Festa dei Sette Pesci (Feast of the Seven Fishes)
For hundreds of years, La Vigilia di Natale (the Feast of the Seven Fishes) has been an Italian family Christmas Eve tradition. The meal of at least seven different fish and shellfish started in southern Italy, including Sicily, spread to northern Italy and is now enjoyed by Italians, and even some of us non-Italian fish lovers, all over the world.
The significance of this tradition is open to debate—some say seven fishes are served to symbolize the seven sacraments, some others refer to the seven deadly sins, the seven gifts from the holy spirit, or maybe the seven days of creation. Whatever the significance, La Vigilia is a wonderful tradition that’s had a strong religious and cultural meaning for a long, long time.
Every family has its own special menu usually handed down through generations. Over the 36+ years I’ve been in business, I’ve noticed a lot of common selections for the feast. Eel (we bring them in live for the holidays) is a biggy since it’s considered such a delicacy in Italy. Sardines are always popular and we get beautiful fresh whole sardines from Portugal. Bacala (salt cod) is a must for a lot of families. Our tiny sweet manila clams are very similar to the Italian vongole and are great in the classic dish spaghetti alle vongole. Smelt, squid, octopus are popular also. Often a fancy whole roasted fish or maybe swordfish would be served.
Chef Mario Batali says that La Vigilia is “What Italians do when they say they’re fasting,” which is kind of hysterical because this penitential fasting tradition has been turned into a major feast. For those of us who were born into less delicious culinary traditions, there’s no reason that we can’t have some fun and try our own feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve.
Italian food is some of the world’s best and they do amazing things with fish and shellfish. Give it a go, we can help! To get the feast started, here’s my secret stuffed clam recipe.
More great Feast of the Seven Fishes recipes in this excellent article from Saveur.