Baccalà & peppers | Photo courtesy of Daniel Paterna
Baccalà & peppers | Photo courtesy of Daniel Paterna
The first time I tried to recreate my mom’s lasagna in the United States, I felt sad. It was my freshman year of college in Boston, and to comfort that lingering—and inevitable—feeling of homesickness of the first few months, I had decided to treat myself with some authentic Italian flavors. I picked a Christmas classic in my family: lasagna. My lasagna would be like Proust’s madeleine.
But it didn’t work. It was flavorful, but something was different, and it wasn’t as comforting as I had envisioned. Vicenza, Italy felt even more distant, and as the ragu scent faded out the open window, so did my memories of home. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I remembered my mom’s lasagna anymore, and I thought that maybe I should just abandon the mission.
When Daniel Paterna wrote his book, Feast of the Seven Fishes: A Brooklyn-Italian’s Recipes Celebrating Food and Family, he wanted to prevent just that—family traditions, and flavors, fading away. “At some point, you as a direct descendant are going to have to throw up your sleeves and dig in to carry on the tradition,” he says. “If you’re constantly relying on grandma and grandpa to carry these out, they just evaporate.” But he warns that expecting to recreate the exact flavors only begets disappointment. It took him many years to hone down his family’s torta di ricotta, a staple dessert in the Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner. The secret is to keep trying to master the family dishes year by year, and that’s enough for traditions to live on.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes—a Christmas Eve celebration that originated in Southern Italy—is a tradition in which seven different kinds of fish and seafood are served for dinner, ideally before midnight. Throughout the years, it found its way into Italian-American homes, and it is now a staple holiday tradition for many families of Italian descent in the United States.
Ironically, I had never heard of it before. Being born and raised in Italy, at the very least I should be familiar with anything that’s considered traditional. (To cut myself some slack, I quickly decided it was probably because I’m the northeastern arm of the country, and it was not really a thing there.) But we do have our own mini-version that allegedly finds its roots in the Catholic Church. Simply stated, on Christmas Eve, you’re supposed to eat fish. Different Italian regions disagree on the “why”—some cite abstinence from “heavy meals” as a sign of respect, others quote ancient official church codes. With time, the religious aspect of it faded, but the tradition remained. Similarly, there isn’t a single way of looking at the meaning of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Paterna says the number seven can be traced back to religion, referring to the Seven Sacraments or the seven days of Creation. As for the fish, it is a symbol of Catholicism that’s been historically attributed to Jesus Christ and, in a broader sense, to life and abundance.
For Paterna, the feast is more of a family matter. Besides keeping the tradition alive, it is a way for him to feel closer to his legacy through vivid memories of flavors, scents, and mental photographs. He says his mom’s recipe cards were the inspiration for his book. “As a young boy, I would be fascinated by just looking at them because they had so many annotations and changes based on which relatives she called for to hone down the process,” he recalls. “So when I became a parent, I felt this pull to reestablish that in my own life, because she had passed and I began to kind of pick up where she left off.”
Paterna still remembers every detail from the Feast of the Seven Fishes at his aunt and uncle’s house growing up. The kitchen was so small that Paterna’s aunt would make ravioli and then she’d place the ravioli on top of a kitchen tablecloth on her bed. The kids’ table was in the parlor, adults squeezed next to each other at the bigger dining table, and they always managed to invite the Irish couple that lived upstairs. “No matter how packed we were at that table,” he says. “We found room for them.” In the end, they were family, too.
“The smell of fried peppers and her preparing the baccalà hit you like a ton of bricks”
But the smells are Paterna’s fondest memories. He remembers walking into his mom’s kitchen on Christmas Eve’s morning, while she was preparing the dishes to later bring over to his aunt’s. “The smell of fried peppers and her preparing the baccalà hit you like a ton of bricks,” he laughs. “The only times that she made these things were on that holiday and it’s like you waited the entire year to have that.” He pauses for a few seconds. “I know it sounds trivial, but every time I make that dish, that’s exactly where I go.”
What to cook for a Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner
Traditionally, Paterna starts the dinner off with a giant plate of frutti di mare (a sea salad of shrimp, scungilli, squid, lobster, and octopus), which usually is followed by primi piatti. The pasta dish is one of them, and while the sauce occasionally varies, it is generally sugo di polpo, or octopus sauce, that makes the cut. The controversy, though, arises around the kind of pasta. “I like linguine,” says Paterna. “But my brother likes fine linguine, which I can’t stand.” (He will compromise with spaghetti, though.)
After the pasta, it is time for baccalà (dried and salted cod) and fried peppers, followed by stuffed escarole—which, as Paterna points out, isn’t considered a fish dish, but features anchovies. The fried eel is another dinner staple, but because not everybody is a fan, baked oreganata and shrimp are also brought to the table.
Then, the family enjoys the stocco (baked cod)—which needs to be prepped two weeks in advance and cut with a bandsaw for how hard it is. As a final dinner dish, there is always scungilli con piselli (scungilli with peas)—an American tradition which was made famous by Vincent’s Clam Bar in New York City. A soft and delicious torta di ricotta is for dessert.
Where to grocery shop for Feast of the Seven Fishes
To get fresh dried pasta, Paterna always goes to Pastosa for pasta and Mondello Fish Store on 18th Avenue, both in Brooklyn. But if you don’t live in NYC, you can head over to Mercato, where your favorite local Italian market can deliver you sauces, pastas, and more. (The service is offered in Philadelphia, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.)
Another staple in Italian culture for groceries is Eataly. They have locations in most big cities, and they offer excellent cuts of fish for your dinner, as well as Italian pantry necessities and cheeses—from herbs and spices to sauces to marinate the fish to boxed pasta and fresh ricotta.