Visitors to Boston usually want to eat two things: seafood and Italian food (preferably in the North End). They would do well to come during the Christmas season, when these two overlap in one of the year’s most delicious culinary traditions celebrated by our city’s Italian communities and many area restaurants: Feast of the Seven Fishes. This Christmas Eve feast has its roots in Southern Italy (a well-represented region in Boston), but takes on a new significance when paired with local fishermen, fishmongers, chefs, and, most importantly, seafood.
Carl Fantasia, third-generation owner of the reputable East Cambridge New Deal Fish Market, doesn’t only sell fish. He also carries on his Southern Italian family’s tradition of “eating as much seafood as we can” on Christmas Eve. Fantasia is the first of many to tell me that, “In our family it’s not necessarily seven fish. Many times we do more.” The practice originates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays and some holy days; the number seven might reference the seven sacraments, but there are other theories. Other popular amounts are 10, for the 10 Stations of the Cross, and 13 for the 12 apostles plus Jesus. But it seems that often the actual number of fish consumed takes a backseat to the more overarching themes of family and cheerful holiday gluttony.
Many of the Mediterranean fish found on Christmas Eve tables in Southern Italy also exist in the North Atlantic despite differing water salinity and temperature, Fantasia explains. He cites calamari, cuttlefish, skate, monkfish, and whiting, even noting that occasionally sardines turn up in Rhode Island. Of course, not everything enjoyed in Italy is available locally—freshwater eel, for example, is one of the most traditionally important components of the feast, but not always available in these parts. Fantasia also notes that flaky white fish like hake and haddock might not be exactly the same in New England as their European counterparts, but close enough that substituting isn’t a problem.
But naturally, local specialties like lobster and Maine shrimp make their way onto tables as well. Fantasia highlights his mother’s spaghetti with spicy tomato sauce for which you “take a lobster and just plop it in.” In fact, during the length of our nearly half-hour conversation, he interrupts himself frequently as he thinks of another important fish or preparation, or remembers something else that his mother used to make (he became especially enthused about her zeppole di baccalà, or salt cod fritters), and gives me the names of every fish in both English and Italian, occasionally calling out to his father for clarification on a word or meaning. “I’m not kidding you, for Christmas Eve [we have] easily a dozen courses, maybe more. I’m passionate about this because it brings back old memories,” he says.
For the Freddura family, which has owned and operated the Daily Catch restaurants since Paul Freddura opened the first one as a fish market in the North End in 1973 (there are now two others—one in Brookline and one in the Seaport district), seven is the magic number. It so happens that there are seven Freddura sons, all of whom are involved with the restaurants in some respect. The eldest, Maximilian, runs the front of the house; the second, Basil, is the executive chef for the company; the third, Theo, handles public relations and social media. While the restaurants have occasionally offered seven-course tastings in the past for the Feast, the family always celebrates together at home. “Usually we do [stick to the number seven],” says Theo, “seven sons in my family so a fish for each one.” Recipes are traditionally Sicilian—the brothers’ paternal grandparents came to the North End from Sicily in the 1930s—dishes like fried smelts, stuffed calamari, and broiled haddock are standbys, and there is always at least one pasta dish (last year it was shrimp and clam linguine, one with tomato sauce, one with white sauce). The family used to be in the wholesale fish business, and thus has built relationships with suppliers by their Seaport location, which is right on the fish pier. “All our fisheries have their own boats out of Boston harbor,” says Theo, “All the fish is local.”
For those not born into the tradition like the Fredduras or Carl Fantasia, or who don’t feel like laboring over seven (or 10, or a dozen, or 13) courses, a number of restaurants in the Boston area and beyond offer special “Feast of the Seven Fishes” menus, sometimes for as much as a week leading up to Christmas Eve. The Blue Room, in Cambridge, held its first last year. “We approached it by trying to get as much as we could from Trace & Trust,” explains co-owner Liz Vilardi, referencing the organization that allows diners to know when and where their fish was caught, and by whom. Vilardi actually invited Rhode Island-based captains Steve Arnold and Chris Brown (from local Trace & Trust-affiliated local seafood distributor Wild Rhody) to participate in the dinner, and between courses guests were engaged on a number of seafood-related topics, including sustainability, “grocery store fish,” and anecdotes from the sea. The dinner was limited to 15 people to preserve a sense of intimacy, as having the fishermen present was one of the most important aspects of the meal.
In Newburyport, chef Mary Reilly of the year-and-a-half-old restaurant Enzo is drawing on her area’s abundance of local seafood to bring a Northern Italian-inspired feast to the North Shore. Though the feast seems to be primarily associated with the south of Italy, Reilly says she has found “a lot of anecdotal evidence” that the tradition exists in the north as well, but “the availability of coastline has a huge impact on whether your family has the tradition or not.” And while “Northern Italy” encompasses a pretty broad geographical area, Reilly’s menu reflects the traditions of coastal northern areas such as Liguria, where her husband’s family comes from, and the region around Venice, which sits on a lagoon. Last year’s menu included a Piedmontese Christmas Eve specialty called Lasagna della Vigilia featuring wide, flat noodles sauced with anchovy, parsley, and garlic. Reilly refers to it as a “one of the sleeper hits of the night.”
Reilly takes pleasure in exposing diners to preparations that they might not otherwise try if they weren’t included in the Seven Fishes feast—this was true for the Lasagna della Vigilia as well as a Venetian dish called Sarde in Saor, an escabeche-like dish of fried fish (usually sardines) marinated in pine nuts, raisins, and vinegar served room temperature. Last year she substituted mullet from Florida. This year she plans on using locally caught redfish. Indeed, sourcing was a bit of an issue for Reilly in her first year, a problem that is improving. “We were a new restaurant getting going,” Reilly explains, adding “It took me a while to find these sources and develop relationships with them…since last year our supply chain has evolved quite a bit.” For her Seven Fishes menu this year, Reilly intends on only using locally-caught fish; “For me it’s really important that my dollars go right back to the fishermen…one important aspect of sustainability is sustainability of the local economy.”
Most of Enzo’s fin fish come from a CSF (Community Supported Fishery) out of Gloucester called Cape Ann Fresh Catch which works exclusively with independently owned day boats. Reilly has been going to them for fish like pollock, skate, haddock, redfish, and hake, out of which she’s currently making a mock baccalà or salt cod, which may turn up on the Seven Fishes menu. The restaurant only brings in whole fish from the CSF, Reilly says, and the kitchen staff cuts everything down themselves, which is “also important from a traceability [aspect], to see that what we’re ordering is what we’re getting.” She has also forged a relationship with the Woodbury family in Wellfleet, where she sources her clams, and a lobsterman in Seabrook, NH, whom she visits personally at the docks for her lobster needs. “The difference between sourcing in Boston and sourcing up here on the North Shore is significantly different,” Reilly says, “ There are two dozen places [we use] and half are seafood…we don’t have a lot of the threats of availability… [but] you have to take your time developing those relationships.”
But no matter how good your relationships are, many Feast of Seven Fishes menus are subject to the fickle nature of fish availability. The chefs will often plan their menus in advance, knowing that they might need a backup plan if one or more of the fishes they want are not being reeled in by local fishermen. “I know I’ll be able to get clams, I know I’ll be able to get lobster,” Reilly says, “but other dishes I’ll have to leave up in the air until probably the first or second week of December. We know what kind of suit we’ll put on the fish,” she explains. This was the case last year. “My original menu had striped bass on it, “ she says, “but…fresh bass wasn’t available so I went to tilefish, which is a similar experience in terms of flavor, texture, and cooking so it went just fine.”
So while there might be some disagreement about the number, and some obscurity surrounding the varieties of fish, there’s no question about the “feast” component of the storied “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” Italian culture in Boston isn’t just for the tourists to ponder while walking between Modern and Mike’s choosing which cannoli to eat—it’s an important part of our city’s identity, and a wonderful excuse to stuff yourself like a clam on Christmas Eve, whether you’re Italian or not.
Luke Pyenson is a Boston-based food and travel writer. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix music blog "On the Download."