La Festa Dei Sette Pesci—or The Feast of Seven Fishes, is a Christmas Eve meal steeped in religious and Italian cultural traditions. The number of fish served—seven— and the practice of abstaining from meat on Sundays, and holidays, are both of Roman Catholic origin: think seven deadly sins, seven sacraments, and seven days to create the world! Culinarily, the feast remains a southern regional tradition in Italy—Campagna, Lazio, Molise, Puglia, and the island of Sicily —where fish is abundant and locally caught. And for Italian Americans with roots that reach back to Sicily and the south, fish, and the multitude of ways to express it as a Christmas Eve delicacy seven times over is a tradition full of nostalgia for the "old country."
If creating an Italian Christmas Eve dinner centered on seafood seems daunting; we've got you covered! Here are a dozen ideas —for the twelve days of Christmas, of course—to incorporate into your Feast of Seven Fishes this year. Each dish celebrates the simplicity of fresh seafood, with preparations that come together in minutes or are easy to prep beforehand, giving you the space to enjoy your family and friends. Pick from each category to create a memorable feast!
This warm anchovy dip hails from Piedmont and is made with anchovy, garlic, and olive oil. The anchovies melt into the oil, creating a rich, umami flavor. Serve with raw, fresh winter vegetables, such as radicchio, fennel, and radishes.
Cozze in Marinara:
Get a hold of the freshest mussels you can find, and in a large pot, add your house-made sauce, plenty of sliced garlic, freshly chopped parsley, and 1 cup of white wine. Steam until the mussels open and serve with bread for dipping.
The secret to a fantastic shrimp cocktail is a two-parter: First, peel and use the shells to make a quick shrimp broth to poach the shrimp. Second, after cooking, refrigerate the shrimp overnight so they are well chilled before serving.
Precooking the clams, removing the meat from the shell, and then chopping and folding them into a compound of butter, breadcrumbs, and herbs for stuffing means you can prep these beauties 1 day in advance, and bake them on Christmas Eve.
Spaghetti with Colatura di Alici:
Aged and fermented anchovies release their juice to make “colatura”—or “pouring”— a fish sauce that goes back to ancient times. It's an expensive ingredient, but when paired with the simplicity of spaghetti, red pepper flakes, and garlic, it's unforgettable.
Stuffed pasta makes a beautiful presentation on a holiday table, but lobster ravioli has an elegance that makes it unique for Christmas Eve. If using storebought, pair lobster ravioli with a light butter or tomato sauce, to allow the lobster flavor to shine.
Linguini with Crab Meat:
Fresh jumbo lump crabmeat is best, but if it’s not available in your part of the world, use a high-quality canned crab. And here's a trick for picking through the meat to remove any shells; spread the crab on a baking sheet and broil for 30 seconds, and the shells will reveal themselves for picking.
Seafood Pasta al Forno:
If there is ever one rule to break, it's preparing seafood pasta with cheese to make a decadent pasta al forno; shellfish, such as scallops, lobster, and crab, offer richness. Swap out ricotta and mozzarella, for a blend of fontina, with lighter mascarpone.
Whole Grilled Sea Bass, Branzino, or Trout:
Season the cavity of whole fish with salt and pepper and fill it with fresh herbs, slather it with olive oil, and lay lemon slices across the top. Roast on a rimmed baking sheet for 400° F, or until the fish flakes easily with a fork, and serve as an elegant main course.
Octopus, calamari, and hearty pieces of white fish shine in this traditional Livornese fish stew that everyone will love. It's fragrant with herbs, garlic, and tomato, and the broth renders the calamari and octopus very tender.
Look for large day boat scallops, which are sweeter in flavor. Dry them well and prepare them simply. Place a pan over high heat. Add two tablespoons of olive oil, and place scallops in the pan, being careful not to overcrowd. Cook undisturbed for 2 minutes. Flip and sear one more minute. Done. Serve with a lemon-butter sauce
Buying salted bacalà and then soaking it in cold water over several days is the way to go to recreate an old-school Italian American dish! Dredge the pieces in a simple batter of flour, egg, and black pepper (since the cod retains salt) and fry crispy. Lemon wedges are a must.
Theresa Gambacorta is a writer and cookbook co-author. Her writing has appeared in such titles as La Cucina Italiana, Spin Magazine, Men's Fitness, Muscle and Fitness, and Centennial's special interest publications. She is the co-author of chef Joey Campanaro's Big Love Cooking (Chronicle, 2020), chef Nasim Alikhani's Sofreh (Knopf, 2023), and the forthcoming vegan cookbook, Eat What Elephants Eat by activist Dominick Thompson (Simon Element, 2024).