Dec 26, 2018

Feast of the Seven Fishes

By Joyce Venezia Suss

Feast of the Seven Fishes new jersey recipes 2

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a traditional Italian dinner on Christmas Eve – and one of my favorite holiday meals. Its roots are based in southern Italy, following the Roman Catholic church’s rule of abstaining from meat on the eve of Christmas Day. But like many things in the “supersize” United States, one fish dish is not enough for Italian-Americans.

Years ago, in my large Italian family, the pre-Christmas “fish feast” often had more than seven items because everyone in the crowd wanted certain specialties. When we were young, my cousins and I steered clear of Nonna’s baccala (salt cod), Zizi’s scungilli (conch), and my mother’s fried sardines. (For more about sardines, see Let’s Dish on page xx.)

But everyone devoured fried shrimp, shrimp cocktail, fried calamari, crab cakes, lobster tails, and a heaping platter of linguine with a red seafood sauce. The fussiest young eaters – I’m now groaning over this – were placated with frozen commercial fish sticks.

No matter how many windows were open (despite the December cold), the host’s house smelled like fried fish for days afterward. It was worth the smelly aftermath, because these feasts were about old-world traditions and making memories.

Nowadays, our immediate family is smaller. If I’m hosting Christmas Eve, I’ll prepare one or two traditional seafood specialties, and round out the “seven” with Zuppa di Pesce. It’s much easier to make – and tastes spectacular.

There are as many versions of Zuppa di Pesce as there are Italian nonnas, My recipe is adapted from one by noted Italian chef Lidia Bastianich. There are only six kinds of fish in the pot – my “seventh” is a platter of cold shrimp cocktail before dinner is served. And maybe some fried shrimp … and … I guess I’m my mother after all.

Zuppa di Pesce ala Venezia

Serves 6

For seafood stock:

2 8-ounce bottles clam juice

2 cups dry white wine

2 cups water

1 28-ounce can San Marzano plum tomatoes, pureed with liquid

1 teaspoon oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

Feast of the Seven Fishes new jersey recipes 2

Remainder of ingredients:

1 dozen large shrimp, cleaned and de-veined

1 dozen dry sea scallops

1 dozen littleneck clams

2 dozen mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded

1 large cod fish fillet, cut into 2-inch pieces

3 to 4 calamari tubes, sliced into rings

3 large cloves garlic, sliced finely

2 large shallots, chopped fine

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup chopped fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley (reserve some for garnish)

Red pepper flakes to taste, if desired


1. In a large saucepan, combine clam juice, wine, water, pureed tomatoes, salt, pepper and oregano. Bring to a simmer and keep over low heat.

2. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy stockpot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic and cook, stirring for about 2 minutes, until softened but not brown.

3. Add calamari rings and cook, stirring, until they turn opaque, about 2 minutes. Pour in the warm stock base and bring to a boil. Stir in the scallops. Lower heat and simmer, about 5 minutes.

Feast of the Seven Fishes new jersey recipes 34. Add mussels and clams. Increase heat to high, cover and steam over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until the shellfish open, about 3 minutes. Discard any mussels or clams that don’t open.

5. Lower the heat to medium, gently add the cod, and cook until fish is opaque. Add shrimp and parsley. Simmer until shrimp is cooked through, about 1 minute.

6. Check the seasoning, adding salt (if necessary), freshly ground black pepper, and red pepper flakes if desired. Garnish with chopped parsley. Ladle soup into soup bowls. Serve with crusty Italian bread or garlic bread.