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Authentic Southern Italian Cuisine
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Italy’s Feast of the Seven Fishes

December 8, 2012 Carlino's Restaurant no comments
Carlinos Feast of the Seven Fishes

“Carlinos Feast of the Seven Fishes”

Italian holiday traditions have had hundreds or even thousands of years to become a part of the culture. One of the most cherished traditions is a Christmas Eve dinner called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a lavish celebration of the season that involves platters of succulent seafood. In some regions, it’s known as the Feast of Nine Fishes, especially in coastal towns and villages that made the most of their delicious bounty. Also called La Vigilia, the spread is as much a part of holiday tradition as gingerbread is to the American celebration of the holidays.

The seafood-rich celebration grew from the Catholic tradition of forgoing meat on holy days, but it served another purpose, too. For those who had to wake up early and cook a Christmas feast the next day, preparing luscious fresh seafood dishes put something festive on the table without taking hours of cooking. The traditional La Vigilia feast often includes packed fish such as sardines or anchovies as one of the courses. Steamed mussels and buttery shrimp took little time to cook, leaving the chef more time to enjoy the holiday festivities.

A typical Italian Christmas Eve feast might start with an insalata di mare, a seafood salad rich with calamari, scallops, shrimp and any other fresh frutti di mare that appeal to the chef. For Italian-Americans, a great shrimp cocktail is a perfect fit with the Feast of Seven Fishes; it’s light enough to start the meal and flavorful enough to set the stage for all of the delicious courses to come. Oysters or clams on the half-shell are another succulent delight featured in La Vigilia feasts; they need little more than a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of cocktail sauce to shine.

Fried seafood is a perennial favorite on the Italian table, and the Christmas Eve feast isn’t complete without at least one dish cooked golden brown and crisp. What’s on the table depends on where in Italy you travel; some families don’t consider it a proper feast without calamari, while others love nothing more than fried shrimp. The secret of perfect fried seafood is in getting the oil at just the right temperature and serving the dish just after cooking.

Throughout southern Italy, a tangy marinara sauce is the perfect accompaniment to everything from steamed mussels to calamari. Fresh whitefish baked under a layer of tomatoes and peppers becomes flavorful and flaky enough to be the centerpiece of the feast for some; others prefer to serve a pasta dish infused with the flavors of all their favorite seafoods. Linguini with clams, shrimp and calamari is a hearty entree that still leaves room for the other courses in this traditional Christmas feast.

Stuffed and baked seafood feels festive enough for a holiday feast, and it’s always a prominent feature on a La Vigilia menu. Shrimp or clams oreganata are topped with a generous sprinkling of buttery herbed bread crumbs before baking and come out deliciously tender. Larger shellfish lend themselves beautifully to stuffing with a blend of seasoned breadcrumbs, chopped aromatic vegetables and the succulent white meat. Italian chefs are remarkably adaptable and make good use of local seafood wherever they travel, leading to spectacular stuffed lobster and crab dishes.

You don’t have to wait until Christmas Eve to enjoy a seafood feast. Many of Carlino’s favorite seafood dishes have evolved from favorite Feast of the Seven Fishes traditions. Enjoy tender calamari in a savory marinara sauce or indulge in the Neapolitan-inspired classic native to our neighborhood, clams Posillipo. Whether you order one course or seven, we’ll make you a feast.

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