Many Italian Americans celebrate Christmas Eve with a big family feast teeming with savory seafood stews, chilled shellfish, rich pastas and gorgeous baked fish. The multi-course meal from il mare is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes or Feste dei Sette Pesce.
The tradition's origin story is obscure, but what's clear is that many Italian Americans, including some of TODAY's favorite chefs like Anthony Contrino and Anthony and Elaina Scotto, can whip up an spectacular seafood feast.
The beauty of food-based traditions is they often evolve through time. Festive dishes take on flavors and ingredients as they're prepared from kitchen to kitchen, region to region or country to country. And the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a prime example of this phenomenon.
According to the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, a national organization whose mission is to celebrate its members' ancestral heritage, the Feast of the Seven Fishes became an annual celebration for Christmas Eve when people from Southern Italy immigrated to the U.S. The number seven is symbolic in Catholicism and represents the "creation of the world in seven days, the Seven Hills of Rome, the seven sacraments, seven sins, or even the Seven Virtues of Catholicism." There is also a Roman Catholic ritual to abstain from eating meat and dairy products the night before certain holidays, including Christmas, which is why fish became central to the dinner.
As Italian as it sounds, la Feste dei Sette Pesce is surprisingly not very common in Italy and likely became most popular in migrant communities in the early 1900s. Eataly attributed this to the massive differences between the North and the South, since the feast reportedly began in Sicily and Naples, but no one I personally met while living in Italy had heard of it — regardless of which region their family came from.
Still, any seafood-lover looking for a festive way to celebrate the holiday with close family is sure to enjoy this rich tradition. Here are our favorite recipes for a festive, fish-filled feast.
Who doesn't love crispy fried food? This mix of fried seafood and vegetables is a classic Italian dish that's perfect for Feast of the Seven Fishes or any dinner spread.
The flavors for this dish come from traditional Roman saltimbocca: veal cutlets with sage and prosciutto. Andrew Carmellini replaced the prosciutto with pancetta and the veal with prawns or jumbo shrimp. The tender prawns balance the meatiness and crispiness of the bacon and the sage, tempered by the lemon, makes it taste incredibly fresh.
Beautiful baked clams are a must-have for a traditional Italian feast but are a wonderful, go-to appetizer to enjoy during any season. There are other versions of the delectable Italian recipe that can be made-ahead, but most have the same rich, lemony flavor profile.
This elegant appetizer has layers of salmon tartare, avocado puree and a crunchy shaved raw vegetable salad dressed with citrus vinaigrette. It's a great way to cut through traditionally heavier holiday fare.
In Italy, tuna fish salad doesn't get smothered with mayo and sprinkled with an afterthought of celery flecks. Instead, Italians dress meaty olive-oil packed tuna with lemon juice and zest and toss it with ingredients like creamy cannellini beans, juicy tomatoes and chunky pieces of crispy celery ribs and slightly bitter celery leaves.
Lobster, shrimp and calamari become refreshing and light when chilled in this insalata di mare (salad of the sea) — doesn't everything in Italian sounds like edible poetry?
Another chilled seafood salad worth trying includes a zesty orange vinaigrette dressing that cuts right through the warm, buttery smells wafting through the kitchen on Christmas Eve.
We love these meatballs because they take an upscale ingredient and turn it into a family-friendly dish that everyone can enjoy. Since eating lobster can be a challenging experience — especially for little ones — these meatballs make enjoying the sweet meat easy and delicious.
"When I think about how many baked clams we go through on Christmas Eve, it's absurd — my brother can wipe out a couple dozen himself!" says Contrino. "We always make more than we need and whatever is leftover gets served on Christmas Day."
The sweet juices of fresh clams mingle with white wine, chile and garlic in this classic Italian dish, to create a fragrant sauce that coats the pasta.
Prepare the fish a day or two in advance by soaking it in milk, which omits some of the fishy flavor and allows the bright, savory ingredients to pop. On Christmas Eve, just pop everything in one dish, bake for 40 minutes and you're done!
Contrino's Christmas Eve Sauce isn't just the sauce. It's a heavenly combination of calamari, tender peeled tomatoes, spicy red pepper flakes and linguine. He breaks the recipe down into super simple instructions so even first timers will be able to master this spectacular squid dish.
This recipe for zuppa di pesce (Italian fish stew) is loaded with shrimp, clams, mussels, sea bass and calamari in a lightly spiced tomato white wine broth with cannellini beans.
This pasta dish is a quick and easy way to utilize leftover seafood. It looks and tastes like a sophisticated dish, but it only takes minutes to make.
As a member of the tuna family, mackerel is a delectable, yet underrated fish that deserves more attention! A firm, high-fat fleshed fish, it's known for its bold, savory flavor. Tinned mackerel is popular throughout the Mediterranean in places like Italy, where it's referred to as sgombro (Atlantic mackerel) and enjoyed in sandwiches, salads and right out of the can.
For those who want to stray from stew but enjoy the flavors of zuppa di pesce, try Nick Lama's one-dish wonder. The chef and owner of Avo in New Orleans, Louisiana, uses pancetta, tender oysters and sweet lump crab meat in his seafood casserole.
This dish combines everything Reed Alexander loves about Italy — pasta shells, fresh herbs, marinara, succulent shrimp and scallops — in one single dish that can easily and affordably feed a family.
While it's fancy enough for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, this quick pasta dish is also fast enough for a weeknight dinner. The tomato sauce has a little spice to warm you up on a chilly night.
Cooking fish at home often seems intimidating. What type should you buy? Won't it overcook? Will it stick to the pan? Enter this recipe, one of Julia Turshen's go-to dishes when she has friends over for dinner. It’s the easiest and tastiest way to make fish for a group. Even if you double the recipe, you can cook all the pieces at the same time; there’s no splattering or mess whatsoever and there’s no chance of the fish sticking to the pan.
For someone who wants to showcase fresh crab, this simple fettuccine is perfect and only takes 40 minutes — 30 of which is cook time! The zesty lemon, herbaceous chives and rich cream all complement the crab's natural sweetness.
This superfood-packed meal is a lighter option for Christmas Eve, but it would be lovely any time of year. If it's too cold to grill outside, feel free to cook the salmon in a grill pan.
"My grandchildren often request this dish," says Lidia Bastianich. "It's a Sunday family favorite!"
Jumbo lump crab is delicate and delicious. This Italian dish might remind you of a candlelight dinner on a cliffside outside Genoa, but it's actually incredibly fast and straightforward to make at home.
The tomato-based seafood stew cioppino may sound like it originated in Italy, but it first became popular thanks to Italian American immigrants in San Francisco, California. Here, chef Ryan Scott shares his version of the regional specialty using Dungeness crab.
Decadence is part of this festive feast, and when it comes to highlighting Italy's naturally rich, fresh ingredients, who better to turn to than Giada De Laurentiis? The Italian American chef is a pro at this holiday tradition and goes all out with her linguine tossed in a creamy, tomato-based sauce with handfuls of lobster meat.