The Italian-American tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is an abundant and sumptuous affair. But if it's not something that's been a part of your family's tradition, all that seafood, pasta and slow-simmered sauce can be overwhelming–especially for those with a bit of a pesce-phobia when it comes to actually cooking critters from the sea.
Many folks aren't even sure why they do the annual seafood bonanza. Stemming from the Roman Catholic tradition of not eating meat before certain holidays and on Fridays, fish dishes became the popular alternative. Though Italians in Italy do observe a pescatarian pleasure on the night before Christmas, they more commonly refer to it as La Vigilia or "The Eve," while The Feast of Seven Fishes as we know it is an Italian-American thing—and what a thing it is! Though the meaning behind the number seven is unknown (it's a popular number in the Bible), it’s really more of a suggestion. At some tables you'll see the number going up to thirteen (a lucky number for Italians), or down to one like when my own family is feeling like underachievers!
If your family’s not Italian-American, but want to capture that Scorsese picture-perfect gathering, try these recipes from some of NYC’s most iconic red sauce joints. They'll even make it easy and make the sauce–ahem, gravy–for you!
The restaurant: Rao’s
Located in Harlem, New York, since 1896, Rao’s is one of the oldest family-owned restaurants still in its original location. Known for being close-knit with the community, it’s nearly impossible to get a table unless you know a regular. Their newer locations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles let you score a table like you’re family. Get their sauce here.
The dish: Zuppa di Vongole
“The Zuppa di Vongole is a staple at all the Rao’s restaurants. While preparing this at home, you can also cook some linguine, remove the opened clams from the sauté pan and add the cooked pasta—raise the flame to high for a minute, tossing the pasta and sauce together until pasta is evenly coated, plate and adorn the cooked clams atop the dish and serve.”– Frank Pellegrino Jr, fourth-generation owner of Rao's
¼ cup olive oil
3 to 4 garlic cloves, smashed
36 littleneck clams, cleaned
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup Rao’s Homemade® Marinara Sauce
2 cups bottled clam juice
1 cup dry white wine
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the clams and give them a quick toss, adding a pinch of salt.
2. Add the clam juice and wine, Rao’s Homemade® Marinara Sauce, and the red pepper flakes, if using. Increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Reduce to low, and simmer for 7 minutes. Cover and cook 5 minutes more, or until the clams have opened and the sauce has reduced by half. Discard any clams that do no open. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
3. Using tongs, transfer the clams to a large serving bowl. Pour the sauce over the clams and serve hot.
4. Garnish with freshly chopped Italian parsley and serve with fresh bread.
The restaurant: The Original Vincent's
Located in New York's Little Italy neighborhood, The Original Vincent's started as a seafood pushcart in the late 1800's. In 1904, the restaurant opened in the same spot as Vincent's Clam House and has fed famous patrons such as Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Robert DeNiro. Get their sauce here.
The dish: Baccala
"Baccala is a traditional fish served on Christmas Eve. You can also serve it with pasta, but I just like it with some lemon" – Vincent Generoso, General Manager of The Original Vincent's
Salt cod (baccala)
1. Soak cod in salted water for six to twelve hours
2. Rinse cod
3. Deep fry
4. Sprinkle with lemon and serve with lemon slices or add tomato sauce if desired.
The restaurant: Patsy’s Italian Restaurant
Patsy's has been located near Manhattan's Theater District since 1944. Known for being Frank Sinatra's favorite restaurant, the singer often requested the owner ship dishes to him in Las Vegas or California so he could enjoy their food when outside of New York. Get their sauce here.
The dish: Insalata di Frutti di Mare:
“This is something we always had for the Feast of Seven Fishes ever since I was little at my grandparents’ house. As a kid, I never ate fish dishes, kids never like fish, and this was one of the first fish dishes I ever ate when my grandpa had me try it.” – Sal Scognamillo, third-generation owner of Patsy's Italian Restaurant
1 pound calamari, cleaned and cut into ½-inch rings
8 jumbo shrimp (21/25 count), peeled and deveined
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup fresh basil chiffonade
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ pounds of octopus, cooked, chilled, and cut into bite size pieces
One 29-ounce can ready-to-eat scungilli, drained, rinsed, and chilled
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
4 celery ribs, cut into ½-inch dice
24 pitted Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the calamari and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for about 25 minutes or until tender. Using a wire strainer, transfer the calamari to a large bowl of iced water.
2. Add the shrimp to the water and cook just until they turn opaque and firm, about 4 minutes. Drain in a colander and transfer to the bowl with the calamari. Let stand until they cool, about 15 minutes. Drain again and pat dry with paper towers.
3. Whisk the lemon juice, garlic, and basil in a large bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil. Add the cooled calamari and shrimp with the octopus, scungilli, tomatoes, celery, and olives. Mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until lightly chilled, about 30 minutes. Serve cold.
The restaurant: Michael’s of Brooklyn
Michael’s of Brooklyn started as a pizzeria in 1964, but quickly evolved into a fine-dining classic. In addition to the restaurant, the family also has a beloved pastry shop across the street. Get their sauce here.
The dish: Fisherman’s Platter (a.k.a. The Feast of the Seven Fishes)
"The Fisherman Platter was one of the original dishes added to the Michael's of Brooklyn menu when my grandfather transitioned from a pizzeria to a fine-dining Italian restaurant in the late 1960’s. It’s enjoyed by hundreds of people every month here at our restaurant in Brooklyn. Now that our Marinara sauce is available nationwide, it can be enjoyed by people across the country!" –Michael Cacace, third-generation owner of Michael's of Brooklyn
1 lobster tail (split into two halves)
2 large shrimp
1 pulpo (octopus) cut in half
4 little neck clams
2 sea scallops
1. Heat pan and add olive oil
2. Add sliced garlic
3. Add seafood
4. Open jar of Michael's of Brooklyn Marinara Sauce and add to pan, lower flame and allow to simmer with cover on. Michael's of Brooklyn Arrabiatta Sauce can also be used if a spicy dish is desired
5. Cook any long cut of pasta separately till al dente
6. Strain pasta from the water and add just enough of the sauce to the pasta and heat over fire to coat.
7. Plate your pasta and add all your seafood.
8. Enjoy with a nice bottle of Fiano di Avelino (Per Michael!)