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."
Mario Carbone's Lobster Fra Diavolo (Torrisi Italian Specialties, Parm, and Carbone, New York)
You may remember lobster "from the devil" as a staple of tacky red-sauce joints, but Mario Carbone defends it with a time-honored claim most of us make about sex and pizza: "Even the bad ones are pretty good." He and partner Rich Torrisi have built a mini empire on updates of classic Italian and Italian-American dishes that most people thought had gone the way of the sun-dried tomato. "It is eighties, but that's my sweet spot," Carbone jokes. His modern take, which uses bits of angel hair pasta to thicken the sauce that's spooned over the lobster, is still dramatic enough to earn oohs and aahs when you set it on the table.
Lobster Fra Diavolo Recipe
(Yields 1–2 servings)
- 1/2 cup diced onion
- 1/2 cup diced carrot
- 1/2 cup diced celery
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- Pinch of crushed red pepper
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1/2 cup brandy
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 2 cups shellfish stock
- 3 tsp Calabrian chili paste
- 2 tbsp tomato sauce
- One 2 1/2 lb live lobster
- Lemon juice
- 2 tbsp melted butter
- 1 1/2-inch pieces angel hair pasta, about 1/4 cup
- 2 tsp parsley, finely chopped
For the sauce:
Sauté onions, carrots, and celery in olive oil until completely tender. Set aside.
In separate pan, over medium heat, lightly toast garlic. As it begins to brown, add crushed red pepper. Once it's softened, add cooked vegetables and tomato paste. Cook 5 minutes.
Add brandy and white wine, and cook until alcohol aroma is gone, about 10 minutes.
Add shellfish stock and bring to a simmer.
Add Calabrian chili paste to taste, then tomato sauce. Set aside to cool.
For the lobster:
Drop lobster in boiling water and cook for 1–2 minutes so it is par-cooked but still rare inside. Shock it in ice water.
Separate knuckles and claws. Steam or poach body until almost cooked. Separately, steam or poach knuckles and claws until cooked through. Submerge body and parts in an ice bath to stop cooking process.
Split lobster body in half from head to tail. Season with salt and lemon juice. Re-steam until cooked through.
Separate knuckle and claw meat from shells. Brush body with melted butter and chili paste.
Bring small pot of water to a boil. Cook angel-hair pasta. Add to fra diavolo sauce, and mix in knuckle and claw meat. Finish with parsley, lemon juice, salt to taste, and a splash of brandy.
Credit: Photograph by Christopher Testani
Spoon finished pasta and lobster mixture over the split lobster body. Serve.