Food & Drink

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is still a Tradition in Essex County

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Mom's homemade baccala salad, a tradition passed on from my Nanny (grandmother). Credits: Deborah Ann Tripoldi/photographer
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NUTLEY, NJ - The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Catholic Italian tradition celebrated on Christmas Eve. It is still common today in many Italian-American families especially in Essex County. The custom originates from the southern region; mainly the area of Sicily and Naples.

The seven fishes is not consistent in each home. The variety could include any of the following: baccala (cod fish), smelts, calamari, eel, shrimp, crab, mussels, flounder and oysters and the list could go on. 

In my family, my grandmother and now my mother, makes a baccala salad with celery, Italian black olives, garlic, cherry peppers and lemon juice. This special customary dish is only made for Christmas Eve.

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Calamari is both fried and stuffed. There is fried shrimp, flounder and smelts by the trays full. On the stove a pot of pasta aioli can be found, which contains angel hair pasta, anchovies, capers and walnuts. Shrimp cocktail is served throughout the evening.

There is no exact origin to why this is custom. Some believe it is for luck, others say it is God’s number, another theory claims it’s because Catholics didn’t eat meat on Fridays and holy days - Christmas Eve being one of those days.

The exact number of fishes changes in the area too. In some places it’s nine for the holy trinity - multiplied by three, 10 symbolizing the Stations of the Cross or 12 for the Apostles.

Although the origins vary from family to family and the exact history is somewhat lost, one thing is for sure it’s a variety of fish and any seafood lover would not complain about that.

So where can we partake in this tradition without having to go through the process to cook all this food? Well many restaurants throughout the area offer the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” some will even cater it.

In Nutley, Ritacco Brothers offers a variety of seafood including calamari, muscles, fried shrimp, smelt, scungilli, clams oreganata and casino, seafood salad without mayonnaise, as well as a fried or broiled seafood platter and zuppa di pesce (fish soup). The restaurant has been keeping the tradition alive for over 30 years and also offers catering, as well.

However their top seller is baccala and the restaurant serves it broiled, fried and as a salad. “Baccala is very popular, because people typically order what they don’t have time to cook during the holidays. It has to be soaked for five days before hand,” noted Diane Ritacco, one of the owners of Ritacco Brothers.

Across the Nutley line in Clifton, Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian Tapas offers the feast from Dec. 8 through the 24th. This is their fourth year participating in the annual tradition. The menu features a warm Caesar salad, cold octopus salad, the popular salt cod fritters, a seafood ragu, salmon, bronzino (a type of sea bass) and prosciutto wrapped monk fish. 

According to Chef Josh Bernstein the menu is a composition of what the wine and tapas bar has done over the course of the year. “The most popular dishes at wine parties and events was chosen with a few out of the blue created just for the Christmas Eve menu, such as the warm Caesar salad.”

“[The Feast of the Seven Fishes] has become extremely popular and is growing constantly over the years. Christmas Eve has become very popular and we are already filling up with reservations,” Bernstein told TAPinto.

In Bloomfield, Bella Napoli offers a five course meal on Christmas Eve with prices ranging from $39 to $57. The meal includes salad, clams oreganata, fried calamari, zuppa di pesce with the main meal a choice of lobster ravioli, shrimp scampi and broiled salmon.

“The linguine malafemmina is a popular in house dish and for catering fried calamari and the seafood salad are common,” according to owner Sal Siconolfi. “It’s a tradition we held for over 40 years,” he added.

So if there is no time to create this feast on Christmas Eve, you do not have to travel far to enjoy in this old custom. This Italian-American seafood lover will surely be fishing around town - buon appetite; mangiare.

Buon Natale.

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