Like most other holidays—and let’s face it, most days in general—Italian-Americans have a way of making the Christmas season all about food. But there is one day and one meal in particular that is perhaps the most celebrated and legendary Italian-American meal of the calendar year.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is the annual Christmas Eve vigil and epic seafood feast that has grown into the most beloved meal of the year in Italian-American households. Steeped in tradition, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is the centerpiece meal of the entire holiday season. It heartens homecooks to adhere to their heritage, while also inspiring them to step a bit out of their lasagna and baked ziti comfort zones.
Italian-Americans can hardly contain their excitement in anticipation of this epic meal—if you’ve ever tried to converse with an Italian-American during the month of December and you notice their mind begins to wander, you can bet that they are either planning their Feast of the Seven Fishes menu or dreaming about the glorious seafood blowout they are about to dive into at their family’s Christmas gathering.
But if the Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American tradition and doesn’t trace its roots to the old world in Italy, how did it become so inextricably linked to Christmas Eve in Italian households?
The History Of The Feast Of The Seven Fishes
The origin of the Feast can be traced back to southern Italy, the area that is surrounded by such bountiful coastline that seafood has been a massive part of the population’s diet for generations. Meanwhile, the tradition of eating a large and meatless meal on Christmas Eve is common throughout Italy. The number “seven” wasn’t attached to the feast until long after Italian immigrants arrived in America with their cultural feast in tow.
Instead of calling it the “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” the first wave of Italian immigrants likely called it La Cena Della Vigilia, Il Cenone, La Vigilia di Natale or La Vigilia. As for the exact number of fish dishes being a strict seven, no one quite knows how Italian-Americans landed on that numerical marker. There’s a good chance the “seven fishes” designation has religious ties, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church’s seven sacraments, seven virtues or the “seventh day of rest” from the Bible. No matter where that number came from, there are traditional dishes that most Italian-American families insist must be among the seven.
The Traditional Seafood Dishes In The Feast Of The Seven Fishes
If you asked seven different Italian-American families, there’s a good chance you’ll get seven different answers as to what dishes are a must have during the feast. Mainly, it’s all about tradition—some modern day Italian-Americans have memories of their grandma butchering live eels in the kitchen sink, while others can still smell the pot of shellfish-laden pasta sauce simmering for hours on the stovetop.
Taking tradition and memory into account, here are the most common fish, shellfish, and entire dishes you might find at an Italian-American Christmas Eve gathering. There are, of course, many other options for you to make this meal all your own, but it’s best to start with the standards. Some should be enjoyed with pasta, while others are just as delicious enjoyed on their own.
There definitely must be a few snack-sized, appetizer-type dishes in this feast, and baked clams are the ideal entry point into the seafood extravaganza. The debate rages on between chopped or whole clams as the best sea route to take here—with some insisting on the full briny bite of the whole clam, while others preferring the clam flavor to be spread throughout those buttery breadcrumbs.
Larger smelts can be butterflied, with the flesh pulling easily off those tiny fish bones. But the real joy is with the tiny smelts that can be eaten whole—bones and all! These crispy little morsels burst with the flavors of the sea. In a way, they are like little fish-flavored French fries—perfectly salty, pleasantly oily, and deeply oceanic. Feel free to swap out smelt for sardines if you so choose.
A salted cod-type white fish, baccalá is about as close to sacred as a holiday dish can get. It’s traditionally prepared by first soaking it in the kitchen sink for multiple nights leading up to the Christmas Eve feast. This practice of reconstituting the dried fish pulls out the just enough of the saltiness to make it palatable, before it's either fried or sautéed with capers and onions.
This conch—or in reality a giant sea snail—can be applied in multiple ways during your Feast of the Seven Fishes. The two most popular ways are in a chilled seafood salad (with calamari, octopus, baccalá, shrimp, and more) or as an ingredient in a bubbling cauldron of seafood sauce, which can be lovingly ladled over spaghetti or linguine. Just have plenty of crusty Italian bread on hand to mop up that wonderful sauce.
For some Italian families, a massive pot of mussels is as inextricably linked to Christmas as Santa Claus himself. Whether prepared as part of a cioppino-style seafood stew or delicately dressed with a light tomato sauce or steamed with white wine, garlic, herbs, and butter, mussels can be a communal experience that perfectly encapsulates a loud, boisterous holiday dinner scene.
Another seafood touchpoint that can be enjoyed in a variety of delicious ways on Christmas Eve, calamari (or “galamad” as it’s pronounced in some families) consists of the rings and tentacles of squid. Use calamari either in a chilled seafood salad or fry it to crispy perfection and serve with a side of marinara sauce for dipping. Either way, don’t be afraid of the tentacles—arguably the best and most desired part of this seafood.
We saved the best for last. The most decadent of all seafood options, lobster is regal enough to be the centerpiece of your Feast of the Seven Fishes. The buttery and supple flesh can be enjoyed straight from the steamed shell, as part of the aforementioned cioppino-style seafood stew, prepared as the classically piquant lobster fra diavolo or stuffed with a mix of breadcrumbs, spices, crabmeat, and other ingredients for a truly indulgent take on the ultimate Christmas main course.
Dive Into The Feast Of The Seven Fishes With Paesana
No matter if you choose to adhere to the tradition of “seven fishes” or you decide to keep it simple with one, two or three seafood dishes, Paesana is with you each step of the way. Our array of freshly prepared pasta sauces are the deliciously festive accompaniment to any holiday feast—whether it’s with our classic Marinara sauce, thick and hearty Sicilian Gravy or enlivening Fra Diavolo. Enhanced with our array of antipasti-ready condiments and gourmet specialty olives, your family can continue the Feast of the Seven Fishes with Paesana!