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."
Vic Casanova's Cacciucco (Gusto, Los Angeles)
Bronx native Vic Casanova (no relation) has been cooking Italian food his entire life – at home, coming up in some of New York City's best Italian restaurants, and now at his own spot in Los Angeles, Gusto, acclaimed for its soulful, rustic dishes. So he's a student not just of the cuisine's flavors but also its history. The Seven Fishes, he says, was traditionally practiced more strictly in southern Italy, where the population was poorer. Cacciucco, a tomato-based fish stew you may know as cioppino, was a cheap way to cram several requisite "fishes" into one dish. "You can knock off five or seven types of seafood at once, using each to build flavor progressively," Casanova says. "It's very simple but delicious."
Cacciucco, or Fish Stew
- 1 1/4 lb calamari, cleaned
- 8 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 lb mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- 1 lb littleneck clams
- 5 garlic cloves, minced, plus 1 whole garlic clove
- 1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, minced
- 1 carrot, minced
- 2 celery stalks, minced
- 1 red onion, minced
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper, finely ground
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 28-oz can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
- 2 lbs mixed fish, such as branzino or rock cod (scaled, filleted, cut into 1-inch pieces, skin on)
- 8 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
- Salt and pepper
- 1 loaf rustic bread, cut into 1/2-inch slices
- 3 lemons, quartered, seeds removed
Cut calamari into 1/2-inch rings.
Pour 1 tbsp olive oil into a medium-size saucepan with a lid. Heat over medium heat until hot but not smoking.
Add mussels and clams and cover, steaming until they open, 3–5 minutes. Remove shellfish and set aside, reserving the juices.
In a large sauté pan, add remaining oil over medium heat.
Add the minced garlic, parsley, carrot, celery, onion, and ground red pepper. Cook until light golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Add wine, bring to a boil, then let reduce.
Add the crushed tomatoes, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes.
Add 2 cups water, reserved mussel and clam juices, and fish. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a light simmer. Cook uncovered until the fish is flaky, about 10–15 minutes.
Add shrimp and cook for about 1 minute.
Add calamari, mussels, and clams, and let simmer until calamari is just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Drizzle olive oil on both sides of bread slices, then toast in a 375°F oven until golden and crispy. Rub with raw garlic clove.
Credit: Photograph by Christopher Testani
Warm 8 bowls, then divide the cacciucco evenly. Squeeze lemon over each bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and serve with garlic toast.