 pounds mussels
- 1 pound scallops
- 12 extra jumbo shrimp
- 2 1¼-pound lobsters
- 2 pounds halibut
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- Olive oil, to drizzle
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Boil all vegetables separately, until just tender. Let cool.
When cool enough to touch, dice all together, place in large bowl, and add olive oil. Can be prepared 1 day in advance and refrigerated overnight.
Steam mussels (5 minutes), scallops (7 minutes) shrimp (5 minutes) and lobsters individually (11 minutes). Set each aside. Reserve liquid from mussels.
Heat oven to 400°F.
Drizzle halibut with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Wrap in parchment paper with wine. Place in shallow baking dish, and cook for 25 minutes. Set aside.
- 3 hard-boiled eggs
- 2 tablespoons capers
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts
- 1 small clove garlic
- 1 bunch parsley
- 5 teaspoons sea salt
- 3 tablespoons chopped black olives
- 4 fillets salt-packed anchovies (2 whole)
- 1 3-inch piece sourdough bread, soaked in red wine vinegar
Combine first four ingredients in blender. Add next four ingredients and blend again. Squeeze out excess vinegar in bread, and add to the mix. Blend until smooth. Season, to taste.
- 6–7 slices sourdough bread, ½-inch thick
Place bread slices in red wine vinegar and mussel broth until soaked through. Gently press out liquid from sourdough slices.
On large oval platter, arrange slices next to each other to create layer. Add layer of halibut, and coat with a thin layer of salsa verde. Top with layer of crushed vegetables. Continue creating layers in a round or oval shape. Top with salsa verde and add more along sides.
Add mussels in their shells around outside base of cake. Place scallops around center of cake. Add shrimp atop and around the edges of cake. Place lobsters atop cake as if they’re fighting. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Serve in slices. Serves 8–10.
La Ginestraia 2016 Pigato (Riviera Ligure di Ponente). Aromas of field flower, yellow stone fruit and beeswax float out of the glass. The fresh elegant palate offers ripe apple, pear and citrus while a dollop of vanilla provides backup. It’s balanced and interesting, with crisp acidity and a lightly mineral, savory finish.
Courtesy Nicola Marzovilla, owner, I Trulli, New York City
Puglia, located in the heel of Italy’s broad boot, is as famous for its seafood traditions as for the conical-roofed dwellings, trulli, that dot the countryside around Alberobello. Marzovilla emigrated with his family to the United States at age 10, and his elevated Southern Italian restaurant, I Trulli, nods to the great food culture of his home region. Each Christmas Eve, his restaurant’s Feast of the Seven Fishes is packed to the proverbial gills with simple yet spectacular dishes like the wood-fired, whole-roasted fish.
- Olive oil, for coating
- 2–3 pounds whole fish, like trout, sea bream, or bass, cleaned and gutted, head on
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced
- Several sprigs of thyme, rosemary, parsley
- ⅛ teaspoon sea salt
Heat oven to 400°F. Rub baking dish with olive oil, and add fish. Use tip of small paring knife to make slits in skin, and along the underside. Stuff each slit with garlic slice. Stuff the inside with herbs and salt. Drizzle outside with olive oil. Cook for 25–30 minutes. Serves 4.
Produttori di Manduria 2017 Aka Primitivo Rosato (Salento). Coral pink in color, this rosato offers raspberry and watermelon on the nose, with tangy, tart red fruit taking center stage on the palate. It’s light in body, with a healthy vein of acidity that helps extend a sunbaked stone finish.
- 1Flounder Crudo
- 2Fritto di Sardine
- 3Tips for Buying the Freshest Fish
- 4Fish and Wine Pairing Guide
- 5Carmelina’s Christmas Fish Salad
- 6Pasta con le Sarde
- 7Salt Cod Stew
- 8Capón Magro
- 9Roasted Whole Fish with Herbs