Italian families anticipate Christmas with traditional feast of seven fishes

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- While others spend Christmas Eve wrapping gifts or preparing eggnog, Jack Chiaro will be frying smelts, eel and squid.

Like many Italian families in New England and elsewhere, Chiaro and his family gather the night before Christmas for La Vigilia -- the Feast of Seven Fishes. Celebrated by Italian Catholics, the dinner traditionally includes seven fish dishes, with salt cod, smelts, eel and squid (calamari) among the most common.

For Italian-Americans, the meal offers a chance to connect with family, remember their heritage and honor their faith.

The vigil has its roots in the Middle Ages when meat was a luxury from which people abstained on holy days, said Chiaro, 51, a chef and sociologist who teaches at Johnson & Wales University. On Christmas Eve, they fasted or ate a simple meal of fish and vegetables.

Over time, the meal grew to seven, nine or even 13 fish dishes.

"Some people say we have seven fishes because of the seven sacraments. Others say it is 13, symbolic of Jesus and the 12 apostles," Chiaro said. "To me, this is more of an afterthought justification."

La Vigilia is particularly popular in coastal states from New Jersey to Massachusetts, where the nation's largest population of Italian Catholics is concentrated. Rhode Island is the most Catholic and most Italian of the states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the 2005 Catholic Almanac.

In Italy, people traditionally prepare salads, steamed shellfish, a pasta with seafood in the sauce and then a large baked fish to end the meal, said Kerry Romaniello, the chef at the Long Acre House, a restaurant in Westport, Mass.

"For the most part, they're not terribly intricate dishes because you're cooking seven in one night," Romaniello said.

Most families follow the same menu year after year, but dishes do get added or changed over decades, Chiaro said. Baccala, or salt cod, is a true Italian food, eaten in the 1800s by inland families who could not get fresh fish, he said. But Chiaro has never seen baked stuffed shrimp -- a favorite in Rhode Island -- during his travels in Italy.

Learned from parents

Lucrezia Della Torre, 42, of Johnston, grew up in Italy and learned to cook from her parents who had a restaurant there. Her Christmas Eve menu includes snapper and artichokes stuffed with capers, olives and anchovy.

When she and her husband moved to Rhode Island nine years ago to work at Costantino's Venda Ravioli, an Italian market in Providence's Federal Hill neighborhood, they added lobster, which Della Torre never saw on a table in Italy.

"Too expensive," she said.

During the Christmas season, Venda's executive chef, Louis Forti, prepares hundreds of pounds of snail salad, a customer favorite, and baccala salad, which is special for the holiday. When Forti, 40, was growing up, 50 to 60 relatives would gather each Christmas Eve at his parents' Federal Hill restaurant, the Fish King, where they'd use the fryers to cook scallops, shrimp, smelts and doughboys stuffed with baccala.

"They're so good," he said of the fried balls of fish and dough. "I used to get anxious and wait all year for that moment."

Romaniello, of the Long Acre House, said her favorite dish is baccala cooked into a near paste with olive oil and onions. With potatoes or cheese added, it's spooned onto bread like an appetizer.

More than 100 members of the Capalbo family will gather in Stamford, Conn., where they rent a banquet hall to fit everyone. One of the family, Joan Knudsen, 41, of nearby Riverside, Conn., makes her grandmother's broccoli baked with baccala sauce using a recipe passed on by an aunt who died in 1991.

"It's important to me to carry on the traditions for my daughter so she grows up the way I did -- with the feeling of love all around her," said Knudsen, who is already teaching her 4-year-old daughter, Kortney, to cook.

The meal gives Kenneth Ciongoli, 61, chairman of the National Italian American Foundation's Board of Directors, a sense of comfort. He's an only child, married to a Scot with Russian and Polish ancestors, and living in Burlington, Vt., where there are few other Italians.

Ciongoli usually makes a bouillabaisse with calamari, scungilli (snails), baccala, shrimp, mussels, clams and a seventh fish that varies. Each of his five children and guests get at least one piece of each fish.

"Traditions are great," Ciongoli said. "You have the same thing every time, and it makes you feel like you're in the same holiday. It connects you with your past."

Americans find some dishes more traditional than tasty. Knudsen said she avoids the fried eel and smelts.

"It's nasty," she said.

Chiaro described his children as "hot and cold" when it comes to seafood and said he always prepares one meat dish because one daughter doesn't eat fish at all.

"Almost anyone will eat fried squid these days," he said. "But fried smelts? That's another thing."

On the Net:

Costantino's Venda Ravioli:

Long Acre House at Westport Rivers:

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