What is La Vigilia? According to Mario Batali “It’s what Italians do when they say they’re fasting.” The meal is served in Southern Italian homes on Christmas Eve. This is to observe a fast where no meat is served. But leave it to the Italians to turn a fast into a feast. This Italian tradition is called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which is in reference to the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. This coincides with the number of dishes to be served which is seven. In my household, we had thirteen dishes one for Jesus and the twelve apostles, some families do 12, 8 or 10.
More important than the religious symbolism, is the gathering of community. Friends, family and even strangers were invited to enjoy this meal. As far back as I can remember this was the big celebration for the Anastasi Clan. Local Seafood was featured along with traditional Italian cookies, homemade limoncello and espresso.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes was a time for the great culinary skills of the family to be showcased. My mother always made clams casino, my nonno made calamri fra diablo, and my nanna was known for her fried smelts. Everyone contributed an everyone enjoyed! As I became more adept at cooking I contributed my own dishes, linguine and clams, grouper livornese and tuna putanesca. Any fresh seafood was fair game, eel, salt cod, anchovies or scungilli.
– Chef Joe