The Italians have brought us many gifts, from fine suits to fast cars to talking with our hands, but none is more enjoyable – and more worth emulating – than their affinity for big, boisterous, elbow-your-sister-to-get-the-last-bite meals. Holidays amplify the Italian penchant for doing everything over-the-top – especially Christmas Eve, when many Italian-American families celebrate what's known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The rules are fairly loose – no, you don't have to literally eat seven fish – but the basic idea, which likely stems from a Catholic restriction on eating meat, is to gorge yourself on a sprawling, all-night seafood meal that can contain as many as 13 courses.
In that spirit, we got three great Italian-American chefs, all of whom celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes growing up, to share some classic, approachable recipes perfect for the holiday table. Any other night of the year, each dish is a meal unto itself, but together, with plenty of good wine and as many friends and family as can fit at your table, they make for the most satisfying kind of dinner, no matter where you're from.
Philadelphia native Marc Vetri – who just about any big food personality will tell you is probably the best Italian-food chef in the country – hosts upwards of 30 people at his home every Christmas Eve. His father's parents brought the tradition to America, but after they died and all the grandkids went away to college, it faded – until Vetri resurrected it. "When I got married and started a family, I decided to start it up again," he says. "I have these great memories of doing this every year. I want my kids to have the same thing."
Marc Vetri's Roasted Whole Snapper (Vetri and Amis, Philadelphia)
"This looks impressive," Marc Vetri says of this beautiful roasted fish, "but it's really easy. You just put everything together – artichokes, potatoes, rosemary, lemon – then make a sauce right in the pan with the fish drippings." Vetri offers a Seven Fishes tasting menu at Amis a few days before Christmas. Last year, it sold out in an hour.
Roasted Whole Snapper Recipe
- 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 6 baby artichokes (about 12 oz total)
- 1 whole red snapper (about 2 lbs) or other flat fish (striped bass, orata), gutted and cleaned
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 lemon, sliced
- 1 rosemary sprig
- 1/2 cup plus 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut crosswise 1/4 inch thick
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 cup fish stock (or water)
- 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 2 tsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tsp chopped fresh chives
Preheat oven to 500°F.
Fill a stainless steel or other nonreactive bowl with 4 cups water and add lemon juice. Working with 1 artichoke at a time, snap off tough outer green leaves until you are left with a small, bullet-shaped artichoke with pale yellow leaves that turn green at the tips. Cut off tips crosswise. Cut stem flush with the bottom of the artichoke so that no green remains, then cut the artichoke in half lengthwise and scoop out and discard any choke. Toss the halves into the lemon water.
Season fish cavity with salt and pepper, then stuff with lemon slices and rosemary.
Drizzle a few tsp olive oil into a large roasting pan, and put fish in pan.
Drain artichokes, and place them around the fish along with potato slices.
Drizzle 1/2 cup olive oil over fish and vegetables. Scatter 2 tbsp butter around pan, and season vegetables with salt and pepper.
Bake 30 minutes, or until the fish is translucent when tested near the backbone.
Remove pan from oven and douse with wine. That should start to loosen the vegetables and fish from the bottom. Shake pan until everything is loose. Using a large spatula, carefully transfer the fish to a platter.
Put pan of vegetables over low heat and cook until wine is reduced. Stir in remaining 3 tbsp of oil, remaining 2 tbsp of butter, and stock, vinegar, and herbs. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes or until liquids combine and sauce looks creamy.
Credit: Photograph by Christopher Testani
Pour sauce and vegetables over fish and serve.