Christmas is celebrated all over the world, and every country has their traditional foods for the occasion. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is known as an Italian tradition, although it’s more Italian-American, in fact.
In Italy, as is the case elsewhere, a massive meal on Christmas Day is the norm, so on the night before—La Vigilia, or “The Vigil”—something lighter is in order. The specific Italian traditional dishes eaten on Christmas Eve vary by region, but eating fish the night before Christmas is a Roman Catholic custom, so as you can imagine, it’s widespread throughout the country.
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How Did the Feast of the Seven Fishes Start?
There are several religious theories to explain the name of the Feast of the Seven Fishes: there are 7 sacraments in the Roman Catholic church; 7 is the number that appears most frequently in the Bible, or is the most significant (it took 7 days to create the earth, there are 7 deadly sins, the number 7 represents perfection, and so on). Or, it could be named after the 7 hills that surround the city of Rome.
Do You Really Serve Seven Kinds of Fish?
Regardless of the name, not every family serves 7 fishes, or even 7 courses total, on Christmas Eve. Some set out 9 (for the Holy Trinity times three), or 10 (for the 10 stations of the cross). Some prepare 13 fishes (to represent the 12 apostles and Jesus), while others serve 11 (to stand in for everyone except Jesus and Judas).
Some don’t keep count at all. There’s no limit to the number of dishes, or fishes, you might find on any given table; it could be laden with nearly two dozen courses, or just a single pot of stew containing multiple varieties of seafood, though that’s far less likely—there’s usually an abbondanza of delicacies, from the sea and otherwise.
What Types of Seafood Are Served for the Feast of the Seven Fishes?
Calamari, salt cod, octopus, shrimp, sea snails (or whelks), clams, and smelt or whiting are some of the most universally beloved seafood for serving as part of “Festa dei sette pesci” on Christmas Eve.
Eel is another traditional choice that’s fallen somewhat out of favor in the United States, although it’s great grilled with bay leaves.
Particular preparations of seafood vary too, but pasta is often incorporated in some form, and fritto misto and fish stew are both commonly enjoyed.
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A Modern American Restaurant’s Take on the Tradition
A couple years back, we visited New Jersey’s Halifax restaurant, which focuses on sustainable and locally sourced ingredients for their beautiful dishes, to see how chef Seadon Shouse makes their fritto misto and seafood stew, both of which will be on their Feast of Seven Fishes menu again this Christmas Eve.
Their fritto misto includes shrimp, smelt, cod, and squid, as well as delicata squash and lemon wheels, all battered in buttermilk and seasoned flour, then fried to airy, crispy perfection. They’re served over squid ink aioli with fresh parsley to brighten things up. If you make your own, sprinkle a little extra salt over before serving with fresh lemon wedges for spritzing (seeds removed, please).
For something saucier, check out their gorgeous seafood stew, a combination of Rhode Island mussels, local New Jersey littleneck clams, wild Gulf shrimp from Florida, local scallops, and blue cod. Each type of seafood is cooked separately (seared in plenty of butter or steamed in wine with aromatics) so everything is precisely the right texture, but then they mingle in a light tomato broth with some fresno chiles for a little bit of heat.
If you want to recreate the dish at home, buy a combination of whatever seafood looks freshest and best—and if it’s local, all the better. Don’t forget the grilled country bread on the side for sopping up all the sauce.
Related Reading: How to Make DIY Digestifs for After Dinner
Whatever your heritage, if you’re a seafood lover, consider serving some on your holiday table this year. We have seven suggestions below (plus a bonus Italian dessert), but feel free to pick and choose—and add as many extra fishes as you please! The holidays are all about joyful abundance and generosity, after all.
As they say in Italy (or at least in the movies), Buon natale, and mangia, mangia!
Seafood Recipes for Your Own Feast of the Seven Fishes
This particular recipe may have a more Gallic accent, but the idea is the same: plenty of fresh seafood in a light tomato broth. Add whatever fish and shellfish looks best at the market, and play around with the seasonings if you want a more Italian profile (more lemon and garlic, and skip the aioli). Get our Fish Stew recipe.
Cooking squid quickly is the key to keeping them tender here. If you have your fishmonger clean them for you, this takes almost no time at all, and it makes a great light, bright, lemony dish to balance out heavier courses. Get our Sautéed Calamari with Parsley and Garlic recipe.
Winter is the perfect time to eat sweet, meaty West Coast Dungeness crabs, which are best prepared simply, without much in the way of interference. (The East Coast blue crab season ends around November as the smaller crustaceans migrate South to warmer waters, but if you can find fresh ones, try our Steamed Blue Crabs recipe.) Alternatively, serve snow or king crab legs—whatever’s freshest is always best. Get our Steamed Dungeness Crabs recipe.
Because you have to have pasta, right? This is a simple but satisfying spaghetti with plenty of garlic and pepper, perfect for ladling some quickly-cooked shrimp or clams on top, or add anchovies if you’re a fan of the briny fish. Get our Basic Garlicky Spaghetti recipe.
If you want to scale back a bit (pun intended), try our Fried Calamari recipe, but if you want to go all-out, batter and fry an assortment of seafood and lemon slices. Actually, try frying lemon slices even if you’re only doing one type of seafood; they’re a great citrusy-crispy accompaniment—but more fresh lemon wedges are also welcome for serving. Get the recipe.
Risotto is luxuriously creamy yet retains a toothsome bite, and this version is especially grand with the addition of tender, sweet-salty lobster. It’s also a great way to add an extra fancy ingredient without breaking the bank, since you only need a couple lobsters for a crowd. (For something a bit less time-consuming and a little less indulgent that’s still stunning, see our Seared Scallops with Lemony Farro and Arugula Salad.) Get our Lobster Risotto recipe.
Related Reading: How to Choose a Live Lobster
Baking fish en papillote (or al cartoccio in Italian) is a super easy and delicious method—fast, foolproof, and impressive when you serve each guest their own little steamy parchment packet. This is a great candidate for a regular weeknight dinner, but also a welcome respite in the midst of a multi-course meal of more elaborate preparations. Get our Fish Baked in Parchment recipe.
The more famous sweet Italian Christmas bread may be the fruit-studded panettone, but pandoro is a close second. It’s a labor of love, yes, but the result is definitely stunning, and the flavor is lovely: sweet, yeasty, citrusy, and scented with vanilla. We serve ours with a Tuaca-Mascarpone Cream and a snowy dusting of powdered sugar. Get our Pandoro recipe.
Header image courtesy of Alexander Raths/Shutterstock.