Friday, December 25, 2009

Week #17 Southern Italian: The Feast of the Seven Fishes

La Vigilia, The Feast of the Seven Fishes, is a Christmas Eve meal featuring, you guessed it, fish. While communities throughout Italy celebrate La Vigilia, this meal is more a feature of southern Italian and Sicilian tradition, one carried to the United States by immigrants and popularized here. Even if they've forgotten why, even if they're not Catholic, many people still observe the custom of eating fish on Christmas Eve--at least one type, and in some households, as many as a dozen or more.

I snapped this photo in a Tuscan fish market. Most of Tuscany is landlocked, but that doesn't prevent its citizenry from adoring a good piece of frutti di mare fresh from the Mediterranean or Adriatic.
Traditionally, Catholics ate no meat on sacred days, of which Christmas Eve is one--in this case, in honor of the birth of the baby Jesus. Since we're Christian but not Catholic, it was still a learning experience for us. We enjoyed this feast with our friends Patricia and Aaron. They included us in their family Seder during Passover earlier this year, so it was a fine symmetry sharing this Christian feast with them. We convened at Angeli Caffe in West Hollywood, where they served The Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve-Eve-Eve. Two days early is close enough for me.

Why seven types of fish? Stories explaining this number are as plentiful as, well, fish in the sea. Most of them are numerological in origin: seven is thought to be the number of perfection, since God rested on the seventh day. Then there are the seven sacraments, the Seven Hills of Rome, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven utterances of Christ on the cross. Seven shows up a lot in the book of Revelations, too. Practically speaking, though, the number of fish people eat on Christmas Eve seems to have more to do with availability and wealth than any other factor.

Traditionally the seven fish include baccalà, dried, salted cod. It is so prevalent in Italy that I think it must be the national fish. But we didn't have baccalà, and frankly, I'm not sorry, because it is stout and aggressively fishy, without the delicate texture and flavor of most fresh fish. I once knew a man who broke up with a beautiful Italian woman because she served him meal after meal of baccalà, until he'd finally had enough. We all have our limits, I guess.

Our antipasti plate got us off to a good start: a piece of seared tuna dressed with a saffron and red wine vinaigrette--I could have stopped right there and just ordered another six or eight pieces; seared sardines--my favorite part of that was the fried Meyer lemon slice with which it was topped--sweetly zingy!; and an Insalata di Mare alla Griglia, that is, grilled seafood salad that included shrimp, mussels and calamari. It was like having a high-quality sampler platter.

Next was a slice of pizza alla puttanesca with anchovies, which were cooked into the sauce, not just slapped on top and left to scorch in the oven. Notice that nice hunk of garlic in there? That made me happy, as did the capers and kalamata olives. And Angeli's pizza crust (and their bread in general) is a sublime thing. Take a good look at this slice, just in case you've never seen a real pizza crust before. This is not of the mass-produced, thick-n-chewy chain restaurant/delivery outlet/cardboard box/meat-lover's/cheese-lover's/manly-man ilk. It is crispy on the outside with a bit of chew inside. It's perfectly balanced and every bit as flavorful as what's on top of it--not just merely a carrier for the toppings. When eating lesser pizzas, I toss out or give away the "bones" (a.k.a. "the pizza handles"), but a well made pizza crust is good all by itself. I didn't leave a crumb on that plate. (It's time to stand up for your right for decent pizza, but that blog is for another day.)

For our paste we had trofie, a homemade pasta cooked perfectly al dente and served with shrimp and fennel. Alongside it were cannelloni al mare (in this case stuffed with salmon), an eggplant parmesan roll and a large mushroom stuffed with veggies. Since Pat and Aaron keep kosher, they passed on the shellfish and got extra helpings of the cannelloni and mushrooms.

We had homemade cannoli for dessert. No fish in this one, thankfully, but really good freshly made cannoli that balanced lightness and heft. If you can fry a pastry in such a way that it is neither greasy nor heavy, and fill it with a mixture of lightly sweetened ricotta and chocolate so that it doesn't weigh a ton, give up your day job and do this for a living. A well-crafted cannoli is a delight. Clemenza must have had this in mind when he told Rocco in The Godfather, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." Even if it does mean you do have to leave the scene of the crime a couple of seconds late!

So we got our seven fish in there--I counted eight. Well, fish and seafood, if we must split hairs. And I won't. I'll just say...

Belated Happy Hanukkah!
Buon Natale! Merry Christmas!
Happy Holidays!

1 comment:

Mark B. said...

Well, this is just food porn. You know that don't you? But thank you. And may I have a cigarette?