Families eagerly gather around the table, having awaited the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner – the Feast of Seven Fishes. Customary dishes may vary in the different regions in Italy, but the tradition of feasting in the name of celebration are undeviating throughout.
The Feast of Seven Fishes, or La Vigilia, is a traditional Italian Christmas Eve custom, originating in Southern Italy. It is practiced as a day to abstain from eating meat in anticipation and celebration of the birth of Jesus. Instead, participants eat fish. Many families do not limit their feasts to just seven fishes; some prepare as many as 11 or 12 dishes and offer plenty of sweets for dessert.
In Sicily, large families gather to celebrate the past year. Each course highlights different dishes and may last hours. The eggplant caponata would be served during the antipasto course. Baked clams and linguine with clam sauce, fettuccine with artichokes and shrimp, shrimp risotto and stuffed calamari would be included as a first course and second course.
While in Naples, the city comes to life during the Christmas season. Markets display their daintily decorated Christmas treats and offer their freshest ingredients to be used in the local family’s Christmas eve dinner. Traditional dishes include fried baccalà (cod), fish salad made of octopus, squid, shrimp and other fish, fresh anchovies and spaghetti with clam sauce. The end of the evening usually sees the table filled with a honey-ball sweet called struffoli or a rum filled pastry called babà, as well as a palate-cleansing dish of assorted nuts and dried fruit.
The Feast of Seven Fishes is an ancient tradition in Rome. Customary dishes include baccalà (cod), calamari, warm octopus salad, tuna or salmon can be common dishes on the table. A dish of linguine with mussels is also something you will see on a Christmas eve menu. And of course, a traditional Italian cake is always served to finish the meal – a Panettone or a Pandoro.
The holiday season is grandly celebrated for a full three weeks in Florence. Nothing marks the season greater than the magnificent feast on Christmas Eve. Families will include spaghetti with fresh anchovies and a cod salad. The meal is made complete with a traditional dessert called Panforte.
In Venice, dinner consists of light dishes prepared with fresh ingredients. Venetians follow the custom of fasting and eating light, but their feasts leave nothing to want. Oven baked branzino fish and even eel can be found on the menu as well as fried octopus, squid ink risotto, creamed codfish and various grilled fish are just some of the bountiful menu items you will find at a Venetian Christmas eve meal.
While each region may celebrate with its own unique recipes, La Vigilia, or the Feast of Seven Fishes, is an occasion for fasting from meat in the name of celebration. Each course is thoughtfully prepared and presented, while families reflect on the previous year and offer blessings for the year to come.