For many years, our family has celebrated Christmas Eve with the traditional Southern Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa Dei Sette Pesci), also known as The Vigil (La Vigilia). The origins of this celebration are Roman Catholic — on Christmas Eve in particular, it is a commemoration of the wait for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus (Vigilia di Natale), and stems from the Catholic tradition of abstinence, in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products, on Fridays and specific holy days — but, as with many Americanized traditions, it is now celebrated by people of all backgrounds and faiths.
The origin of the number 7 is open to interpretation — some say it represents the number of sacraments, or the number of virtues, or simply that the number represents perfection. The menu itself is neither rigid nor does it require exactly seven fishes or courses (some menus feature as many as 13 different fishes), and thus would typically feature any fresh fish that is available locally. Though specific dishes are not required, a traditional vigil must include Baccalà – salted cod that was also considered peasant food (and could be enjoyed even in the most impoverished parts of Italy) and fried smelts (a small fish that is eaten whole). Other common fishes include calamari, mussels and clams (often with pasta).
Whether you are familiar with this tradition or not, this appears to be the year it has reached critical mass in the Philly suburbs. In the past, we’ve celebrated the fishes at home, with family, and occasionally heard of other families also celebrating, perhaps even throwing a party. But only sparingly have we seen local restaurants advertising this menu — until 2009. (Perhaps we just weren’t paying close enough attention!)
Want to try it for yourself? Check out the local restaurants that are offering Feasts (UPDATED FOR 2011!):
Alfredo BYO in Berwyn
December 24. Crab arancini! Burrata! Pollo di Natale! Alfredo’s website now has an a la carte menu for their Christmas Eve Vigil.
Avalon in West Chester
December 22 – December 24. Avalon is offering a 5-course menu that features fried smelts and calamari, black linguini with shrimp, and several other tasty fishes. BYOB. $45 (kids u/12 $15)
San Nicola in Paoli
December 24. They’re offering a 7-course, family-style menu for about $50. [More Info]
Trattoria Totaro in Conshohocken
Decemeber 24. Totaro offers dine-in or take-out (please provide 24 hours notice), and features fried smelts, a baccalà salad and lots and lots of calamari. $47 per person, take-out is a la carte.
[Website] [ Take-Out Menu (word doc)]
Pepperoncini Conshohocken & Phoenixville
December 24th from 11:00am – 5:00pm (take out only). What are Baccala Bites? Find out, or just go with regular baccala, fried smelts, lobster ravioli and more. [More Info]
Did we miss any? Let us know and we’ll add them to the list!
Note: the picture above is from Alton Brown’s Pan-Fried Smelts recipe.