The Feast of the Seven Fishes

When you think of Christmas, fish may not be the first thing that comes to mind. For many Italian Americans, however, a seafood dinner called the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition many families have celebrated for generations. And it's especially important for us at DITALIA--as Sicilians, we always love a good seafood dish.


Religious Roots

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, or Festa dei sette pesci  in Italian, began with the Roman Catholic church, which decreed that certain meats and foods not be eaten on holy days. But why seven fish? It's not exactly clear why, but the number seven is an important symbol in the Bible; there were seven days of creation, seven pairs of each animal on the ark--in fact, the number seven is said to appear seven hundred times throughout the Old and New Testaments! 


Italian Culinary Traditions

Each region of Italy brings its own unique flavors and twists to the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Many of the best known dishes (and our favorites!) are inspired by Southern Italian cuisines. 

Pasta with Calamari and Calabrian Chili

Spaghetti ai Frutti di Mare 

Traditionally, regions of Southern Italy feature dishes like crisp, fried baccala (salt-preserved cod) and insalata di mare, a seafood salad featuring calamari, fresh shrimp, lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil. Stuffed sardines (sarde alla beccaficio) are especially popular in Sicily. However, this is by no means an exhaustive list; it is truly incredible how many kinds of seafood are served, and how this tradition has evolved over time.



How DITALIA celebrates the Feast

Baccala meets...shrimp cocktail? At the Nicastro family's table in St. Louis, Missouri, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is constantly evolving, with new dishes and influences coming to the table each year. 

Today, the Nicastros host their Feast of the Seven Fishes as a standing dinner--it's an "appetizer set-up," says Francesca Nicastro, DITALIA's social media manager. The huge quantity of dishes and relatives make a sit-down dinner impossible. "We used to do this in my nonna's tiny one-bedroom apartment, and it got very cramped very quickly," she added.








Baccala Salt Cod
Baccala,  Sicilian salt-preserved cod, is a popular Christmas Eve dish


The Feast has evolved quite a bit since Francesca's ancestors made their way from Sicily to the Midwest. Sicily may be surrounded by ocean, but St. Louis certainly isn't! Quality seafood in St. Louis is often sourced from lakes or shipped in daily from the East and West Coasts. However, it's not always guaranteed that fresh sardines will be available every year for traditional Sicilian dishes like sarde alla beccaficio.

What is dependable and always available is shrimp--hence, the shrimp cocktail! Shrimp makes quite a few appearances on the Nicastro family's table, from crispy breaded tiger prawns to grilled shrimp seasoned with sea salt and extra virgin olive oil.

But the Nicastros' Feast has also evolved for reasons that have nothing to do with geography. Family members simply bring the seafood dishes they love. "Lobster bisque is always popular," Francesca said with a chuckle, "When dinner is over, the aunts bring out homemade Italian Christmas cookies like amaretti."

Francesca is the oldest great-grandchild in her family and intends to continue the tradition. "The younger kids may not know all the names of the dishes, but they still think it's a cool tradition," Francesca notes. "And it's always pretty memorable when a relative brings a new boyfriend or girlfriend to the Feast. They really get to see what our family is all about."

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