Vegetarians may not think of a seven-course seafood dinner as abstinence, but that is how many Italians around the world celebrate Christmas Eve. The Feast of the Seven Fishes, or cenone in Italian, is a commemoration of the wait for the midnight birth of Jesus. So where’s the abstinence? Since its earliest days, the Catholic church has had a tradition of doing penance for sins, often on vigil or the day before major feast days such as Christmas. The most common form of penance was fasting (eating less) or abstinence, forgoing certain foods, especially meat, fowl and sometimes dairy. But everything else was, you might say, on the table.
Though the seven fishes dinner is traditionally a family meal, many Italian-American restaurant chefs have gotten into the act. At Fiamma at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, chef Carlos Buscaglia’s seven courses will include such dishes as tuna with crispy cremini mushrooms and truffle vinaigrette; clams with house-made linguini; baccala with spicy pomodoro and grilled foccacia; and branzino with strawberry panzanella. Spezie Restaurant in Washington, D.C, will have the likes of pasticcio, a baked seafood pie (which chef and co-owner Cesare Lanfronconi likens to the timpano in the movie Big Night); a seafood soup Lanfronconi calls capriccio di mare, and octopus stew over soft polenta. “My family is from Sicily and my wife’s family is from Rome. Both celebrated Christmas Eve with fish, though the Sicilians had more courses,” Lanfronconi says.
Southern Italy puts more focus on Christmas Eve dinner, whereas in the North, Christmas Day is more important. Naples, in particular, has a reputation for having opulent Christmas Eve meals. So much for abstinence.
Why the number seven was chosen is a matter of dispute. Some suggest it represents the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Others, the seven deadly sins, or the seven wonders of the world or, well, just about anything with seven. Then there is the argument over whether the seven means seven courses of fish or just seven different fish or kinds of seafood, which would include shellfish. At Incanto restaurant in San Francisco, chef Chris Cosentino will have seven fishes served in four courses, with dishes such as grilled squid, seafood salad with seafood foam, skate chop, and tagliarini with eel, capers, raisins and pine nuts.
Eel, a favorite (particularly among Romans) going back to the time of the Etruscans, is one of the obligatory fish for the meal. Unfortunately, just the idea of eel can be off-putting for some folks (like my wife). “People eat it at sushi bars, but prepared the way Italians do it is a different story,” Lanfronconi says. Because eel is not popular with Americans, you’ll need to order it special or head for your nearest Chinese seafood store, where eel is more common. Fresh eel needs to be skinned. Frozen eel is normally skinned. Not having eel would be a pity because it is considerably less fishy tasting than many other fish and it has a firm, meaty texture. This texture also allows eel to work well on the grill. Another good method is deep frying, which I did in adapting a recipe from Mario Batali’s Holiday Food (Clarkson Potter). The eel was served with a sweet and sour sauce.
Deep-frying is common on Italian Christmas Eve menus. It could be a single fish or a frito misto, combinations of fish and perhaps even a vegetable or two. Though his Sicilian family deep-fried smelts, whiting, and scallops, Tony Marcello, chef at McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant in Bethesda, MD, will serve deep fried calamari with three dipping sauces. Marcello’s mother made squid a number of ways. One involved stuffing squid bodies with nuts and spinach, then baking them in tomato sauce
Baccala or salted cod is another staple on the Christmas Eve menu. Baccala requires a little advance preparation because the preserved fish needs to be soaked for about 48 hours in water that has to be changed a least twice a day to remove the excess salt. The typical preparation is to gently stew pieces of the fish in a tomato sauce with garlic and onions and perhaps a few other embellishments such as basil, capers or white wine.
A more inviting way to present salt cod (at least to non Italians) is to make a variation of the French salt cod dish, brandade de morue, which I did using a recipe from Tony Mantuano, chef-partner of Spiaggia restaurant in Chicago and whose family hails from Calabria. The recipe appears in Wine Bar Food (Clarkson Potter), which Mantuano and his wife Cathy authored, and calls for poaching the cod in milk with potatoes, onion, garlic and rosemary, then pureeing the mixture and serving it on polenta crostini. It’s delicious and not as heavy as some other versions of brandade.
Of course, what would an Italian meal be without pasta? The most common pasta dish is a year round favorite, linguine with clam sauce. However, Buscaglia will be serving gnocchi with lobster and truffle crema and Mantuano black pasta with braised scungilli. Whichever pasta course you choose, keep portions small, no more than two ounces of dried pasta per person.
In some families a whole fish is the centerpiece of the meal. Though he remembers his family having a bluefish large enough to serve eight or more people, Cosentino will serve individual branzino with salmoriglio sauce, a warm Sicilian vinaigrette of olive oil, lemon juice and herbs that I served at home on grilled swordfish.
Dessert is often light, such as an assortment of Christmas cookies or biscotti. Fruit, especially citrus fruit, is also common, as are nuts, particularly walnuts and hazelnuts.
When I was putting together a sample cenone, I stopped by Italian Wine Merchants in New York for wine suggestions. With appetizers that included tuna carpaccio and anchovy crostini I tried a surprising and surprisingly good sparkling wine from Sicily, yes, Sicily. An old vines, low-yield Verdicchio had enough oomph (more than most Verdicchios) to stand up to the linguine dish whose recipe is below. Even sturdier was a barrique-aged Slovenian blend of Ribolla, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc that paired nicely with grilled swordfish. Red wine is common for many cenones, particularly for dishes such as baccala stewed in tomatoes, capers and hot pepper flakes. In this instance, a medium-bodied red wine from Lombardia made from the obscure Marzemino grape was a first-rate match. Of course, there are dozens of other Italian wines at your disposal from fizzy Proseccos to Brunellos. Just don’t choose to abstain from wine for this meal.
The following recipe is adapted from one created by Sandy Ingber, chef of the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York, which puts on a seven fishes dinner every year.
Linguini with Rock Shrimp, Anchovies and Aglio e Olio
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup peeled, thinly sliced garlic
1 pint fish stock or bottled clam juice
Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound rock shrimp or regular medium to large fresh shrimp, peeled
4 to 6 anchovies, minced
1 pound imported linguini, cooked al dente
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1)Put half of the oil in a large, heavy bottom saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until lightly browned, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add the fish stock, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer briskly for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper taste. Set aside.
2)Meanwhile, if using regular medium shrimp, cut them in half, crosswise; if large in thirds. Put the remaining oil in a large sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and anchovies. Cook just until the shrimp turn pink, about 3 minutes.
3)Add the linguini, parsley and the fish stock. Bring to a brisk simmer while tossing well. Season as needed. Toss again and serve. Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multi-course meal.