If you’re not Italian-American, or haven’t earned an invite to your Italian-American friend’s Christmas Eve dinner (keep trying), you’ve probably never heard of “The Feast of the Seven Fishes.” If you are Italian-American, or successfully weaseled your way into an Italian-American friend’s Christmas Eve dinner, you’ve heard of the seven-fish-course Christmas Eve feast, and you might even be getting ready to cook it this Thursday. In fact, you probably started yesterday.
Per the name, The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a seafood-centric, seven-course extravaganza, and it’s how many Italian-Americans (and their lucky guests—gatherings tend to be big) celebrate Christmas Eve. The focus on fish comes from the feast’s Catholic roots—where many holy days in the year are observed by abstaining from meat. The meal itself doesn’t have to have religious overtones, necessarily, but fish, clearly, is a must.
The tradition does have Italian roots—in Southern Italy they observe “La Vigilia,” or “The Vigil,” eating many (but not necessarily seven) fish courses for Christmas Eve (some might eat nine, eleven, even thirteen, for various religious reasons). And of course, some households may just—reasonably—want a bunch more fish.
But insofar as it involves a seven-course, seafood-centric, Christmas Eve holiday tradition, The Feast of the Seven Fishes is Italian-American. And it’s a beast of a meal to make—ask any Nonna or even newbie host buying her first bulk orders of shellfish, fresh fish, and yes, a couple cephalopods. To offer a bit of help, and maybe to earn a last-minute invite, we’ve rounded up seven recipes (some traditional, a couple more modern) and suggested added wine pairings, since, holiday or not, no Italian meal is truly complete without wine. (Is any?)
Bear in mind that family to family, recipes and traditions vary, with some preferring stuffed squid to calamari, for example. The idea is gathering good people around a lot of good food, and plenty of wine—something the Italians have been teaching us how to do for many delicious years.
Baked clams of any kind are gonna work wonders for your Feast planning – prep in advance, chuck in the oven, keep the kids happy while you dive into the seriously hands-on dishes. This recipe—Italian-American by way of New England—yields warm, crunchy, rich baked clams, livened up with pecorino romano, parsley, and lemon.
Wine PAIRING: Dry Lambrusco
WHAT YOU GET: Bubbly red! The soft, slightly sweet nature of dry lambrusco with it’s lively bubbles and hints of herbs and spice will soak up the mound of breadcrumbs while not overwhelming the delicate meat of the clam and cut nicely through the bacon fat.
Baccala, or salt cod, almost always figures in some way or another in the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Important note, since baccala is dried salt cod, it has to be soaked first, kind of like a salted Virginia ham. This preparation is a classic, the baccala cut into chunks, dredged in flour, fried and braised in a spicy, caper-spiked tomato sauce.
WINE PAIRING: Orvieto
WHAT YOU GET: The star of Umbrian white wine, this blend of Malvasia, Grechetto and other native grapes is the answer. The Malvasia gives the wine the needed weight to stand up to the sauce and heat while the Grechetto brings the salinity and acidity so as not take over the flavors of the fish.
This one’s not quite Italian—not at all, in fact, it’s a traditional Cantonese fried calamari dish prepared for a Chinese/Italian Seven Fishes fusion dinner. But since the main flavorings are salt, white pepper, and hot green pepper, you still get the fresh taste of the seafood, plus that irresistible golden-fried crunch. If you’re not comfortable prepping squid, you can ask your fishmonger (or the dude at Whole Foods) or find some already prepped.
WINE PAIRING: Gruner Veltliner
WHAT YOU GET: Something fried generally likes something clean, and crisp, but Gruner does double duty, playing up the flavors of the dish with its natural pepperiness.
Always good to have a soup at a big gathering—it’s filling, can be made ahead (typically)—and keeps bellies warm while you scramble to get other stuff prepped. Also this recipe makes it fairly easy to include any seafood that might feel left out—clams, mussels, scallops, monkfish, even our favorite orthropod, octopus. Another recipe all about purity of flavor, meaning the quality of the seafood and San Marzano tomatoes is key.
WINE PAIRING: Nero D’avola
WHAT YOU GET: Red wine with fish? Yes! Nero D’Avola is not hard to find and this Sicilian native red is great with this dish. It is medium bodied with a touch of spice with bright fruit notes. Chill it down before serving and watch your guests swoon.
Smelt—not the prettiest name, but a great fish for frying, and a common sight on the Feast of the Seven Fishes table. Some are small enough to be eaten whole, or you can butterfly and debone them. Don’t let the name freak you out: smelt have a rich, inoffensive taste that gets just the right compliment from a bit of crunch.
WINE PAIRING: Prosecco
WHAT YOU GET: If you’ve never experienced the joy of well-fried food and something sparkling, this’ll end your year right—fresh fruit and some floral notes, with bubbles and acidity to cut through the fried deliciousness. A palate cleanser as you pop smelt after smelt (you will).
Scungilli is the Italian word for a large marine snail (conch or whelk). So yes, this is some old-school cooking. But even if the prospect of using (and possibly prepping) big snails freaks you out, you’ll get major bonus points for authenticity. Plus, scungilli is pleasant, chewy, dense, even a bit sweet. And the salad is really about purity of flavor—just some parsley, celery, (really good) olive oil, garlic, salt, olives, lemon juice. A great way to lighten up the meal as courses pile, and pile, on.
WINE PAIRING: Soave
WHAT YOU GET: Snails are meaty, yet this is a salad, so go with a Soav,e a wine from the Veneto made from the native Garganega grape. Soave has a fun, crisp acidity that plays around with notes of citrus zest and subtle honey to match the sweet nature of the snails.
Pasta dishes are common for the Feast, not just because they’re Italian, but because pasta’s a great way to feature almost any kind of seafood, and the starch helps stretch out quantities. This is a super-simple version of an Italian shrimp pasta, with a light white wine sauce infused with garlic, lemon, and parsley.
WINE PAIRING: Verdicchio
WHAT YOU GET: A crisp, but complex wine from the Marche region, with fresh citrus but enough subtle fruit to compliment the sweetness of the shrimp.