A Tale of the Feast of Seven Fishes -- and 10 Places to Eat It in NYC
Photo courtesy Take Root Seared scallops
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.