Every year, Italians the world over celebrate La Vigilia de Natale, or the Labor of Mary, with a bereaved act of abstention: in honor of the birth of Christ, neo-Romans fast the day away, and, in one final tithe, opt away from red meat for the evening, instead gorging themselves on fish as only Italians can, channelling not only the holy ghost but the spirit of the vomitoriums of yore. Here in America, we call this meal the Feast of Seven Fishes, and if you’re Italian, you probably remember longmdinners around some elder’s table with the catch of the day soaked in fragrant, tangy marinara.
There’s still plenty of that going on, but many New York restaurants are taking the tradition and dressing it in fancy new clothes. This year’s menus bring seared scallops (pictured above) at Take Root, charred Spanish octopus at Saul, yellowtail crudo at Scarpetta, and cuttlefish with potato at Louro, as well as a host of classic offerings at red-sauce havens like Rubirosa and Red Gravy.
My first encounter with the seafaring feast came a few years back while working as a host at Rubirosa, a Mulberry Street restaurant known for its (deadly good) paper-thin pizza and simple pastas. At the time, the restaurant would host an annual Christmas Eve tasting dinner with seven fishes. Owner AJ Pappalardo and chef Al DiMeglio are both from big Italian families on Staten Island, so to get the back story on the feast and what it all means, we asked DiMeglio to share his thoughts.
He thinks of it as a flexible feast: “Growing up [on Staten Island], and also over in Italy, [the Christmas Eve dinner] is very non-regimented, you’ve just got to have a lot of fish.” And this year, Rubirosa is too busy to sit people down for hours-long tasting menu, but they’re running seven fish specials instead, some of which came from DiMeglio’s and Pappalardo’s family tables: The stuffed squid and lobster fra diavolo are direct descendents of old Staten Island dishes. Octopus was the other big thing, DiMeglio says: “We always did octopus with pickled vegetables, or it would be an octopus salad; that would be another big thing as well. I actually prefer it hot and a little charred.” So that’s how they’re serving it at Rubirosa.
Like any Old World folk tradition, the meal has murky origins. Normally eaten before Midnight Mass, the seven fish fall in line with all of the bible’s rules of seven (seven days of Genesis, seven sacraments, seven deadly sins). And if some families take the number seriously, others celebrate with other numbers: “Some people do 12, some people do nine, I mean, it varies,” DiMeglio says.
And if the number of fish doesn’t matter, that’s because the meal, to DiMeglio anyway, is really about breaking bread with loved ones and invoking the holiday spirit: “[Those dinners growing up] were a time to sit down and talk, you know, ‘How was your day,’ whatever, and how many times do you see people doing that anymore.”
Tangentially, that’s also why Rubirosa serves group meals family-style, with big dishes of food to pass around the table: “It’s the feeling you get — you sit down and you kind of forget about your life for a second.” And whether it’s at a restaurant or at home, DiMeglio says, the goal is the same: “Food is about memories, it’s about being able to take some time and experience the food together. And if a restaurant can do that, what more can you ask for?”
Earlier this week, we chatted with Scott Conant, another Italian-American restaurant impresario, about his new cookbook, and he chimed in with similar views on the feast: “It was always about family — starting with the antipasto on the table, and ending with chestnuts. And I think to a certain extent, that kind of stuff gets lost over time, because who has the time to sit at a table for 12 hours, you know?”
Conant said the seven fishes meal was huge in his family — all the aunts and uncles, cousins and extended family would show up, and they would have “zeppole with fish inside it, whether it was baccala or anchovies, spaghetti aglio e olio, maybe there’s some shrimp in there, maybe not, some kind of lobster was always on the table — that wasn’t traditional Italian, but it’s how they incorporated the fish.” Since they lived in Connecticut, the family would fill in the gaps with local seafood. “Sometimes it was not stuff that was traditionally Italian, but there was also this local experience of the food from where we were living and where I grew up.”
At Scarpetta (355 West 14th Street, 212-691-0555) Conant will be offering a Christmas Eve tasting menu featuring the seven fishes, although he says the meal is not generally a huge hit: “If people are going to do a big fish meal, they’re not going to go out, they’re going to do it at home, and they’re going to do it with their family…Christmas Eve is such a huge day for family.”
So where will Conant be on Christmas Eve? “I’m probably going to be at home making Spaghetti al ajillo for my wife and kids.”
On the next page, 10 places to embrace the Christmas Spirit and enjoy a fishy feast, with a taste of what’s on the menu.
Rubirosa, 235 Mulberry Street, 212-965-0500
Fish specials will be served in addition to regular a la carte menu, including two bruschettas: one with smoked salmon bruschetta with mascarpone, scallions, and tomato; another with crispy oysters, salsa verde salsa verde aioli, and mache. Look, too, for stuffed calamari, frutti di mare risotto, lobster spaghetti fra diavolo, among others. (Now through 12/26)
Scarpetta, 355 West 14th Street, 212-691-0555
Five courses, $89: Yellowtail crudo, scallop with celeriac and black truffle jus, black tagliolini with seafood Bolognese; black cod, Baccala or black sea bass. Conant’s menu, it’s worth noting, also has meat choices with most courses if your date prefers turf to surf. (Christmas Eve)
Red Gravy, 151 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-855-0051
Eight courses, $100. Start with tuna crudo with preserved lemon and smoked black olive vinaigrette or a baccala duo, continue on with a salad of frutta di mare with chicory and blood orange, then follow with stuffed baby squid, squid ink buccatini with urchin, or lobster fra diavolo. And that’s before you even get to the main course, which offers swordfish spedini or prawns with saffron potato puree and heirloom black chickpeas…And struffoli for dessert. (Christmas Eve)
Saul (at Brooklyn Museum), 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, 718-935-9842
Seven courses, $125. Start with small dishes of fried anchovies with citrus aioli, marinated Japanese sardines, and zuppa de baccalao, than step up to larger courses of charred Spanish Octopus with beluga lentils, saffron tagliatelle with shellfish and uni, Alaskan spot prawns in carrot-coconut curry, and roasted Monkfish. Stick around for dessert: Chocolate chestnut budino. (Christmas Eve)
Osteria Morini, 218 Lafayette Street, 212-965-8777
Three family-style courses, $79. Michael White’s downtown standby will be serving up a sharable feast of raspaurra cheese-stuffed calamari, pickled sardine crudo, marine snail sformato, and grilled polenta with braised baby octopus. Follow that with a selection of seafood pastas, monkfish ossobuco, or whole grilled orata (sea bream). (Christmas Eve)
SD26, 19 East 26th Street, 212-265-5959
Four courses, $90. Dishes include Cavatelli with PEI mussels, lentils, and kale pesto; fish stew in spicy broth with bruschette; and Italian Yule log with chestnut and vanilla cream. On Christmas, the restaurant will be serving roasted baby goat. (Christmas Eve)
Louro, 142 West 10th Street, 212-206-0606
Seven Fishes tasting menu, $85. Includes piri piri shrimp and seafood fitters, uni with truffle and grapefruit, mackerel with smoked pineapple, cuttlefish with potato and squid ink, lobster fra diavolo and monkfish stew. Louro will also serve a three-course menu for $55 that caters to folks looking for non-fish dishes like suckling pig, venison, and ribeye.
Oceana, 120 West 49th Street, 212-759-5941
This feast includes bay scallop crudo with persimmon and pomegranate, oyster pan roast with chanterelles, seared turbot and poached lobster, and seared sturgeon with caviar sauce. It ends with warm pear cider and toasted oat semifreddo. (Christmas Eve)
Take Root, 187 Sackett Street, Brooklyn 347-227-7116
Five courses, $105: Squid with black garlic, baccala, and radish and local monkfish with turnip, pepita, and turmeric. Says chef/owner Elise Kornack: “Every year my family cooks an elaborate Christmas Eve feast. My mother is 100 percent Italian (half Sicilian, half Calabrian) and grew up celebrating The Feast of the Seven Fishes. Since I’ve started celebrating Christmas with my wife’s family, I miss the feast. The feast is not only about eating seven different fish; to me, as a chef, it’s about taking a tradition and making it my own. I grew up eating fried smelts, anchovy, scungilli salad, and tomato braised squid.” (Christmas Eve)
Fishtail by David Burke, 135 East 62nd Street, 212-754-1300
Seven courses, $95: Scallops with blood orange and jicama, oyster bisque, baked clams, kale Caesar with grilled anchovy, seared wild salmon, lobster pappardelle and Dover sole with marble potato, brown butter. (Christmas Eve).