By Ray Schweibert
Traditions that have endured for centuries are a fascinating phenomenon, but a downside to such longstanding practices is that certain elements can get lost or foggy over the annals of time.
Among the certainties of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is that it started in southern Italy as La Vigilia di Natale, or the vigil for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. The feast is also tied into the ancient Roman Catholic tradition of eating fish as an abstinence from meat or dairy products on the eve of that holiday celebration and others.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes has remained a hugely popular worldwide celebration during Christmas Eve, primarily but not exclusively enjoyed by those of Italian descent. Several area restaurants offer their own versions of the feast on or around Christmas Eve, as La Vigilia di Natale chronicles have never specified which types of fish need to be served.
Little Italy of Northfield offers a Seven Fishes feast that features three family-style seatings on Christmas Eve — from 4 to 6 p.m., 6 to 8 p.m., and 8 p.m. until closing. The past popularity of the feast prompted restaurant manager Tony Cannuscio, who formerly owned Jo-Jo’s Pizzeria in Northfield for 26 years, to add a third seating this year.
“When I had Jo-Jo’s we did it 15 years in a row, and the one seating we started with got so popular we did two seatings plus a lot of family take-out,” Cannuscio says. “This year we added a third seating at 4, because lot of families like to eat a little earlier on Christmas Eve and then go to mass. But the popularity of this has always been amazing.”
Cannuscio was still tweaking certain components of his Seven Fishes menu as of press time, and last year’s $39.99-per-person cost may be slightly higher this year, depending on the availability of certain fish he hopes to prepare. Likely returnees served at Little Italy are lightly fried calamari with marinara sauce, a salt-cured cod salad, and a homemade lobster ravioli.
“We usually always do a tuna ragu, which has been one of my signature dishes,” Cannuscio says. “We take fresh tuna and sautee it with garlic, onions, add capers, fresh parm, a rosa sauce that we make in-house, add some herbs and spices and serve it over bucatini pasta, which is a thick pasta with a hole in it to absorbs the sauce.
“That’s very popular for us. We usually have a monkfish and scallop dish, which are both locally sourced and an excellent value, and our crabmeat-and-butternut squash soup is always on the menu.
“It’s a really special meal for a great price,” he adds. “This is by no means pizzeria-style food.”
Assaggio! restaurant in Egg Harbor City does a Feast of Seven Fishes celebration the day before Christmas Eve — Monday, Dec. 23 — starting at 4 p.m. It is $50 per person, and includes courses not otherwise found on Assaggio’s daily menu, such as pecan-encrusted salmon in a honey yogurt sauce with a side of veggie risotto. Walk-ins are welcome but reservations are recommended.
“We host it the day before the traditional day since we’re closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” says Assaggio owner Mary Reyes, “but also because some people might not want to be in the kitchen all day during a big holiday, yet still want to enjoy the traditional Seven Fishes meal with their families.”
Also on Assaggio’s Seven Fishes menu are fried smelts with spicy tarter sauce, blackened scallops, hearty clam chowder, Mediterranean chilled seafood salad, stuffed shrimp with crab meat, beer-battered cod with fries, and for dessert, playful Swedish-fish candy sushi.
Il Verdi restaurant inside Tropicana Atlantic City features a gourmet Seven Fishes feast for $75 per person on Christmas Eve. It starts with a choice between crispy chili pepper-scented calamari with a spicy San Marzano marinara sauce, or steamed little neck clams and mussels in a garlic-and-white wine sauce. A shrimp-and-lobster salad with a red-wine vinaigrette is the second course.
Il Verdi’s third course is a choice between handmade cavatelli with jumbo lump crab meat, or hand-cut pasta with rock shrimp and calamari in a white wine and roasted-plum tomato sauce.
Main entrees include four choices: grilled salmon topped with jumbo lump crabmeat in a white wine butter; langoustines, or small lobsters, with roasted tomato caper butter over angel hair pasta; sauteed shrimp in a scampi sauce over fresh-made basil linguine; or egg-battered flounder with spinach, lemon and pinot grigio butter sauce served with Parmesan risotto.
Girasole restaurant in Atlantic City includes a three-course Seven Fishes feast with three tasting plates per course on Christmas Eve. The cost is $65 per person with a minimum of two people per table.
The first course includes sauteed clams and mussels in garlic and peperoncino; pasta fagioli with oven-baked shrimp; and lightly fried calamari and smelts in a lemon marinara sauce.
Round two features black tagliolini or ribbon pasta with jumbo lump crab meat; kale casarecce pasta with swordfish and eggplant; and branzino bass ravioli with mascarpone cheese.
Girasole’s main course features baccala, or lightly fried Atlantic cod, with broccoli rabe; grilled Norwegian salmon with a balsamic reduction; and grilled yellowfin tuna with tomatoes, avocado and jalapeno peppers.
The Red Room Cafe in Ventnor has a four-course meal on Christmas Eve with several choices per course for $55 per person.
Among the appetizer selections are baked clams, mussels and scallops on the half shell, or a chilled seafood platter. Soups or salads include a lobster bisque, Manhattan seafood chowder, cold seafood salad or baccala salad.
Entrees include Mediterranean sea bass; orata or Mediterranean bream; salmon topped with a Puttanesca sauce; seafood risotto with clams, mussels, shrimp and calamari; squid-ink fettuccine with clams, mussels, shrimp and calamari; or clams and mussels over house-made linguini.
Chart House restaurant, though not Italian but definitely a spot for great seafood, features a $55-per-person Seven Fishes feast on Christmas Eve that includes a baccala salad, fried calamari, and coconut-fried shrimp as appetizers; baked stuffed shrimp with crabmeat, Venetian style sole, or snapper Livornese as main courses. Chart House’s main courses are served with wilted spinach and clams linguini in a garlic red or white wine sauce.