Feast of the Seven Fishes: How to celebrate the Italian Christmas tradition

Recipes and tips for making your own seven-course fish meal.
Mazzaro's Italian Market in St. Petersburg has an assortment of local seafood as well as fish from around the world.
Mazzaro's Italian Market in St. Petersburg has an assortment of local seafood as well as fish from around the world. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 18, 2019

The smell of fried fish will always remind Luigi Gallace of Christmas Eve.

His mother would be in the kitchen all day, breading and frying smelt until the tiny fish were golden and crispy. She’d peel shrimp before submerging them into a rich tomato sauce, chop and then stuff calamari with an oreganata-style mix of garlicky bread crumbs seasoned with oregano and olive oil.

“I’d come home and the whole house would smell like it — it was wonderful,” Gallace said.

Gallace, who now runs the Italian restaurant Villa Gallace in Indian Rocks Beach, grew up in Westchester County, New York, before moving to Florida. For his family, and many other Italian-American families, celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Dec. 24 is a longstanding tradition.

A popular entree on the menu at Villa Gallace is the zuppa di pesce.
A popular entree on the menu at Villa Gallace is the zuppa di pesce. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

The holiday, also known as La Vigilia di Natale, or simply La Vigilia, is a Christmas Eve celebration in many Italian-American households — a tradition brought by southern Italian families who emigrated to this country between the 1880s and 1920s. The Feast of the Seven Fishes stems from the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat until after Christmas Day. The multicourse seafood feast would traditionally be held after Midnight Mass and meant to commemorate the wait for the midnight birth of Jesus.

In Italy, the feast is celebrated in Sicily, Sardinia and Naples, where fresh seafood is the most abundant, but Italian-Americans, in particular those on the East Coast, have adapted the tradition widely. Some families make seven dishes, some up to 10 or 11.

There are plenty of Tampa Bay locals that have made the feast part of their annual holiday spread, too. The region’s proximity to the gulf makes it a natural choice for a big seafood throwdown.

At Villa Gallace, Gallace said doing the full seven courses is too much to handle on Christmas Eve, one of the restaurant’s busiest nights of the year. But he makes sure to include a few of his favorite holdovers from the holiday for his guests: a garlicky pasta with clams, perhaps, or an American red snapper livornaise, with a red sauce plump with capers. There is also calamari Fra diavolo, where the squid are served in a rich red sauce ripe with red pepper flakes, and a zuppe di pesce, or seafood stew, which comes bobbing with all manner of ocean creatures: shrimp, mussels, calamari, scallops, clams and grouper.

Boned salted cod is offered at Mazzaro's Italian Market.
Boned salted cod is offered at Mazzaro's Italian Market. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Though some restaurants do host special dinners for the event (St. Petersburg’s Il Ritorno throws a big Feast of the Seven fishes celebration on Christmas Eve), the tradition is probably more popular with home cooks.

Kaylee Gentry, who works at St. Petersburg’s I.C. Sharks, said Christmas Eve is one of the busiest days of the year for the seafood market.

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“We get slammed,” she said. “We do about triple our normal business that day. Everybody is just counting on their fingers, trying to get to seven."

For those having a hard time figuring out how to reach that magic number, Gentry suggested using a lot of shellfish and bivalves, including oysters, stone crab claws, clams, scallops and squid.

“Because any kind of seafood counts — it doesn’t have to just be fish.”

Various canned fish products at Mazzaro's.
Various canned fish products at Mazzaro's. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

At Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Petersburg, jarred and tinned fish like tuna soaked in olive oil, mussels in tomato sauce and spicy sardines are a great resource for working smoked and cured seafood into the meal. The market also sells baccala, or cured salted cod, an Italian delicacy traditionally served on Christmas Eve.

For anyone attempting to re-create the feast at home, don’t be afraid to break a few rules. If a Thai seafood curry sounds better than a traditional Italian dish, just go with it. And if you don’t have time to make seven dishes on your own, employ a few friends and family to lend a hand in the kitchen. At the end of day, it’s Christmas Eve, and you’re celebrating being together.

“With Italian families, it’s like that,” Gallace said. “Everybody helps out — it’s always about food and family.”

How to cook a Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner

American red snapper en papillote.
American red snapper en papillote. [ Courtesy of Danny Lee (The Deep End Of Flavor) ]

1. Start with something snacky and social

My holiday go-to for the past five years has been a smoked sardine dip, and it’s gotten to the point where I’m not allowed to walk in the door without it. The recipe, adapted from cookbook author David Tanis, is simple and easy to tweak, depending on your liking. For a local spin, try smoked mullet or tuna.

To make, combine ½ cup cream cheese, 3 tablespoons butter, 2 (3 ¼-ounce) cans sardines, 3 chopped scallions, 1 tablespoon chopped capers, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice and ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper in a medium bowl. Mix everything together and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Alternately, lay out a plate of crostini or crackers with a variety of different tinned fish, some herbed butter and flaky salt and let your guests make their own little smoked fish tartines.

2. Eat some oysters

Delegate an oyster shucker and serve them raw on the half shell, dressed with a squeeze of lemon, or fire up the grill for a quick round of smoky, grilled oysters topped with chili butter. Not only are these delicious, but they’re a great way to get folks out of the kitchen and outdoors.

Grilled Oysters With Sriracha Lime Butter

¼ cup butter, softened

2 teaspoons shallots, finely minced

1 teaspoon sriracha

1 tablespoon lime juice

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons cilantro, minced

2 dozen oysters on the half shell

Mix the butter with the shallots, sriracha, lime juice, salt and cilantro in a bowl. Let the butter set up in the fridge until slightly solid.

Meanwhile, heat the grill (or broiler) until very hot. Top each oyster with a dollop of butter mixture and grill (or broil) for 3 to 4 minutes.

Source: Food52

3. Serve something cool, and light

Serving a middle course that skews lighter is a nice way to pace an evening with this much food. I love this recipe for oil-poached tuna from New Orleans chef Tenney Flynn, whose recently released cookbook The Deep End of Flavor is ripe with ideas for gulf fish preparations. Flynn serves the tuna with a poached egg over greens and olive salad. For an easy spin on a nicoise, serve this over a salad with green beans and potatoes.

Poached tuna tops a nicoise salad.
Poached tuna tops a nicoise salad. [ Courtesy of Danny Lee (The Deep End Of Flavor) ]

Oil-Poached Tuna

2 cups olive or canola oil

1 fresno or jalapeno chile, split open lengthwise

1 large sprig of thyme

2 bay leaves

10 peppercorns

1 lemon, thinly sliced

1 pound fresh fatty tuna, cut into 1-inch chunks or slices

In a medium saucepan, combine the oil, chile, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns and lemon and heat on medium-low heat to approximately 160 degrees. (Use a thermometer for this.)

Add the tuna to the poaching liquid and poach for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is slightly pink inside. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tuna to a container and cool in a refrigerator until the oil reaches room temperature. Pack the tuna into a smaller container and cover with the reserved poaching oil. Cover and refrigerate until using, up to 10 days.

Source: The Deep End of Flavor by Tenney Flynn

4. Don’t be afraid to potluck it (or skip a dish)

One of the best parties I went to last year was a Feast of the Seven Fishes potluck at my colleague Matt’s house. It was far from traditional (it was on New Year’s Eve, not Christmas Eve, for one), and I’m pretty sure we didn’t quite hit anywhere near the seven-dish requirement. But by asking everyone to bring something, which ranged from oil- and citrus-poached salmon to a bottle of tequila, there was less work to do in the kitchen and more time to spend catching up with friends.

5. Everybody loves pasta (so make pasta)

This buttery, garlicky linguine is brimming with briny clams. It’s a great opportunity to throw in some local Cedar Key littlenecks.

Linguine and Clams

2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal or 1 tablespoon Morton kosher salt, plus more

12 garlic cloves, divided

4 ounces sourdough or country-style bread, crusts removed, cut into ½-inch pieces

2 tablespoons plus ¼ cup olive oil, plus more for serving

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

2 oil-packed anchovy fillets (optional)

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

⅓ cup dry white wine

2 pounds littleneck clams (about 24)

12 ounces linguine or spaghetti

½ cup finely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Bring 2 tablespoons salt and 10 cups water to a boil in a large pot.

Meanwhile, pulse 3 garlic cloves in a food processor until chopped. Add bread and pulse several times until fine crumbs form.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high. Add bread crumb mixture and cook, stirring often, until crumbs are golden and crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add lemon zest, season with salt and toss to combine; set aside.

Wipe out Dutch oven. Using a mandoline if you have one (if not, use a really sharp knife), very thinly slice remaining 9 garlic cloves. Heat ¼ cup oil in Dutch oven over medium. Cook garlic, stirring often, until golden around the edges, about 3 minutes.

Add anchovies, if using, and ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until garlic is golden all over and anchovies are dissolved. Quickly stir in wine and simmer until only a couple of tablespoons of liquid are left in pot. Add clams and toss to combine.

Cover and cook until clams are open, 5 to 7 minutes. Uncover pot and transfer clams to a medium bowl, leaving liquid in pot. If any clams are still closed, cover pot again and cook a few minutes longer, then transfer to bowl with others. (Discard any that have not opened at this point.) Tent clams with foil.

Cook pasta in boiling water for 5 minutes. Using a ladle or heatproof measuring cup, scoop out about 2 cups pasta cooking liquid. Using tongs, transfer pasta to pot with clam liquid. Add 1 cup pasta cooking liquid and bring to a boil. Cook, tossing constantly and adding more pasta cooking liquid a splash at a time if needed, until pasta is al dente and sauce is glossy and thick enough to cling to noodles, about 5 minutes.

Remove from heat. Add parsley and butter and toss until butter is melted. Sprinkle about one-third of bread crumbs over pasta and toss to combine. (You can add more or less depending on how much liquid is in bottom of pot — you want them to absorb some of the sauce but not make it dry.) Give pasta a taste; you probably won’t need additional salt, but you can add some if you’d like. Divide pasta among shallow bowls and top with reserved clams, more bread crumbs, red pepper flakes and a drizzle of oil.

Source: Bon Appétit

6. Serve some shrimp

They’re easy, they’re local and they’re delicious. Whether you serve them poached, with cocktail sauce or seasoned with Old Bay, garlic and lemon and grilled for a peel-and-eat feast, shrimp always present a nice and simple crowd-pleaser.

7. End with an (easy) showstopper

The key word here is easy: You don’t want to be slaving over the stove for hours. A simple whole fish is a good way to go, as is roasting a filet en papillote, or in parchment paper.

David Benstock of St. Petersburg’s Il Ritorno said using a local fish like a yellowtail snapper in a whole grilled fish preparation is a great way to use a gulf species in a dish that he often makes with branzino.

Alternately, poaching a larger, fatty fish like salmon in olive oil over low heat with some herbs makes for an easy, delicious and impressive finale.