The holidays are upon us, and in east coast cities like New York, ‘tis the season for feasting. One of the most legendary food-centered holiday traditions celebrated by Italian-Americans is The Feast of the Seven Fishes.
An annual Christmas Eve vigil, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is an epic meal that families across the US look forward to all year long. Beckoning home cooks of all ages to get back to their Italian roots, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a time when families step away from pasta-based comfort food and experience the bounties of the sea.
The centerpiece of the entire holiday season, Italian-Americans across the nation are anticipating this festive meal, spending the month of December planning their annual Christmas Eve feast.
To help make the night even more festive, offer your customers a way to celebrate the event without doing all the work by creating a “Seven Fishes” online menu that can be delivered directly to their door on Christmas Eve.
History of the Feast
According to legend, Southern Italy is the birthplace of the Feast of Seven Fishes. An area surrounded by bountiful waters, seafood has been a staple in the population’s diet for generations.
The tradition of eating a massive meatless meal on Christmas Eve is common throughout Italy, but the number “seven” being attached to the feast happened when Italian immigrants came to America.
While the reason Italian-Americans landed on that number remains a mystery, most people believe it has ties to Roman Catholic religion.
Traditional Seven Seafood Dishes
If you asked seven different Italian-Americans, odds are you’ll get seven different answers as to what traditional seafood dishes they serve on Christmas Eve. Like many children and grandchildren of immigrants, Italian-American family traditions have been passed down from recipes that originated in “the old country.”
With as many options as there are families, we decided to give you some guidelines to make your restaurant’s Feast Of Seven Fishes offerings your own .
7 Common Fishes for the Christmas Eve Feast
1 - Calamari
A favorite Italian seafood touchpoint enjoyed on Christmas Eve, calamari (pronounced, “galamad” in some families) consists of the rings and tentacles of squid served over a chilled bed of greens or fried to crispy perfection and served with a side of marinara dipping sauce.
2 - Lobster
The most decadent of all seafoods, lobster is the centerpiece of many Seven Fishes feasts. The buttery flesh can be enjoyed straight from the steamed shell, as part of a cioppino-style stew, or stuffed with crabmeat, a truly indulgent take on the ultimate Christmas Eve main course.
3 - Clams
Baked clams are the ideal beginning to the holiday seafood extravaganza, served either whole and briny or chopped with buttery breadcrumbs.
4 - Fried Smelts
Like little fish-flavored French fries, perfectly salty, just-right oily, and deeply oceanic, tiny smelts can be eaten whole—bones and all!
5 - Baccalá
About as close to sacred as a holiday dish can get, a salted cod-type white fish, baccalá, is traditionally prepared by soaking it in the kitchen sink for multiple nights leading up to the Christmas Eve feast.
6 - Mussels
For Italians, a massive pot of mussels is as closely tied to Christmas Eve as Santa himself. Whether prepared as part of a cioppino-style stew or dressed with a light red sauce or white garlic-based butter, eating mussels is a communal experience, perfectly encapsulating a loud, boisterous traditional Italian holiday meal.
7 - Conch
Conch can be applied in multiple ways during the Feast of the Seven Fishes meal with the two most popular being tossed in a chilled seafood salad or as an ingredient in a bubbly pot of sauce ladled over pasta and served with crusty Italian bread.
7 New York City Restaurants Offering Seven Fish Feasts
In New York City, chefs are having fun with the Christmas Eve feast, getting creative with dishes, sneaking in an eighth fish, and making the menu available before December 24th.
1 - Gato - Mediterranean
Bobby Flay’s restaurant will serve roasted octopus with sour orange and bacon and a seafood paella with saffron rice this year. GATO combines NYC glitz, a casual European approach, and a bustling environment that’s perfect for the Christmas Eve Feast.
$105 for four courses
2 - Ai Fiori - Italian, Mediterranean, Midtown
Michael White’s midtown spot goes all-out on a luxurious version of the Feast with dishes like lobster bisque with white truffles and tarragon; blue-prawn crudo with oyster crema; and salt cod with fennel, garlic, and rice.
$175 for seven courses
3 - Bessou - Japanese - NoHo
A stylish, welcoming restaurant specializing in cosmopolitan Japanese home cooking adds a Japanese twist to the Christmas Eve meal, offering king-crab-leg hot pot; bamboo purse with rice balls, and smoked daikon.
4 - The Clam - Seafood - West Village
A West Village shellfish-centric eatery, chef Mike Price has put together a five-course seafood-studded prix-fixe menu available on Christmas Eve from 3 to 10 p.m. and Christmas Day from 3 to 9 p.m.
5 - Barano - Pizza - Williamsburg
Inspired by the Feasts he enjoyed with his grandparents, chef Al Di Meglio is serving oyster pastelle, charred jumbo prawns with squid ink aïoli, a pasta tasting with salt-cod ravioli, roasted lobster oreganata, and lemon semifreddo on December 24th.
$65 for a five-course prix fixe, or à la carte
6 - Faro - Italian - Bushwick
A Bushwick favorite, Faro offers a prix fixe menu with options like carrot with ají dulce and uni, warm crab with apple and cardamom broth, octopus with squid ink frascatelli, and a triple-chocolate tart for dessert.
$95, $145 for wine pairing
7 - Faun - Prospect Heights
Fresh sardines on toast, spaghetti with olive oil–poached tuna, and a main course of black bass or tiger shrimp is being served on Christmas Eve at this Brooklyn mainstay.
$72 for a three-course prix fixe, $30 for wine pairing
By Eileen Strauss