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A Feast of Fishes

VIEW Published Article :2019 Winter Issue SCENE Magazine North End

Photos Courtsey : DePasquale Ventures

The Italian culture is host to many holiday traditions and the Feast of the Seven Fishes is one of the finest in festive cuisine. Festa dei sette pesci also known as “The Eve, La Vigilia, cognate to The Vigil” is an Italian American celebration of Christmas Eve with dishes of fish and other delicate seafood.

The observance is part of the Italian American Christmas Eve celebration, although it is not called that in Italy and is not a "feast" in the sense of "holiday," but rather a grand meal. Christmas Eve is a vigil or fasting day, and the abundance of seafood reflects the observance of abstinence from meat until the feast of Christmas Day itself.

Today, the meal typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. The tradition comes from Southern Italy, where it is known simply as The Vigil (La Vigilia). This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.

The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on the eve of a feast day. As no meat or animal fat could be used on such days, observant Catholics would instead eat fish typically fried in oil.

The first reference to the feast came around the 1980s in The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, it is unclear when the term "Feast of the Seven Fishes" was popularized. The meal may include seven, eight, or even nine specific fishes that are considered traditional. However, some Italian American families have been known to celebrate with nine, eleven or thirteen different seafood dishes. "Seven" fishes as a fixed concept or name is unknown in Italy itself. In some of the oldest Italian American families, there was no count of the number of fish dishes. Dinner began with whiting in lemon, followed by some version of clams or mussels in spaghetti, baccalà and onward to any number of other fish dishes.

There are many several symbolisms for what the number seven may represent. Seven is the most repeated number in the Bible and appears over 700 times. One popular theory is the number represents completion, as shown in Genesis 2:2: "By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; so, on the seventh day he rested from all his work." During the feast of the seven fishes, participants celebrate the completion of God's promise of the Messiah through Jesus.

Other theories suggest that the number represents the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church; or it represents the Seven hills of Rome that surround the city. It may represent perfection (the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ.

The most famous dish for Southern Italians is baccalà (salted cod fish). The custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà reflects customs in what were historically impoverished regions of Southern Italy, as well as seasonal factors. The meal's ingredients may include some combination of anchovies, whiting, lobster, sardines, baccalà (dried salt cod), smelts, eels, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels and clams. The menu may also incorporate pasta, vegetables, baked goods and wine.

A few of the most popular dishes to make it to the table are; clams casino, deep fried calamari, cod fish balls in tomato sauce, deep fried fish/shrimp deep fried scallops, insalata di mare (seafood salad), linguine with anchovy, clam, lobster, tuna, or crab sauce, marinated or fried eel, octopus salad, oyster shooters, puttanesca traditional tomato sauce with anchovies, scungilli salad (sea snail), shrimp cocktail, stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, stuffed-baked lobsters, stuffed-baked quahogs, whiting.

This tradition can tend to be a bit overwhelming in the kitchen especially if you have a typical Italian family to feed of around 50. In that case you can carpool and head on down to the North End of Boston and make reservations at Mare. Kick back and let Head Chef Nello Caccioppoli’s recommendations treat you to the finest of feasts.

Caccioppoli spoke with honor; “Start with the Trio of Crudos.” A yellowfin tuna, salmon, and kampachi appetizer served with seaweed salad and soy ginger flavor. “In my opinion the reputation the dish has comes from the quality of fish we use.” He also suggested; the Grilled Octopus Positano bedded in eggplant funghetti, burrata and basil pesto. Nello boasted, “Combining cheese and fish is not generally done yet our style combination of the buttata creates a unique flavor.” Moving on to the pasta portion, Caccioppoli suggests the Lobster Ravioli with fresh fava beans, lobster meat, smoked Niman Ranch bacon and a touch of cream sauce. “I like to incorporate typical New England ingredients like lobster and mix it with components local to my home in Napoli such as the panchetta used in this dish.” Caccioppoli posed with pride and said, “Finish off with the Grigliata di Pesce.” An entrée of lobster, scallop, calamari, langoustine, shrimp, tuna and white fish fit to feed the family. Nello added, “It is the simplicity in the dish of using olive oil and salt on the grill to capture its natural flavor.”

There it is, your Feast of the Seven Fishes all at a beautiful dinner table and classic view of the city line in Boston. This tradition is warm with culture and time-honored religion. Regardless of your beliefs it a time to eat and welcomes all to embrace as family. The holidays are here and whether you stroll the streets of the North End for dinner, coffee and dessert or gather together in the family room, enjoy!

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