For those who celebrate Christmas, so much of the season builds up to the main event: Dec. 25. Christmas Eve is often an after-thought, a time to put gifts under the tree or scramble for last-minute presents and sparse parking spots at stores.
But some find the idea of glossing over Christmas Eve a bit, well, fishy. Some families, particularly Italian Americans, consider Dec. 24 a main course of the holiday season. Each year, families gather around the table for the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
“You eat every type of Crustacean possible,” said Will Horowitz of Anker in Greenport, which will host a Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.
Typically, the multi-course meal will include seven types of fish. Some families do 12 fish to represent the 12 apostles, Jesus Christ’s closest followers. There may be snacks, salads and stews served on small plates and large plates. Truly, the rules for the Feast of the Seven Fishes are off the table. Custom is king.
“It’s very family-specific,” says Greg George, vice president of operations at Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian Tapas in Garden City, which hosts a Feast of the Seven Fishes throughout December. “It’s about tradition. It’s like a Thanksgiving menu in your home. You probably have pretty much the same thing every year.”
It’s that coming together that ties each feast together.
“I grew up in a world where it was a really big deal for people to get together,” Horowitz said. “[The feast] is interactive, whether you are cracking lobster or eating a platter of smoked fish, it’s something worth coming together for.”
Four Long Islanders served up suggestions for people looking to start a Feast of the Seven Fishes tradition or up the ante on the one they currently host this year.
“There’s a lot of laughter … You commit yourself to the day, night, afternoon.”Donna Lanzetta
Families will often serve recipes passed down through generations. Horowitz says shrimp and baccalà (salted cod fish) are popular.
Donna Lanzetta, co-owner of Manna at Lobster Inn in Southampton, said Frutti di Mare is a must at her feast.
“It can be spicy or not spicy,” she said. “You mix in any seafood into this dish and serve it over linguine or fettuccini. It’s absolutely delicious.”
Manna at Lobster Inn is hosting a Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve this year and the Frutti di Mare is the fourth course. The restaurant’s version will be a bit spicy, courtesy of a Pomodoro sauce, and include mussels, clams, lobster and crab over linguine.
Cod balls and clams with spaghetti are other favorites of Lanzetta’s, and anchovies frequently make her family’s menu — though she wasn’t always a fan.
“The adults would try to get the kids to eat it,” she said. “Everyone would laugh. It was an activity in that sense.”
George says Spuntino’s menu typically includes soup and stews (this year it’s lobster bisque) and seafood salads, like Gamberi All’aglio with shrimp, garlic and white wine lemon butter sauce.
Don’t Forget the Wine
Seafood often calls for whites and rosés, but Sag Harbor restaurateur Ryunosuke Jesse Matsuoka, a partner at Manna at Lobster Inn, tells folks not to rule out red.
“One of the varietals on Long Island that I think is fantastic and not known enough is Cabernet Franc, which is a beautiful grape that represents a little bit of spice,” Matsuoka says. “It’s almost kind of like Malbec, but it has the smoothness and robustness of a Cabernet Sauvignon. When it comes to the seven fishes, it’s a great way to pair with those items without overtaking.”
At Manna at Lobster Inn, Paumanok’s Cabernet Franc is the suggested pairing for the Frutti di Mare. Matsuoka is also a fan of McCall’s.
For something lighter, try a rosé; one from Wölffer Estate makes Spuntino’s menu — it’s paired with the Gamberi All’aglio.
Say Yes to Dessert
After all that eating, you might think dessert is off the menu. Think again.
Lanzetta says her mother’s cheesecake is a tradition in her home. Tiramisu and cannolis are two other favorites.
“Sometimes, we will have cheeses and chopped pieces of fennel and roasted chestnuts,” she said.
George empathizes with the “too-stuffed-for-dessert” crowd, but says it’s possible to have your fish and still have a sweet treat, too.
“I’d probably end with something lighter, like some fruit, some Bbscotti or sorbet,” he said.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes involves a ton of food, but it’s a marathon meal and not a sprint.
George says some courses will often come on smaller plates, like tapas. Lanzetta says her family stretches things out simply by enjoying one another’s company.
“There’s … a lot of laughter in between,” she says. “You commit yourself to the day, night, afternoon.”
Lanzetta says taking time to clear off the table between courses and wash dishes slowly also helps.
After all that eating on Christmas Eve, do families rinse, wash and repeat the following day?
“Speaking from my family, oh yes, we do,” Lanzetta said with a laugh. “Christmas Day [foods include] gravy, meatballs, roast pork, a stuffed shell or lasagna. Sometimes, we do a whole prime rib roast and ravioli.”
Create a Vibe
Food is at the head of the table during the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but the more festive you can make it, the merrier.
“Ambiance is a key component of building things up,” Matsuoka says.
At Manna at Lobster Inn, the place is decorated for Christmas, and holiday tunes play in the background. Matsuoka suggests lighting a fireplace if you have one.
Families can also stretch the night out by adding games.
“These days, with all the games on our phones, I think a lot of families play Head’s Up,” Matsuoka says. “It can be family-friendly, and they also have some R-rated versions once people get a little relaxed, older and buzzed with adult drinks.”
Matsuoka said a game of charades is also popular and Lanzetta’s family loves the card game Pokeno.
“It is really a way to extend the table time if you wanted to sit for another couple of hours,” she said.
If you need help with this year’s menu, George shared two recipes from Spuntino’s feast.
Serves 2 as part of a multi-course meal
4 oz. Red snapper filet
1/2 fl. oz. Olive oil
1/4 tsp. Sea salt
1/4 tsp. Ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. Pineapple could
1 Tbsp. Swiss chard
1/8 oz. Chives
1. Cut the filet into two fences to share and season with salt and pepper.
2. Add 1/2 fl. oz. of olive oil to a hot pan. Add snapper, skin-side up, and sear for three minutes.
3. Flip and cook for three more minutes to crisp the skin.
4. Start the plate with the pineapple couli on the bottom,
5. Arrange the Swiss chard on the center of the plate.
6. Place the snapper on top of the Swiss chard.
7. Garnish the chives.
Crab Cake Batch
2 lbs. Lump crab meat
2 Tbsp. Old Bay seasoning
1 Tbsp. Whole grain mustard
1/2 cup Seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 tsp. Sea salt
1/4 tsp. Ground black pepper
1. Pick through crab meat to remove any shells.
2. Mix all of the ingredients together.
3. Portion into 1.5 oz. crab cakes.
4. Chill until serving.
5. When you’re ready to serve, sear in pan and warm in oven.
Matsuoka and Lanzetta shared two of their own.
Frutti di Mare
3 oz. Red crab meat
3 oz. Lobster claws and knuckles
4 oz. Linguini
4 oz. Marinara
½ Tbsp. Garlic
1 Tbsp. Olive oil
1. Boil a pot of water for pasta.
2. Once water is boiling, throw in your pasta. Cook for eight minutes and strain. Save some pasta water for the sauce.
3. Add oil and garlic to a pan and place over medium heat.
4. Once golden brown, add clams, mussels, 1 oz. of sauce and 1 oz. of pasta water and cover.
5. When clams and mussels are open, add all other ingredients and cook for two to three minutes.
20 grams Thinly sliced Bronzino
2 Tbsp. Lemon juice
1 tsp. Sugar
2 Tbsp. Olive oil
1 Thai Chili thinly sliced
4 Leaves basil, finely chopped
Maldon sea salt to taste
1. Whisk together lemon juice, sugar and oil.
2. Roll some sea salt and basil inside the Bronzino.
3. Drizzle dressing over Bronzino.
4. Garnish with remaining basil, Thai chilies and sea salt.