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For many Italian-American families in New Jersey, Christmas Eve means seafood. Every year in mid-December, family cooks from Bayonne to Bellmawr start to count fishes, making sure that the Holiday menu includes at least seven.
The “Feast of the Seven Fishes” (Festa dei Sette Pesci) has its roots in Southern Italy, where observant Roman Catholics abstained from eating meat or milk products on Fridays, and on the day before Holy days like Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the traditional supper was exclusively seafood, usually fried in oil. Fish is also associated with early Christians who used a fish symbol to identify themselves in times of persecution. The significance of the number seven? Religious interpretations point to the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, the seven virtues in the Catholic catechism, and Biblical references like God resting on the seventh day. The number could also refer to the Seven Hills of Rome, or just be a lucky number. Some families feature nine, eleven or even thirteen fishes in their annual meal. Why “fishes”? Because “Seven Fishes” means seven different species of fish.
The great Italian migration to the United States between the 1880s and the 1930s, brought thousands of Southern Italians to the Northeast, my own ancestors among them. Their seafood feast came with them.
My mother remembers Christmas Eve meals in the 1950s at her Grandmother’s house on Third Street in South Orange. Antoinette Verducci, the Italian-born matriarch from Calabria, prepared the meal, which always included baccalà (salt cod), mussels in a spicy marinara sauce, fried smelts and pastas with seafood sauces. The annual spread also included pizza fritta (fried dough) served with tomato sauce and zeppole (deep-fried dough balls) with powdered sugar, the highlight of the meal for my mom and her cousins. Mom avoided the smelts, a tiny fish (Osmeridae) caught in coastal estuaries.
The Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes lives on in New Jersey, and seems to have become more popular, or at least better remembered, in recent years. Restaurants across the Garden State have begun to offer the traditional Christmas Eve seafood feast in December. Younger generations are counting their fishes and rediscovering some of the seafood dishes prepared by the first generation Italian-Americans.
Italian cooking relies on fresh, local ingredients. For immigrant families with limited resources, the seafood selections in New Jersey were not fancy. Like all good cooks, Italian-Americans took what was cheap and abundant, applied familiar techniques and recipes from back home, and transformed simple food into memorable meals.
For decades, preparations for the Feast have begun at the local Jersey fish market. Barbera Fish Market in Atlantic City has been selling the fishes for South Jersey Italian feasts since 1919. Dominic Alcaro, who bought the market in 1985, is a first generation immigrant himself. His parents emigrated from Calabria in 1961 when he was six years old. Dominic still remembers his Grandfather walking back from the Italian waterfront with the eels, sepia (cuttlefish) and whiting for the Christmas Eve meal.
Today, Barbera Fish Market sells some of the same fish species in New Jersey, but the most popular Seven Fishes have changed over the years. Alcaro used to sell as many as 600 eels in December. These days he sells about 150. Alcaro sources them from local fisherman and offers eels both live and cooked. The fish market’s older customers order eel, baccalà, octopus and calamari to serve on Christmas Eve; younger customers prefer shrimp, flounder and seabass (branzino).
“We still sell smelt in December, but not eel,” says Mike Marino, owner of Marino’s Fine Foods, an Italian seafood market and deli in Springfield. “Cleaning the eel properly is time consuming and not enough people cook it anymore.” Mike’s father, Gasper, opened the family’s first fish market, Hillside Seafood House, in 1961. Popular Holiday items at Marino’s today are fish fillets (flounder, cod, haddock), shrimp, clams and squid.
I sat down with Mike and Frank Montalbano, who sells fish for the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx, over a plate of fried calamari with marinara sauce. Marino’s version is very lightly breaded. The secret to good fried calamari, says Marino, is to flour it lightly without any seasoning, and fry it quickly in oil that is at least 370 degrees. “Quality squid should have a slightly salty taste on its own,” Mike assures me.
Frank swears by Marino’s version. “Nobody makes it better,” he claims. “Mike does it right.” Frank isn’t just Mike’s fish supplier, by the way. Their family roots go back to the same Sicilian fishing village of Sciacca.
Mike and Frank, who together have more than 80 years experience in the New Jersey fish business, question whether independent fish markets are sustainable. “Fewer people cook these days, and less people buy from specialty fish markets,” says Marino. It’s not surprising to them that restaurants are starting to offer a meal that traditionally was prepared and eaten at home. Marino’s sells imported Italian foods, has added table service, and expanded its menu beyond fish to keep up. “During the holidays, we used to stop selling prepared items to focus on fresh fish sales,” Marino recalls. “Today, catering and prepared platters are a much larger part of our business.”
According to Montalbano, at Fulton, the East Coast’s most important wholesale fish market, there’s a noticeable uptick in certain fish sales in December, items like baccalà, scungilli (marine snails) and the smelts that appear on Italian-American tables.
Every family’s fishes are different, but Garden State menus usually include a few of the Italian-American red sauce standbys like Baccalà in Tomato Sauce, Mussels in a Spicy Marinara Sauce and Fried Calamari. My grandfather insisted that fried smelts be on the table every year. Really old school families still serve Eel Stewed in Tomato Sauce (Anguilla in Umido).
I asked Mike Marino what his family usually did on Christmas Eve. “Suffer is what we did for Christmas,” he says. “I dreaded Christmas growing up because we had to work,” Marino remembers. “From mid-December, we worked seven days a week, twenty hours a day, to get everyone their Christmas fish orders. At our house, all we do is sleep once we get home on Christmas Eve.”
Dominic Alcaro sees the Feast continuing to be “mostly a home holiday.” Alcaro’s parents continued the traditional feast in the United States, and now Dominic is the host. After the last customer picks up their Holiday fish order from Barbera Fish Market, Dominic hosts some fifty family members at his home in Gloucester, Camden County. His menu sticks to seven fishes, but Alcaro prepares each fish different ways for a total of fifteen to twenty fish dishes on the table. Baccalà salad and stew are popular in his family. Alcaro not only fries his smelts, the “easy way,” he points out, but also sautés them with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and onion.
After feasting on all that seafood, Alcaro’s family gathers around an elaborate Nativity scene adorned with figurines carved by his father. They sing Italian Christmas songs (like Tu scendi dalle stele – “You Come Down From the Stars”) and the youngest family member places the baby Jesus in the manger at midnight. “The Feast of the Seven Fishes is all about sacrifice and giving thanks,” says Alcaro. “It’s wonderful to see the Italian family tradition live on.”
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is alive and well in New Jersey, where one in five residents claim Italian ancestry. Most Feasts will take place at homes across the Garden State this Christmas Eve. Everyone who sits down at a table laden with seven or more fishes this Holiday is sharing an Italian-American meal that represents religious tradition, local ingredients, humble food transformed, and, most likely, a memorable family gathering.
Buon Natale e buon appetito!
Feast of the Seven Fishes Menus
- Scungilli Salad
- Mussels in Spicy Marinara Sauce
- Fried Smelts
- Flounder Fillet
- Linguini with Red Clam Sauce
- Baccalà (salt cod) in Tomato Sauce
- Eel Stewed in Tomato Sauce
- Shrimp Cocktail
- Clams Oreganata
- Fried Calamari with Marinara Sauce
- Zuppa di Pesce (Fish Soup)
- Seared Scallops
- Lobster Fra Diavalo over Linguini
- Whole Grilled Branzino (Seabass)
Recipe: Fried Smelts
Courtesy of Patricia Mercadante
- Vegetable oil (for frying)
- 40 smelts, fresh or frozen (about 3 lbs.)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 4 lemons, cut into wedges
If frozen, defrost the smelts. Some people fry and eat smelts whole, especially the smallest ones. Our family prefers smelts butterflied. To clean whole smelts, make a straight cut along the belly with a small knife from under the head to the tail. Turn the smelt over and cut halfway into the fish just behind the head. Pull the head down and back to remove the innards and tiny backbone. Use your fingers and running water to pull and rinse away any remaining bits. Drop each cleaned fish into a bowl of ice water.
Pour oil into a large skillet to a depth of 1”. Heat oil over medium-high heat to 350° (or until a small piece of bread dropped in the oil immediately bubbles and rises to the top).
Mix the flour, salt and pepper in a plastic bag.
Cook the smelts in batches, depending on the size of your skillet. Drain the smelts and toss about ten in the bag at a time. Shake off excess flour and drop each smelt into the oil. Stir to make sure they don’t stick together. Cook until golden brown, turning over once if necessary, 3 to 4 minutes.
Drain the fried smelts on paper towels and serve immediately with the lemon wedges. (Serves 4 to 6)
An abbreviated version of this post originally appeared as “7 Fishes” in Edible Jersey Magazine (Holiday 2013).