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Feast of the Seven Fishes embraces holiday food traditions

| Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

An Old World Italian tradition will bring together area families on Christmas Eve as they gather to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Whether it's at home or at one of the Pittsburgh-area restaurants planning special observances, the feast will provide recollections of Christmases past -- and a ton of delicious seafood.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, also known as La Vigilia (The Vigil), typically features seven or more different seafood dishes. It is tied to the Roman Catholic tradition of refraining from eating meat on the holiday. The number of courses varies, but the number seven is thought to represent the seven sacraments of the Catholic church. The menu can include almost any fish dish, but traditional favorites are smelts, eel, anchovies, squid, octopus, lobster and baccal?(dried salt cod).

For neighbors and friends, Theresa (Masciola) Beebe and Jini (DeNardo) Barefoot, of Findlay Township, the Christmas Eve ritual brings back memories of their Italian grandparents and parents, who strictly observed the Seven Fishes tradition.

"My dad had nine siblings, and I have 30 first-cousins," Beebe says. "On Christmas Eve, we always went to my grandfather's house. The women spent the whole day cooking in the kitchen while the kids played in the living room, waiting to open presents. All of the food was homemade."

Her family still eats seafood on Christmas Eve, but no longer prepares the entire Seven Fishes meal. But Barefoot will be helping to make the elaborate traditional dinner for 20 family members including her father, Amedeo DiNardo, 79. He was born in Italy and still insists on celebrating the custom that is believed to have originated in the southern region of the country.

"My father will prepare the eel," Barefoot says. "We don't like to touch it. As we've gotten older and I took over the holiday from my mother after she passed away, I've changed up the menu a bit to include some nontraditional courses like crab cakes."

The dinner, with all its seafood courses, desserts and wine, can take several hours, she says. "We start at 5 p.m., and if we're done by 11, it's a miracle."

Giuliana Pozzuto, spokeswoman for DeLallo Italian Marketplace, Jeannette, says for her family's Seven Fishes home celebration, baccal?is a major component, prepared in red sauce or battered and fried. The dried fish fillet is bought as a slab and must be soaked in fresh, cold water for at least three days before serving to remove the excess salt used to preserve it.

She says DeLallo Italian Marketplace offers several varieties of fish and seafood for the celebration, including baccal• dressed smelts, ocean smelts, calamari (squid), eel, scallops, crab meat, shrimp, sardines and octopus. The store's prepared foods, which can be a help for busy hosts, include Fried Breaded Smelts, Baccal?Tomato Sauce, Fried Baccal• Fried Calamari and Stuffed Squid Soup.

At Groceria Italia in Bloomfield, baccal?is in demand by those who celebrate the Seven Fishes feast, according to employee Cindy Kambic. The cod is sold for $8.99 per pound, and cooks should estimate about one-quarter pound per person when buying for a group. "We buy a case for the holidays, and when it's gone, it's gone," she says.

In the Strip District, Wholey's is bustling with shoppers preparing for the annual dinner. Sam Wholey, vice president and secretary, presents talks to store customers about the origin and customs of the Feast of the Seven Fishes from 2 to 4 p.m. today and Friday. Besides baccal• he says that fresh eel, shrimp, lobster and marinated herring -- a symbol of good luck in Scandinavian countries -- are popular choices for the holiday menu.

For those who would rather be served their seafood than prepare it themselves, several Pittsburgh restaurants prepare Seven Fishes dinner.

La Tavola Italiana Restaurant in Mt. Washington celebrated its feast on Tuesday. Chef Jolina Giaramita and her staff prepared a menu featuring fried smelts and calamari, mussels salad with sauteed white wine and garlic, pappardelle with crab in a roasted red-pepper cream sauce, baccal?stewed with tomato sauce and potatoes, panko-encrusted Barramundi fish from Hawaii with lemon-garlic sauce, jumbo sea scallops limonata and shrimp oreganata. Cannolli torte topped off the dinner for dessert.

This is the second year Giaramita has served the special menu at the family restaurant. She had more than 100 reservations a week before the dinner.

"We enjoy this tradition so much that we felt we should do it at the restaurant," Giaramita says. Having the dinner before Christmas Eve allows her family to still have their own home celebration.

"Tradition is very important," says the chef, whose father, Joe, came from Sicily, started the business 47 years ago and still is making pizzas today. "Anything we can carry on from our parents is part of our culture."

Celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich has written about her memories of the holiday in her cookbooks and hosts a Seven Fishes dinner on Christmas Eve at her restaurants, including in Pittsburgh.

"I look forward to having the family all around the table," Bastianich says. "I look around the table and see a snapshot of four generations of a family. I can't help but think and reflect on the good times and how we weathered the bad times. The reverence and importance of the day and of family is most important, and for me, it is a time of reflection."

At Lidia's restaurant in the Strip District, executive chef Jeremy Voytish is in charge of the menu, which is served family-style and includes seared rare yellowfin tuna with tonnato sauce, potato crostini with grilled octopus salad, steamed calamari and shrimp in spicy tomato sauce, spaghetti trapanese with crispy soft-shell crab, risotto with lobster, fillet of sole with lemon and capers, and grouper fillet.

This is the third year for the dinner, and Voytish says it has been well-received.

"We have 140 reservations so far," he says. "People make it their tradition. It's a big family affair. We begin seating at 9 p.m., and it lasts up to two hours. It's a whole production."

David "Davio" Ayn, owner of Davio Restaurant in Beechview, says preparing the courses for the Seven Fishes Feast is a labor of love. A first-generation Italian-American, Ayn says he has been making the Christmas Eve dinner since 1980. He continues the tradition, because he feels it is important to hand it down to younger generations.

"My grandparents and parents are gone, and it's just me. I might as well cook," he says. "It's a wonderful time of year, and I enjoy the people who come here. They're festive; they're happy. We want our children to know the tradition."

Susan Pizzutti, owner of Pizzutti's Restaurant in Shadyside, says she has the answer for those who don't have the time to prepare all of those seafood courses.

Her Seven Fish Cioppino over homemade spaghetti is an entree she serves in addition to the regular Pizzutti's menu on Christmas Eve. The pasta dish features mussels, calamari, shrimp, clams, lobster, crab and the fresh catch of the day. The price varies depending on the market value of the fish of the day.

Pizzutti says the seafood is prepared in a tomato and wine broth with garlic, parsley and herbs and served over a bed of homemade spaghetti. The dish is available as a lunch or dinner entree.

"It's delicious, it's all fresh, and you feel like you've had a really special treat," she says.

Baccal• step by step

Here are tips for how to choose and prepare your baccal?from Giuliana Pozzuto of DeLallo's.

• When you choose a piece of baccal• remember that the color of the meat should be close to white and the skin, light-colored. If the meat color tends toward yellow, do not buy it.

• If sold whole, try to buy a long, thick fish; if possible, it should be a bit more than 1-inch thick in the middle of the filet.

• If it's not already packed and wrapped in plastic, and you're allowed to smell it, remember that its odor, even if a bit intense, must be of fish and nothing else. No chemical smells should be evident.

• Prior to soaking, cut your baccal?into large pieces. Cutting the fish before soaking helps speed the re-hydration process.

• At least two days prior to cooking -- we recommend three days if you have the time -- begin soaking your salted baccal?in fresh water. First, wash the pieces thoroughly, eliminating all of the salt on the surface, and then submerge it in any container that will hold a lot of water; change the water at least three times a day (every 8 hours or even more frequently). While soaking, keep the baccal?in a cool place. Refrigeration is not necessary.

• Just before cooking, peel off the skin and eliminate bones -- a pair of small pliers will be helpful.

Baccal?Tomato Sauce with Linguine

This traditional Christmas Eve preparation honors the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This sauce is served with linguine, and like most Italian sauces, it should be light and thin in consistency -- just thick enough to coat the pasta. The recipe is from DeLallo's in Greensburg,

  • 1 1/2 pounds baccal• prepared
  • 1/4 cup DeLallo Extra Virgin Olive Oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 small onion, cut in half
  • 1/2 of a sweet red bell pepper, cut into 2 large pieces
  • Crushed red pepper, optional
  • 2 cans (28 ounces) DeLallo Imported Crushed Tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup chopped Italian flatleaf parsley
  • Salt, if needed
  • Cooked linguine, for serving

Prepare and soak the baccal?for at least two days, preferably three days, if you have time.

In a medium-size saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and pepper pieces and allow to cook until they just begin to get golden in color and the onion has softened, for about 8 minutes. Add the crushed red pepper and the tomatoes, then bring to a soft boil, stirring often. Lower the heat, add the baccal?pieces and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the chopped parsley and season, as needed, with salt and simmer for another 10 minutes. Be careful not to over-salt, as the fish already might bring enough salt to the finished sauce. Turn off the heat and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Serve this sauce with linguine cooked al dente.

The sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for 1 week or for as long as 6 months in the freezer.

Makes 8-10 servings.

Mrs. DeLallo's Baccal?Salad

Mrs. DeLallo's Baccal?Salad is a favorite at the prepared-food counter in DeLallo's retail store during the Christmas season. This marinated cod salad is best if left overnight to develop its flavor.

  • 1 pound cauliflower
  • Boiling water
  • 2 pounds prepared baccal?/li>
  • 1 can DeLallo Small Black Ripe Olives
  • 1 jar (24 ounces) DeLallo Sweet Red Peppers, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1/4 cup Italian, flatleaf parsley
  • 1 cup DeLallo Pure Olive Oil
  • 4 tablespoons DeLallo Lemon Juice
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Prepare and soak the baccal?for at least 3 days prior to preparing the salad. Blanch the cauliflower by placing the florets in lightly salted, boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes, draining and rinsing immediately with ice water. Keep the same water boiling for the baccal?

Cut the baccal?into 1-inch pieces. Drop the baccal?into the boiling water and cook until the fish breaks off easily. Strain and cool. After it cools, remove the skin and bones, if there are any.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the blanched cauliflower, baccal• olives, peppers, garlic, parsley, oil and lemon juice. Toss gently. Season with salt and pepper, if needed. Cover and chill overnight, mixing occasionally.

Makes 8-10 servings.

Yellow Fin Tuna With Tonnato Sauce

This recipe is from Jeremy Voytish, executive chef of Lidia's Pittsburgh in the Strip District.

  • 2 ounces extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 (8-ounce) piece yellowfin tuna
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1 can (6 ounces) Italian tuna
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon capers
  • 2 anchovie fillets
  • 3 cornichons
  • 4 ounces mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • Mixed greens, for garnish

Place a heavy-bottom saute pan on the stove on high heat and add the oil to the pan.

Season the tuna fillet with salt and pepper and roll in the bread crumbs until completely coated. Lay the crusted tuna fillet in the pan and brown it lightly on all four sides. When lightly browned, remove the tuna from the pan to a paper towel-lined dish to cool.

In the meantime, drain off the canned tuna and place it in a blender with the remaining ingredients. Blend the ingredients until they are smooth and creamy, and season with salt and pepper, as needed.

Cut thin slices of the cooled tuna filet, and lay them on a plate, overlapping the slices as you go. Drizzle some of the tonnato sauce over the slices, and garnish with mixed greens.

Makes 8 servings.

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