Whether it represents the hills of Rome, the Catholic sacraments, or, as veteran home cook Rosella Vitale suggests, "lucky lottery numbers," the Seven Fishes dinner is synonymous with Christmas Eve for countless Italian-Americans, especially those with roots in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
"Squid, smelts," says Reggie Delphin, owner of , "clams, mussels, sardines, maybe they serve a seafood salad." He and fellow fishmonger Shawn McClure agree that, while every family's order is a little different, the Seven Fishes dinner makes for the busiest time of the year. It also means that the gleaming fish heaped on mounds of ice at the fish counters aren't the usual fare. "We get calls for fish that people don't eat as much the rest of the year," explains Delphin. "Octopus and eel, for example."
The origins of the meal are largely lost to history, though Christmas Eve is a day when, traditionally, Catholics abstained from eating meat. Sicily and Naples are two regions of Italy often credited with "la vigilia," and the tradition probably travelled with immigrants who arrived on these shores.
, host of food shows on WOR and PBS, looks to both heritage and geography to explain the Seven Fishes. "Italian cooking was never codified like the French," he explains. "Italian cooking is at its heart a philosophy really, relying more on great local ingredients than on technique and manipulation of the ingredients."
The first wave of Italians who came to Newark arrived in the 1870s from southern Italy and Sicily. So many immigrants made their way to Newark, the Oranges, and surrounding communities that Newark claimed the nation's fifth-largest Italian population at the turn of the 20th century. That number continued to grow into the 1930s. The immigrants brought with them a fish dinner tradition and, says Colameco, a philosophy of eating locally. The Jersey shore did the rest, offering a bounty of local fish that continues to this day, and establishing the Feast of the Seven Fishes as a Garden State-Philly culinary tradition.
And the Jersey-style meal has legs, or fins. In what appears to be a first, chef and Bloomfield native Bryan Moscatello serves a New Jersey-inspired (and so advertised) Seven Fishes meal at his Potenza restaurant, around the corner from the White House. The dinner, he says, reflects his "childhood in a traditional New Jersey Italian family." He recalls "red sauce and smelts," as well as mussels, octopus, calamari, and "a big bowl of mussels." Moscatello's restaurant version of the meal includes poached sea bass with mussels, clams and zucchini; seared diver scallops with rocket machete potato and balsamic glazed tuna.
"If only we could eat out," says Jennifer Vecchio with a laugh. "The Seven Fishes are a home meal for us," she explains, stewing octopus beside her grandmother, Rosella Vitale. By her reckoning, Vitale, a lifelong resident of the Oranges, has prepared, or helped prepare, some 75 Christmas Eve dinners. Though she loves the ritual, Vitale doesn't question it.
"It's lucky seven, everyone knows lucky seven," she repeats, too busy with clam sauce to look for a deeper meaning in the number of fish. "But what I'll tell you is that it's a lot of fish. It's a lot of food." Vitale's menu includes three types of shellfish, eel, smelts, baccala, and a centerpiece entree of broiled sea bass. "You need something lighter," she explains, gesturing at the sea bass, "after all this heavy stuff. Besides, eel can't fill you up; it's too chewy." As to the choice of fish on the menu, Vitale again dismisses tradition. "I buy what's fresh," she explains, "Simple."
Simple in theory, and in cooking philosophy, but many of the traditional dishes are labor-intensive. Colameco recalls food prepared by his grandmother, Nanny DiRenzo. "We always had fried smelts, squid cooked in tomato sauce, pasta with anchovies and breadcrumbs, baccala, some shrimp variation, a chilled mixed seafood salad, maybe lobster too, and an assortment of vegetables and pasta casseroles."
With such menus, chefs and home cooks are busy this week, crafting a meal that looks back to a homeland two or three generations in the past. As families gather on Christmas Eve for the Seven Fishes meal, the tradition maintains a robust presence in the Garden State. As to its past, its significance, and the variety of fish on the table, Moscatello laughs and offers the simplest explanation yet. "Italians eat local. They eat what's in the backyard. I think those first generations just ate what they caught." And thus a meal was made.
Buon Natale, Livingston.
Editor's Note: This story began as a search for the second-best Seven Fishes Dinner, since the best is that prepared by Elisa DelVecchio's grandmother in her Paterson kitchen. It turns out that many of us feel the same way; regardless of the meal's history, the correct assortment of fish is that served at our own family's table. Grazie to EthnicNJ.com, , for ideas.