While other Christian families throughout the world celebrate the Christmas Eve meal with various meats, for Italian families, the dinner is all about the fish – seven fishes to be exact. The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci) is a celebration and commemoration of the wait for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus, and it is one of Italy’s most famous traditions. In Italian, the meal is known as La Vigilia (the vigil) or Vigilia di Natale.
Apparently, The “Feast of the Seven Fishes” started in southern Italy and/or the island of Sicily, where the tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence—in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products—on Fridays and specific holy days like Christmas Eve. As no meat or butter could be used, observant Catholics would eat fish, typically fried in oil.
For many Italians, and those of Italian descent, the delight of gathering around a bountiful, beautifully laid table, the thrill of indulging in unforgettable regional dishes, and the convivial holiday atmosphere are enough to inspire anyone who loves a celebration or a good feast.
Although the dinner is traditionally celebrated with seven types of fish and seafood, there may be eight, or even thirteen specific fishes that are considered traditional.
No one is certain about the significance for servng seven fishes, and I found several explanations for the significance of 7. In many societies the number 7 is a Magic Number and is considered a number for perfection. The theory being that 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. Another explanation states it took God seven days to create the world, hence seven fishes. Some Romans claim it represented the Seven Hills of Rome. Then there was the theory that the seven fishes symbolize the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church, along with the seven sins. Whatever the true explanation, the basic number is always seven and that remains the starting point.
For La Vigilia, there are no requirements as to which types of fish are served. In Italy, eel is regarded as a delicacy and is often, along with capon and turkey, the few non-fishes on the table.
Popular fishes that are eaten on this special holiday are prepared versions of calamari, oysters, scallops, whiting, smelts, squid, conch, mussels, anchovies, sardines, clams, and shrimp. The most famous dish is southern Italy’s Baccalà (salted cod fish). The meal usually begins with antipasto, the Italian equivalent of hors d´oeuvres. This can include a variety of cold foods such as cheeses and raw or marinated vegetables, baked or fried kale patties, baked goods, and homemade wine.
In southern towns La Vigilia Napoletana celebrations include “drowned broccoli rabe” (also known as Christmas Broccoli), a choice of vermicelli with either garlic and olive oil, anchovies, or clams, roasted or fried eel, followed by other fish dishes of your choosing, and a caponata di pesce (fish salad) to wrap up the dinner portion of the meal. Of course that doesn’t mean lobsters, crawfish, tuna, snapper, sea trout, salmon, aren’t included — it depends on family tradition. Somehow, capon and turkey (my family’s traditional Christmas bird) is included on the menu—chicken of the sea?—probably for the non-fish eating members of the family.
Traditional sweets (i dolci) are also important items for the Menù di Natale (Christmas menu) in Italy. These desserts include: struffoli (Neapolitan honey pastry); cenci (fried pastry ribbons sprinkled with powered sugar); dried figs, candied almonds, chestnuts, and marzipan fruits and vegetables.
Okay enough about the food, what about the wine? With all these dishes what wines do you serve?
Well, everyone knows Italian pinot grigio and Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio is a delicious place to start. This light yellow almost sandy-colored wine has the typical intense nose of pear and candied fruit. Extended lees ageing gives softness and roundness to the fresh palate. The noticable acid and phenolic finish provide impeccable balance and plenty of character emphasizing the dry, full-bodied taste and round finish. Tiefenbrunner makes a good companion to appetizers, asparagus, kale, seafood, poultry, pork or veal.
Want something different? Try Terredora Dipaolo Greco Di Tufo. This white from Campania has an interesting nose, offering ripe citrus fruits and hints of apricot, apple, and peach with a light, spicy mineral edge. It is full-bodied, soft,with balanced acidity carrying the fruity flavors through to a long, intense finish. It is ideal with hors d’oeuvres, shellfish, grilled fish dishes, salmon and tuna, buffalo mozzarella, chicken and cold meat.
For a delightful blend of four Italian varietals: 50% Grechetto, 30% Procanico, 10% Verdello and 10% Canaiolo bianco, try Ruffino Orvieto Classico. This straw-colored white wine is fresh, crisp, and delicately fragrant with flowery notes of meadow and clover accompanied by fruity hints of green apples and a slightly nutty aroma. It is dry, crisp, and fresh, with earthy flavors and a suggestion of pear, fading to a crisp and balanced finish. Orvieto is excellent for antipasti, soups, flounder carpaccio, scallops, seafood, and white meats. Serve it chilled rather than ice cold, to allow its subtle flavors to blossom.
Another classic is Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio Dei Castelli di Jesi Classico. The funny-shaped bottle was created in 1953 for Fazi Battaglia by the architect Angonio Maiocchi. This Verdicchio is a bright medium-straw color with brisk scents of Granny Smith apples, nearly ripe pears and hazelnuts with a few petroleum aromas reminiscent of German Riesling. The freshness carries over to the palate–with excellent acidity to match up with a pasta sauce, spinach, lemon and garlic. Perfect for stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, deep fried calamari, linguine with clam or lobster sauce, cod fish balls in tomato sauce or kale patties.
Soave Wine is one of Italy’s old time favorites, and Si Soave Italia 2008 should become a classic tradition. Lively, fresh, and smooth, this is ideal for nearly any occasion. Similar in style to a Pinot Grigio, Soave has less of an acidic kick and comes off smoother with flavors of apple, citrus and tropical fruit. Made mostly with Garganega and rounded out with some Trebbiano, Si Soave is ideal for Octopus or Scungilli salads, salmon and tuna dishes. Drink liberally with an arrugula salad, Italian salumi or even a thin crust margarita pizza!
For oysters and oyster shooters, I heartily recommend my all-time favorite, Domaine du Baumard Clos du Papillion Savennieres. Yes, it is French from the Loire but—the beautiful minerality and citrusy flavors make it deliciously delectable with shellfish. It is a little pricey, but for shellfish and crustaeceans, it’s well worth the price.
Okay, you’re not a white wine drinker, what sort of reds will work with this feast?
My all-time goes-with-everything Italian red is Cantele Salice Salentino Reserva. This red wine is from Puglia, in Southern Italy, and is a blend of 85% Negroamaro and 15% Malvasia Nera. The color is ruby red with dark glints of garnet. This wine is medium-bodied withbeautiful aromas of dark cherries, black tea and spice. This luscious wine explodes with fresh acidity that is keenly balanced by well-developed tannins and flavors of fresh dark berries and caramelized plums and hints of cedar. This wine pairs well with any aged cheese or any dish with tomato sauce, eggplant, kale, spicy peppers and capers! Perfect for pasta and meat sauce, as well as a goat stew and any red meat dish. This red is ready to drink immediately or will keep for 3-4 years It is an excellent quality “spaghetti wine”!
For something a little more classic, Rocca delle Macie’s Chianti Classico fits the bill. This bright ruby-red Chianti is a blend of blend of 90% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo and 5% Merlot. There are mature cherry and berry fruit aromas. The flavors are rich and well-balanced with ripe berry fruit. This red is a perfect compliment to a wide range of entrées including beef, chicken, drowned broccoli, kale, eggplant, and pasta in flavorful sauces.
Another Italian favorite is Zenato Valpolicella Classico. A blend of 80% Corvina, 10% Rondinella and 10% Sangiovese from the Valpolicella Classico area, this ruby-red wine delivers super clean aromas and flavors of blackberry, with a hint of licorice. This red is medium-bodied with a crisp palate and a fresh, fruity finish. It’s dry and robust on the palate with an excellent, velvety texture, offering fleshy aromas of wild berries, currant, black cherry and spice, framed by intriguing hints of chocolate. A perfect wine to pair with stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, stuffed-baked lobsters, deep fried fish/shrimp/scallops, linguine with clam or lobster sauce.
Here’s a hint to try for the salty Baccalà and anchovies that you may not have tried before: Fino sherry. It is a beautiful combination.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition that has existed since ancient times, and one which will surely continue. Life changes, but for Italian people throughout the world, this is one tradition whose religious and cultural significance outweighs everything else. Have a merrry!!!