VinePair is ringing in the Holiday Cheers with a spotlight on the bottles we’re gifting (and hoping to receive) and a look inside some of our favorite holiday traditions and recipes — from elevated Eggnog to all things bubbly. Plus, we’ll be reflecting on the past year in the beverage industry and shifting our focus to the drinks trends we expect to see in 2022.
In Italy, the traditional fish and seafood meal served on Christmas Eve is known as Vigilia di Natale — the meat-abstinence vigil awaiting the midnight birth of baby Jesus. And while the Festa dei Sette Pesci or Feast of the Seven Fishes originated in Southern Italy, it is an Italian-American tradition in the United States.
Each of the seven dishes is to feature a fish or seafood. And although there is no hard and fast rule about the type of fish to be feted, there are certain dishes like baccala that are typically included. Above all, the meal is a taste of tradition, family, and, of course, good wine.
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John Slover, corporate beverage director at Major Food Group including Italian-inspired Contessa, the crown jewel rooftop restaurant in Boston’s Newbury Hotel, will be preparing the feast at home this year.
“For any feast, I like to start with bubbles, and this time of year, I like to celebrate with Champagne,” Slover says. “With briny oysters, umami-laden zuppa di pesce and the gently sweet and sour flavors of squash carpaccio, Champagne will fit the bill. My pick is the 2015 Pol Roger Brut Rosé for its ability to be at once opulent and lean. The blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir provides the sensual tension between elegance and levity.”
For the primi course, he’ll be serving two pastas: a “pillowy” gnudi and spicy lobster-tossed rigatoni. Says Solder: “To create balance and connection in the pairing, I’m pouring a high-altitude white from the Valle d’Aosta — one of the smallest regions in Italy, nestled in the northwestern Alpine zone. This wine has bright lemon oil citrus tones that can harmonize and cool the piquant spicy lobster rigatoni, but deeply savory notes of aged cheese that will cozy right up to the ricotta gnudi.”
Slover will also be serving Gamberoni Al Forno Con Fagioli and Branzino Dogana. “I typically agree with the pairing philosophy that ‘what grows together, goes together,’” he says. “I also like something more playful at times. I therefore continue here with the idea of having the sky touch the sea; in this case another mountain wine paired with fresh seafood. The sweetness of the grilled shrimp and the purity of the branzino both beg for a red whose tannins don’t overpower their delicacy, which is why my mind immediately heads toward the alpine Valtellina region of Lombardy. The 2013 Ar.Pe.Pe. Grumello ‘Sant’ Antonio is a beautiful expression of alpine Nebbiolo whose delicacy and age show well in the glass but becomes transcendental alongside the flavors of the oven-baked seafood.”
And for dessert — Apple Walnut Crostata and Pumpkin Ice Cream. “Who doesn’t like an amaro-tinged cocktail after dinner to aid in post-feast digestion? To pair with the warm winter tones of the apple walnut crostata, the Mantelpiece is one of my favorites during the cold months. In it are bourbon, Ramazotti Amaro, cinnamon syrup, and black walnut bitters, which bring the hearty winter spices out of each of the elements. For those allergic to nuts, I’d supplement dark chocolate bitters, but in my opinion, Angostura bitters would also work just fine.”
“Christmas would not be the same for us without it,” Erik Pettersen, the chef, says. “It is very popular and fills our guests with nostalgia of growing up in Italian families where tradition is everything.”
The menu is built with his family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes recipes. “The menu has evolved throughout the years, as the family grows and people recall dishes from their memories of Christmas’ past,” Pettersen says. Dishes, he adds, like his grandmother’s lobster bisque. “It’s traditional lobster bisque with a twist,” he says. “Diced cold-water lobster on top and a pinch of ground Lavazza Italian Espresso.”
And Bubba’s Lobster Pasta, a family lobster casserole — again, made with a twist. Homemade fettuccine tossed in roasted garlic parmesan cream sauce with baby arugula, baby heirloom tomatoes, cold-water lobster, and then topped with homemade oreganata bread crumbs baked on top.
Up next: “Aunt Toni’s Mussels are trending this year,” Pettersen says. “They are delicate Prince Edward mussels, tossed in Parmesan cream sauce with roasted garlic topped with fresh herbs.”
Pettersen’s wine choice for the table: Vermentino. “It is a mellow wine that can complement the most delicate dishes, as well as the rich complexity of the lobster pasta,” he says. “The citrus notes give it the perfect touch and doesn’t overshadow the dish. It simply complements the salinity of fresh seafood from the ocean.”
Lambrusco is another favorite to complement the evening, says Pettersen. “It’s light with just a touch of effervescence to cleanse your palate. It has just the right acidity to complement the richness of the more hearty dishes.”
Trudy Thomas, beverage director for Red Pebbles Hospitality, has executed several Feast of the Seven Fishes dinners and wine pairings. She also oversees the wine programs at Ella’s on 2nd in Nashville, Tenn.
“While each family’s traditions and recipes are different, there are some similarities,” Thomas says. “When pairing wine, a fail-safe is to select wines from coastal regions in Italy and/or Mediterranean as the wines in these regions traditionally are made to pair with the coastal cuisine.”
And the feast always gets a kick from something sparkling. “Bubbles are always my first choice for food and wine pairing, they are versatile from start to finish and easy to pair with many dishes, especially seafood,” says Thomas. “While Prosecco is a good choice, I suggest a dry Lambrusco with delicate bubbles with soft fruity layers which highlight the hints of spice and herbs, making it a perfect pairing with baked clams, seafood pasta, and lobster.”
Another obvious but perfect fish pairing: white wine. “For a still white wine you can never go wrong with Chablis. However, I would suggest something more authentic — Greco di Tufo from the coastal region of Campania,” says Thomas. “Greco is a medium-to-full-bodied white wine with high acidity and flavors of pear, citrus, and a soft minerality, which pairs great with fried fish, seafood salads with assorted fish, and salted cod.”
As for red, opt for a low-to-moderate-tannin red with good acidity, such as Chianti Classico or an Etna Rosso from Sicily, says Thomas. This wine expresses with red and black cherry fruit, herbs, and white pepper that pair with tomato sauces, whole roasted fish, and a spicy Diavolo sauce.
“I would go with the White Negroni as an aperitif or pair with the baccala,” says Bradford. “The sweet and bitter profile of the cocktail will be well complemented by the salt and brine of the cod.” And he says that he likes to add a bar spoon of velvet falernum, a vanilla and warming spice liqueur from Barbados, to the sip.
As for a perfect wine pairing: Etna Bianco from the Carricante grape in Sicily is his first choice, he says, explaining that the wine has a nice mineral-driven white fruit flavor that is balanced with acidity, making it a natural pairing with any seafood. “The Etna Bianco I would pair with the calamari or scungilli; both will go excellently with the mineral-driven flavors that come from the volcanic terroir.”
Bradford also recommends a sparkling rosé. “My favorite is Rotari. They produce a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It has great acid with a refreshing effervescence to balance even heavy tomato sauces.” He says he pairs it with frutti di mare and vongole. “The effervescence will give a great lift to the brine of the shellfish.”
For red wine drinkers, Bradford suggests a Croatian Plavac Mali — reminiscent of Primitivo (Zinfandel) but with a lighter body and bright cherry and cranberry notes. “Being a lighter red, I would pair it with the capitone,” he says. “The eel will have enough depth of flavor to accompany the wine without being lost.”
Chef Craig Tooker of Seawell Fish N’ Oyster in Miami Beach has created a feast at the restaurant for those “craving that unmistakable holiday spirit” with dishes and wines that celebrate the flavors of the season, many of which were inspired by memories of his own rich traditions, he says.
Feast of the Seven Fishes Pairing Menu by Chef Craig Tooker
- Oysters Rockefeller with Brut Rosé, Santa Margherita, Italy
- Tiger prawns with Brut Chandon, Napa, California
- Beet cured salmon with La Dame du Rouet Rosé, Jean-Luc Colombo, Mediterranee, France
- Caribbean fish bake (banana leaf wrapped and baked swordfish) with Pinot Gris, J Vineyards, California
- Scallops with Riesling, R Prum “Essence,” Mosel, Germany
- Crispy skin salmon with Albariño, Bodega Garzon, Uruguay
- Pompano with Chardonnay, Rodney Strong, California