The numbers vary—seven, nine, 11, even unlucky 13. The menus vary. And few agree on the origins of the tradition (religious? historic? superstitious?). But no matter on what side of the debate you sit, one collective truth rings clear: the Italian "Feast of the [Seven] Fishes," served on Christmas Eve, is a time to eat, drink, and be satiated.
Some say the fishy feast hails from southern Italy, where both superstition and seafood are aplenty. Many New Yorkers say it's an Italian-American tradition—a nod or a bridge across the ocean, perhaps, to the motherland. But most agree it's not a long-time custom there for the simple reason that historically, fish was an expensive and precious item, and not affordable for most Italians.
"It's not something people had all the time," says Fred Plotkin, author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, noting that the meatless feast descends from a culture of la cucina di magro, "lean" meals where meat was not allowed. The ritual, says Plotkin, "was born in Italy of that—cucina di magro—and in America became this opulent feast."
"I compare it to the fact that all Italian-American food is really an exponential version of Italian classics," he said.
Viktorija Todorovska, a sommelier and cookbook author who specializes in all things Italian, concurs.
"The southern part was so poor for such a long time, cooking that many courses wasn't realistic. But when Sicilians, especially, moved to the United States, all of the sudden, there was a lot of bounty, and food was much cheaper than it had been in Italy," she said. " 'More' was seen as a good thing. And the cost was more viable, so why wouldn't you cook seven dishes if you could?"
No one knows why the celebration attached itself to lucky number seven. Plotkin says the usual mythology around biblical references probably isn't true, citing an ancient tradition of Le Virtù, a soup prepared by seven virgins each contributing seven of each legume, meat, pasta, vegetable and other ingredients—all cooked for seven hours. It's not a Christmas meal—it's made on May Day—but Plotkin speculated its numerical significance migrated over.
In the end, says Todorovska, "Each family will pick its own number and create a story surrounding that number."
In New York, there is no shortage of feasts to choose from. Here we've rounded up seven takes on the seven fishes. Like anyone who has ever studied the Italian language knows, it's not always what you say—it's how you say it.
People wanting to dodge the debate (and flying forks) can hie themselves to a restaurant—an attractive alternative to shelling, cleaning and filleting multi courses. Or do as I Trulli owner Nicola Marzovilla does: He serves the feast at his Manhattan restaurant and at 9:30 p.m., leaves for his mother's dinner table, where the star of the meal is pasta with lobster in a slow-cooked tomato sauce—a "fra without the diavolo," he says.
A native of Puglia, Marzovilla says while there are no hard and fast rules, he goes by a baseline then modifies it with what's available each season. "There is usually some sort of raw fish followed by fried fish, then a pasta with seafood," he said. "What we do at home, we put on the menu." Shellfish always makes its way on the table.
Marzovilla also owns a wine importing company and chooses his bottles from the some 35 producers he represents. His picks include light, crisp whites such as Vermentino from Sardinia or Ribolla Gialla from Friuli. If you're thinking of Pinot Grigio, he advises going for a more concentrated wine such as Ronco dei Tassi from Collio. And sparkling reds have a place on the table, especially with fried seafood. Marzovilla likes a dry Lambrusco such as the one produced by Lini.
Regardless of your family tradition, two fishes usually make an annual appearance on the feast table: calamari and baccalà, says Vic Rallo, chef and host of the public television show, Eat! Drink! Italy!
Rallo makes a fresh cod salad—"more vibrant and tasty" than baccalà, which he pairs with a pinot bianco from Alto Adige (Cantina Terlano, 2012). And he serves up calamari two ways: a simple fritti with squeezed lemon ("like Italian popcorn": pair it with Firriato Etna Bianco from Sicily) and stuffed with focaccia, pignoli nut, garlic and capers. The richer dishes call for a more robust red—don't be afraid to go for a Chianti Classico, he says.
But Rallo says every meal should have something unassuming—like a linguini alla vongole and a showstopper such as branzino al forno, "the great Mediterranean fish." He buys his whole (his fishmonger removes the head and scales and butterflies and debones it), bakes with fresh lemon slices inside. and serves with a crisp, acidic white wine.
Midtown Manhattan restaurateur Gianfranco Sorrentino is also a fan of branzino. At Il Gattopardo and its sister restaurant, the Leopard at des Artistes, he and his chef swap family recipes each year, alternating between a simple grilled branzino with this year's au courant vegetable, and branzino all'acqua pazza (sea bass in crazy water)—a traditional dish where the fish is poached with light tomato broth and white wine. His take on cod: boiled and mashed with potatoes to make a spreadable pate. As for the other plates, "We give some choices within the courses, but we try not to repeat the same items. So the seafood salad might have clams and mussels, but in the risotto might have lobster," he said.
Sorrentino's wine choices are strictly southern: fresh, dry crisp white wines like Falanghina Greco, an ancient grape variety cultivated near Naples, or Greco di Tufo from Avellino, which he describes as "very intense and passionate, and sensual."
You don't always shave to stick with the tried and true: other menus mix tradition and trend.
At Union Square Café, chef Carmen Quagliata calls his feast a "compilation of my exposure of this legendary meal over time," whose humble beginnings included eating fried smelts and a simple dish of calamari and tomato sauce at his grandmother's. His modern take on that: Sardines Agrodolce—fresh fillets, dredged in flour and pan-fried, then topped with a sweet and sour dressing of red onions, vinegar, cinnamon, raisins, pine nuts and rosemary, white wine, a touch of sugar, and olive oil.
He says he always serves a crudo, and always find himself including a scallop somewhere on the menu, and definitely a pasta. But he doesn't go overboard.
"It's a typical progression of lighter to heavier, but the first wave is definitely the most variety, the most beautiful to look at," he says.
His Christmas Eve pasta calls for calamari ragu with spaghettini or linguini—"as long as it's long, thin and can be twirled—that's traditional," he said. Chef Quagliata handles the squid with care, keeping its ink sac intact as possible so that when he crushes it and combines with the red wine, the ink "makes the tomato sauce just kind of disappear." To give the rich dish a touch of lightness, he tops it with tops the pasta with scallions tossed in Meyer lemon juice. For richer meals like this and the sardines, he turns to light-bodied reds such as Cru Beaujolais.
In her feast menu, Chef Lucia Piscopo, at La Bottega in the trendy Maritime Hotel in West Chelsea, will include a thin-crust clam pizza inspired by the legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, where she'd sneak out for a slice when visiting her grandparents. Chef Piscopo said the pizza adds playfulness to the menu, and gives diners a break from the heavier dishes. She gives the traditional calamari and pasta a twist with fregula sarda, a Sardinian pasta (similar to Israeli couscous) that's been toasted in the oven, She infuses the dish with pine nuts, capers, currants and a spicy tomato sauce.
In the spirit of keeping it simple, Piscopo served a simple Prosecco and a verdicchio.
The main question is not how many fishes are on the table, as much as how to pace yourself through a marine marathon. Mark Pascal, the third generation to run Catherine Lombardi in New Brunswick, N.J., (where 90 percent of the recipes are from nonna) advised people not to rush it. Think like an Italian, he says: own the table for the evening.
"The idea is to spend time with the people you're with ... to sit around a table and make eye contact and talk about real things. And the meal is a facilitator of that," he says.
About the Author: Lana Bortolot is a New York-based writer specializing in wine, arts & culture and community development. Her right-brained side serves as the New York editor for the Tasting Panel and SOMMJournal magazines. The left-brained side is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal. Website: lanabortolot.com.