In a special Christmas episode of Saucy, chef and culinary producer Anthony Contrino shares his memories of celebrating Christmas Eve in a big Italian-American family and shares his favorite holiday recipes for baked clams, fish salad, pasta with calamari (aka "galamahd"), cranberry cocktails and sweet struffoli.
Food has always been a big part of my family's gatherings, but when a holiday rolls around, we take it to a whole new level. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. It is a great day to get together with immediate family, but for an Italian-American, Christmas Eve is the main event.
Many Italian-Americans eat what's known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. No one knows exactly when or where this tradition began, but it's believed to be something started in America by Italian immigrants. While most regions in Italy do eat seafood on Christmas Eve, it's usually a specific dish. But here in America, bigger is better.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes varies by family. Some eat seven unique fishes, while some eat the same few in seven different ways. We kind of flip flop from year to year.
From before I was born, my gram always hosted Christmas Eve. Every year she would cook with her sisters. They would work all day in the kitchen arranging various antipasti, frying all the seafood, making sauces, etc. As the sun set, the family began to trickle in, and they'd keep coming until the place was packed, sometimes as many as 85 people or so.
As everyone arrived, they helped themselves to antipasti, typically consisting of shrimp cocktail and an assortment of cheeses, olives and marinated vegetables. Not long after that came the pizza. While the plain is by far the fan favorite, some pies would be studded with anchovies, or “al leech,” as we call it. The worst was when, as a kid, you were so excited to grab a slice, that you took a bite and got some anchovy!
After the pizza, it was pasta time. The sisters would make two vats of sauce: a white clam sauce and a red sauce with calamari. Everyone would work together to serve the mob. Following a short break came the fried shrimp, fried scallops, fried flounder, fish salad and more.
While we digested, we would catch up with our extended family and gather together for a big family photo. After the picture, we'd set the tables back up and have dessert. Our favorite Christmas treats hit the table: chocolate chip cookies, thumbprint cookies, chocolate kringles, pignoli cookies, every Christmas candy imaginable, fruit, fig on a rope, roasted chestnuts and struffoli.
By the late 2000s, with Gram and her siblings in their eighties and nineties, they just couldn't do it anymore. Eventually, my cousin Tracy and I took the reins, and now host Christmas Eve. Gram is no longer with us, but the family traditions live on.
If you like those Italian-American holiday recipes, you should also try these: