Traditional recipes

The Feast of the Fishes: My Italian-American Christmas Eve

The Feast of the Fishes: My Italian-American Christmas Eve

I will never forget the day after Thanksgiving break in high school health class, when we went around the room and shared what we had been enjoying for the big dinner. When it came time for me to unveil my food-feast, I said, “Well we start with the cheese and crackers kind of stuff, go on to the antipasto with olives, pepperoni, prosciutto, mozzarella balls and bruschetta, and then Grandma brings out the manicotti…”

After a minute straight of rattling off food items, my classmates were staring at me, probably wondering where I fit all that food in my relatively petite body.

You see, us Italian-Americans have at least one thing in common (besides mothers with a penchant for chasing us with a wooden spoon): we love food, and a lot of it. Even though Thanksgiving is an American holiday, we can’t help piling on the meat and cheese platters, as well as the manicotti (or whatever your cheese-filled macaroni of choice happens to be).

Probably my favorite Italian custom is the Seven Fishes dinner on Christmas Eve, or Festa dei sette pesci. The feast stems from the Christian tradition of abstinence of meat on Fridays and during Lent. Why seven? The number seven appears multiple times in The Bible, and for Italians, odd numbers are considered lucky!

The meal is considered a celebration that culminates in the midnight birth of Christ. When my mother was little, they actually started with the fish dishes, went to midnight mass, and then came home to a spread of deli meats to celebrate the end of the meat fast. I’m a fourth-generation Italian, so at midnight we usually just break out more bottles of Prosecco.

Some of the more traditional fish dishes include bakala (dried, salted codfish), smelts (small fish, often fried and eaten whole), as well as sardines. These fish dishes weren’t exactly popular with the kids of the family. Today, we use the term “seven fishes” pretty loosely to mean seafood of all varieties. I’ve luckily never had a smelt in my life, though I wouldn’t mind some sardines! Every year the menu is a bit different, but we always fry thick slices of flounder, drizzled with fresh lemon. It’s not Christmas Eve without walking into my aunt’s house and hearing the sizzle and pop of the browning fish.

Another big favorite is aglio et olio, shrimp with garlic and olive oil, served with linguine. This might be a fairly simple dish, but also one of my Grandma’s favorites. She used to be the head honcho on Christmas Eve, directing the fish-frying and pasta straining. After she passed away in 2009, that duty went to my older cousin.

You name it, we’ve probably had it: calamari, shrimp scampi (shrimp tossed with garlic, olive oil and white wine), crab cakes, and one year, homemade New England clam chowder.

After multiple rounds of seafood, we break out the figs and nuts: an Italian pre-dessert tradition (yes, we love food so much, we have another round of appetizers before dessert), and everyone generally argues over what exactly a Brazil nut is, and how to use Aunt Mary’s 50-year-old, dull nutcrackers to crack open the walnuts. By the time the Italian tri-color cookies are broken out, people are drunkenly singing the “12 Days of Christmas” — inevitably forgetting all the words except “Five Golden Rings!” — while my male cousins are modeling ancient fur coats that we found in the basement.

Or maybe that’s just my crazy family’s traditions.

Click here for my grandmother's delicious aglio et olio recipe, and click here to learn how we make our quick and easy shrimp scampi.

Buon Appetito e Buon Natale!

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Ever heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes? Hank explains:

Growing up in New Jersey among so many Italians, I thought every Italian family celebrated Christmas Eve with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a tidal wave of seafood dishes each featuring a different fish or shellfish.

But as I grew up and met more Italians from other parts of the Old Country, I learned that the Feast is a very Southern Italian tradition. Regional or no, I love the idea of feasting on the ocean's bounty as a warm up to the heavy roasts of Christmas Day.

Every family has its own menu, but there are a few dishes that almost always appear: Smoked eel was a big one when I lived on Long Island, as was stewed or fried baccala, salt cod.

Calamari or octopus was a constant, and crab or lobster was common as well. Some families served huge piles of fried smelt, others pasta with anchovies. West Coast Italians served up cioppino, a seafood stew that can often have seven fishes in one bowl.

Why seven? No one really knows. Some say it is for the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church, others say it symbolizes the church's Seven Virtues: faith, hope, charity, temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice.

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.

Anthony's Italian-American Recipes

Note: Sometimes there were more than seven… (This was a Christmas Eve special event ever year!)

I felt it necessary to write down all the details of how my family did the Feast of The Seven Fishes (La Viglia di Natale) when I was a kid and when my mom was a kid. I remember very little of this other than the smell of fish stuff and how I did not care for much of it. Times have changed however now that I’m older, there many of the items on this menu that I now enjoy! I asked my Mom to help me out with this and from talking with her on the phone and some verifications with my uncle this is what I have so far. I will be adding more detail to this menu as the information leaks out from my family. The secrets have to slowly be revealed. I will also be adding detailed recipes for these as I learn how to make these recipes like my Italian grandmother did. Keep in mind, the information below is what my Mom was telling me, so anywhere you see “she did this or that.. the “She”, was my Grandma Salerno.

Stuffed Calamari – Squid (Stuffed with a bread stuffing)
Cooked in tomato sauce with. The stuffing was bread, eggs, salt, pepper, parsley. Simmer until tender. Cut the tentacles throw them in the sauce for flavor. The body of the squid was stuffed. *clean all the squid first. This is the hard part. She cooked the calamari in just tomato paste with water. Moisture will come out of the squid. This is all the details I have so far. This page here looks pretty close! Stuffed Calamari in Tomato Sauce

Bacalla (salted cod) – stiff and frozen
She had to soak it. Soaked several times, changing the water. All the details I have so far. What the heck is Bacala you say? Here is a good page that explains it! Baccalà – Unexpected delight from Salt Code

Snails (periwinkles) – Tiny snails
Cooked in the tomato sauce. Everyone had a straight pin to pull out the snails from the shell. A good looking recipe for this is here: Winkle or Periwinkle

Smelt (a little skinny “smelly” fish)
Cooked in lemon and olive oil (like an anchovy) . Fried, floured, salt pepper, fried in olive oil. What the heck is Smelt?… Here is a good article: Smelt (Eulachon, Oolichan, Candlefish, and Hooligan) – Smelt History – Smelt Recipe – How To Cook Smelt

Claims (baked and stuffed clams) – Also Linguini with clams.

Fillet of Sole (baked with olive oil and lemon)

Pasta dish with some kind of fish, it might have been shrimp. Shrimp linguini.

Oysters on the half shell.

Some details about the Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner and how the day went in the Salerno household.
The food was always fresh because she would not have a stocked fridge like we have today. She would go to several different shops to find the best fresh food. My grandfather was always in charge of buying the fresh Parmesan and grating it. My grandmother would grate the cheese sometimes, but I am finding out from my Mom now that my grandfather was the one who would do all the grating of the parm.
They would buy pure alcohol from “someone” in the neighborhood. Then they would buy the flavorings like Anise flavoring, cream DeMint. Coffee Sport. (Coffee flavored liquor. They would make it, store it. The bring them out for holidays.
Palm Sunday, after church you would have your palms and you would go visit people that you might have had a disagreement with and you would give them a palm and all was forgiven. No words had to be spoken, you would just give them a palm and all was good, then you would sit and have some nice food and break out the liquors.

There was always homemade crème de mint, Anisette, coffee sport.

More information on this to come as I get more from the family…

Check out this book!
by: Daniel Bellino-Zwicke

I have placed below some nice articles and information about Christmas Eve’s Feast of the Seven Fishes

Mario Batali talks about the traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal, the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and reminisces about celebrating it with his family in this youtube video:
About the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Chef Franco shows us the alternative to the traditional holiday dinner with the Feast of the Seven Fishes
This is a nice 4 part video series that will wet your appetite!
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Check out this DIY Feast of The Seven Fishes page from Amy Riolo’s BLog.

This is a nice article that does a pretty good job explaining what The Feast of The Seven Fishes is all about and there is a recipe for calamari and pasta dish as a bonus!
What’s With All The Fish? Italian Christmas Eve Explained

Feast of The Seven Fishes video from Mary Ann Esposito.
Very well done! Thanks for posting this Ann! Check the Mary Ann Esposito blog. Some good stuff there!

Italian Christmas Time
This is another great video, not about the Seven Fishes but about Christmas. I just had to place here!

The Feast of the Seven Fishes Is a Classic Italian-American Christmas Eve Tradition

For many Italian Americans, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a can&rsquot-miss Christmas tradition. Traditionally served for Christmas Eve dinner, this meal consists of a spread of seven different types of seafood, from appetizers to main courses&mdashand it can last for hours! So put on some Christmas music and read on to learn more about the origins of this special Christmas dinner and how you can make your own holiday seafood feast.

For many families who celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the menu is the same every year&mdashbut the names and types of dishes can easily vary from family to family. Some of the most traditional dishes include stuffed clams, cold seafood salads, shrimp scampi, stuffed calamari, fritto misto (fried seafood and vegetables), mussels marinara, baccalà (salt cod) and many more! The dinner became popular in the United States when many southern Italians were immigrating to the U.S. during the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries. Fish is traditionally eaten on the eve of feast days in the Roman Catholic church when many Catholics decide to abstain from meat, which is why the meal consists of only fish.

If you&rsquore not ready to prepare seven seafood dishes at once, try starting with a few of Ree Drummond&rsquos best seafood recipes, like Lemon-Basil Shrimp Risotto, Foil-Packet Shrimp Pasta, Sheet Pan Salmon Puttanesca, Lobster and Spiced Tomato Risotto, Seafood Pasta, and Sea Bass with Lemon-Garlic Butter. Buon Natale, or Merry Christmas!

The Feast of the Seven Fishes

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor

It’s nearly here, Christmas Eve, when Italian Moms scurry around town, heading for the market, in search of fish to celebrate “La Festa dei Sette Pesci” or the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Can you believe how upset I was when someone (wanting to bust my chops) said, “What’s the big deal? It’s not something that’s celebrated all over Italy…”


“Calmati figlio che ti scoppi un intestino!” But, it’s true! Although the tradition originated in Italy, specifically in Sicily and Naples, it was not something celebrated throughout country, particularly not much north of Rome.

No one really seems to know exactly how the Feast of Fishes came about, or how many fish were on the table. It wasn’t always seven fish: Some Italian families prepared anywhere from three to thirteen varieties of fish, the numbers having special meanings.

For example, the seven fishes represented several possibilities: the creation of the world in seven days, the Seven Hills of Rome, the seven sacraments, seven sins, or even the Seven Virtues of Catholicism. Nine fishes at the table presumably represented the Holy Trinity times three. Eleven fish signified the Apostles minus Judas, whereas thirteen fish suggested the Twelve Apostles plus Jesus.

The Feast of Fishes became popular as Italian families migrated to other parts of the world. It was a big hit for the Italian American communities where, apparently, the serving of seven fish became the norm.

There are a variety of fish combinations available for the Italian American Christmas Eve meal. One lineup might be eel, baccalà, calamari, smelts, scungilli (a conch salad), a white fish and clams. However, as the years progressed, Moms adapted to the palate of the “new generation,” thus forcing menus to include “pesci merican” on the table. “Che vergogna!”

As a kid, there wasn’t much thought about a special Fish Feast Day. Yes, Christmas Eve was special, a wonderful family day. And, yes, there were fish for dinner (and more than the normal Friday). But myself and the other kids took it for granted that Christmas Eve was just another meatless day (we weren’t even sure how many fish lay on our table — who was counting?). But who can forget the wonderful aroma of fried, baked and sauced fish? “Era un aroma fantastico!”

The Feast of the Seven Fishes has passed from generation to generation and will continue. It is a magnificent Italian American family tradition. We who have experienced it — siamo stati fortunati.” But for those of you who have not, well — “veramente mi dispiace!”

Giada’s 7 Fishes Menu

Chef, best-selling cookbook author, and Emmy Award-winning TV show host Giada De Laurentiis was born in Rome and learned the secrets to Italian cooking from her grandfather (or, as Giada says, “my Nonno”). So it’s no surprise that come Christmas, she’s bringing some cherished Italian holiday traditions stateside. This year, she’ll be serving up an Italian Christmas Eve at her restaurant, Giada, in Las Vegas ( details here ) but as usual, she doesn’t keep her cooking secrets to herself.

“One of the most old-school Italian Christmas traditions is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Christmas Eve celebration that incorporates seven different kinds of seafood into one massive meal,” says Giada. “If you’ve never made one, it can seem intimidating, but I have an easy rule of thumb to simplify the cooking process. One baked (for me, that’s a beautiful side of salmon to roast in the oven), one on the stovetop (a classic spaghetti alla vongole), and one already made (a smoked fish crostini).”

If you can’t make it to Vegas, here are 3 ways to incorporate the tradition at home, whether you’re serving them all together or solo:

Smoked Fish Crostini

Rather than make every fish dish from scratch, Giada suggests turning to prepared smoked fish for an elegant but easy addition to your Christmas Eve menu. Here, toasted crostini is topped with flaked white fish, dill and crème fraiche.

Spaghetti with Clams

Spaghetti alla vongole (i.e. clams) is about as classic as they come, which makes it a great choice for a holiday menu. It’s comforting and familiar, but not something most people make for themselves often. Bonus: it’s easy to prepare.

Slow Roasted Salmon

Salmon is always a crowd-pleaser, but when done wrong it can end up dry. Giada solves that problem by slow roasting a large salmon filet of even thickness so it retains its moisture and develops great flavor.

What exactly is the Feast of the 7 Fishes?

“The Feast of the 7 Fishes is an Italian-American tradition that originated in the early 1900s,” states McKee. “The food has roots in the Roman Catholic custom of abstaining from feeding on meat on Christmas Eve, and the quantity seven has big importance in the Bible.”

This is not an reliable Italian custom. Previous year, Saveur interviewed cooks from Naples and Milan, neither of which experienced at any time listened to of the Feast of the 7 Fishes. The story of how the stromboli arrived to be is similar—while in the U.S. we feel of it as an Italian dish, it basically originated in southern Philadelphia by Italian-Americans.

Related: The quick way to make healthier comfort food items.

It is true, nonetheless, that Romans, as effectively as most Italians, consume fish right before main vacations simply because they cannot try to eat meat on people times.

𔄟 varieties of fish or seafood are ordinarily represented in the course of the 7 courses. Eel and salted cod are truly classic things that you would see ready for this meal, together with other seafood,” states McKee.

According to Eataly, the Feast of the Seven Fishes could also integrate just two varieties of fish that are well prepared in 7 unique approaches.

Read through far more: 43 Balanced Seafood Recipes That Are Amazingly Simple to Make

Recipes > Seafood

On Christmas Eve, Italian-Americans across the country will be sitting down to La Vigilia , also known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It's a time-honored ritual that happens every Christmas, with fish and seafood as the star of a multi-course meal in place of meat. Filled with an array of the freshest catch-of-the-day seafood, the feast a delicious way to ring in the holiday, whether you're Italian or not. Buon Natale!
Feast of the Seven Fishes Menu
First course: Seafood Fritto Misto
Kick off the lengthy meal with something snacky and fried to whet guests' appetites, like this seafood.
Read more .

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Elevate your salmon with this super elegant lobster cream sauce. The perfect, “I love you” dish for your Family and Friends on Christmas Eve!


Serve as part of your main course, or as an appetizer. You will not go wrong adding this recipe to your Feast of the Seven Fishes menu! Five-star all the way!


My non-traditional way to enjoy cod. Perfect if you want to substitute for baccala, an Italian favorite on Christmas Eve! Keep scrolling, because I do have the traditional recipe below!


Such a beautiful preparation. The flavor and flakiness of the halibut will make all of your guests so very happy!


Do not leave Broiled Lobster Tails off of your Feast of the Seven Fishes menu. Serve them again for New Year’s Eve. My simple recipe will elevate you to Master Chef!


As an alternative to halibut, try this amazing recipe for Baked Corvina. One of my new favs!


Crab, crab, and more crab! You can serve these as a main course, or prepare mini versions as an appetizer!


Now this could not be easier. Wrap up everything nicely with parchment paper. Steam in the oven and serve! Use any white fish, or even salmon!


My Momma has been making these ever since I can remember. You can use fresh salmon, or canned! Serve as part of the main course, or make minis and serve as an appetizer!


Go on and grab yourself a whole side of Faroe Island Salmon. Preparing any one of these three methods, will be a definite winner!


You can’t be traditional for your Feast of the Seven Fishes without a recipe for baccala. So, here it is. The sauce is OMG AMAZING! Check out my little shortcut for soaking the salt cod!


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