Every year, about a month before Christmas, my sister, my mother and I sit down at the kitchen table (headquarters in an Italian family) and plan Christmas Eve dinner.
Every year, my sister counts the number of fish I’m serving. (Seven are required to make Christmas Eve one of the hap-happiest evenings of all.)
One year, I tried to pull a fast one. I was planning on making just six fish. My sister, otherwise known as our culinary commander, counted the number on her fingers.
A brief eruption ensued.
“You only have six fish,” she accused.
“Well,” I stammered lamely, “what’s the difference? Six fish vs. seven? Who’s gonna care?”
Apparently, she would. “We have to have seven fish,” she insisted. “I’ll fry smelts and bring them over.”
And seven fish we had, even though no one really likes or eats smelts.
Why do Italians need seven fish to make Christmas Eve, well, Christmas Eve?
Marco Tarantino, owner of Spiaggetta in Stone Harbor, is native a of Rome. He has witnessed Italian and Italian/American traditions on Christmas Eve, and they’re both different, he says.
“In Italy — from North to South — everyone celebrates Christmas Eve in different ways,” he says. “Most of it is based on the family keeping together. As far as food went, there were vast differences between what people in Sicily, Rome and Milan served on Christmas Eve. People don’t necessarily eat fish on Christmas Eve in Italy. A lot of them eat meat instead.”
So why do Italian Americans celebrate Christmas Eve with seven fishes when few people do that in Italy? Tarantino has his opinion and believes the American tradition started with Italian immigrants who came to United States. Many were from the south, where eating fish was normal and common. So these immigrants just started having fish on Christmas Eve because America was a land of abundance, opines Tarantino. Spiaggetta is located at 9800 3rd Ave. in Stone Harbor. Go to SpiaggettaNJ.com
Antonino Cannuscio, manager of Little Italy in Northfield, disagrees. The seven fish was a tradition in Sicily, where he grew up. “We always had the seven fishes on Christmas Eve,” says Cannuscio. “That’s why I brought it here to the States. The kinds of fish we have changes because it depends on what’s available. But the seven fishes were a tradition with us.”
Because Italy is highly regionalized, a certain tradition in Sicily may not apply to the entire country. Cannuscio merely shrugs and says, “I don’t know. I just know we always did the seven fish back in Italy.” Little Italy is located at 815 Tilton Road in Northfield. Go to LittleItalyNorthfield.com
How serving seven fish came to be a tradition here may be up for debate, but what isn’t is that the feast of seven fishes is a wonderful event for those eating the frutti di mare. But for those cooking, it’s just a lot of work. So restaurants are taking the sting out of Christmas Eve by offering their own versions of the feast of seven fishes.
At La Fontana Coast in Sea Isle City the seven fishes take center stage from Dec. 23-25 in the form of a $45 per person prix fixe menu. The first course is seafood bruschetta, course two is baccala salad with salt cod; course three is a seafood stew with fennel in a tomato white wine and saffron sauce; course four is calamari fritti; course five is fondere (buttermilk fried smelts with garlic aioli and lemon); course six is linguini with clams and course seven is a choice of flounder francese or flounder rollantini. La Fontana Coast is located at 5000 Landis Ave. in Sea Isle City. Go to LaFontanaCoast.com.
At Ventnor’s Red Room Café, owners Jack and Maria Gatta have offered the seven fish feast for the past nine years on Christmas Eve. Reservations are brisk, says Maria, noting that “it’s one of the biggest events we have, and we have a lot of repeat customers.”
The BYOB Red Room features a four-course dinner, priced at $55 per person. The menu showcases a choice of appetizers: fritto misto (fried shrimp, calamari and smelts); baked clams, mussels and scallops; chilled seafood, with a choice of shrimp cocktail, oysters on the half shell or colossal crab meat; and a chilled seafood platter.
The second course is soup — lobster bisque or Manhattan seafood — or salad, a cold seafood salad or baccala salad. The salted cod, typically tossed with olives, garlic and parsley, is a traditional Christmas Eve staple.
For entrees, customers can opt for bronzino, a Mediterranean white fish; orata (another Mediterranean light, white fish), salmon puttanesca, made with tomato sauce, capers, olives and anchovies; seafood risotto, with clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari and plum tomatoes; unstuffed calamari in a plum tomato sauce with peas, olives and capers topped with toasted breadcrumbs over spaghetti; squid ink fettuccine con frutti di Mare, accompanied with mussels, clams, shrimp and calamari; and clams and mussels over linguine.
If you have room, desserts feature traditional Italian treats, such as struffoli, which are honey balls.
Maria Gatta loves to celebrate Christmas Eve with the seven fish feast. She is among family; her husband and two children work at the restaurant. She is also among friends — her customers — who celebrate a special meal of seven fish and couldn’t care less where the tradition came from. Red Room Cafe is located at 141 N Dorset Ave. in Ventnor. Go to RedRoomCafeAtTheShore.com