Feasting on the Fishes
Create a magical Christmas Eve dinner based on an Italian tradition
Italian families in the United States and in some parts of the Old World gather the night before Christmas to feast. Due to the need to abstain from meat ahead of the holy day, families have turned to seafood for their big family celebration on Christmas Eve. Over the years, restaurants started offering their own Feast of the Seven Fishes.
The Feast, or La Vigilia as it is traditionally called in southern Italy where it is said to have originated, generally features seven dishes made from a variety of seafood. The Feast gives chefs an opportunity to offer guests a place to enjoy this tradition, regardless if their restaurant is Italian or another cuisine.
“It’s a way to embrace what you do and expand upon your fish menu,” says Bill Telepan, executive chef of seafood-focused Oceana in New York. “Have fun with it and go outside the box and try some new things you wouldn’t normally do.”
Telepan keeps things seasonal for his annual Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner. Past menus have included crispy brandade with parsley root and parsley puree; egg fettuccine with bay scallops, uni and scallion; and grilled octopus and sepia with garlic red chili oil and broccoli rabe salad.
“It’s a really nice thing to offer: a tasting menu of fish dishes we create for the day.”
- Bill Telepan, Executive Chef of Oceana
At Chicago’s Spiaggia, Executive Chef Joe Flamm introduced his family’s longstanding tradition to the restaurant in 2014. It grew from 20 people the first year into two full seatings with dozens of guests.
“It has become one of the hottest events for us during the year,” Flamm says. “It’s communal, just like being with family. It’s really fun and somewhat rambunctious, which I really love.”
The dinner costs $75 a person with a $25 optional wine pairing and the menu has featured dishes like crudo di mare with raw oysters and Nantucket Bay scallops; spaghetti alle vongole with clams and Sardinian bottarga; and fried smelts.
“That’s quintessential Midwestern food,” Flamm says. “The most fun for us is doing dishes that represent where we come from and speak to us. They don’t have to be traditional. You make it your own.”
Instead of hosting the dinner on Christmas Eve, Flamm and his team hold it within the few days before. Why?
“We close the restaurant to do Feast of the Seven Fishes with our own families.”
And isn’t that what the holidays should be about?