Carla Lalli Music can’t remember a time when her family didn’t celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes. “I have a lot of memories growing up of a lot of drunk adults at two in the morning opening presents in the living room,” the video host and cookbook author says.
While Christmas Day may serve as the main event for most Christians during the holiday season, for Italian-Americans, it’s Christmas Eve, when the Feast of the Seven Fishes takes place. Instead of fare like meat, potatoes, biscuits, and gravy, the feast consists of a series of dishes that highlight the sea’s bounty: shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, salt cod, mixed seafood soups and salads, whole roasted fish...anything is game, since there aren’t any rules, per se, other than that fish is the theme. This year, we’ve put together a host of seafood-heavy recipes—some new, some from our archive—that can serve as the inspiration for your own feast.
The origins of the feast are a little hazy, but the tradition of serving seafood on Christmas Eve was brought to the US by Italian immigrants in the early 1900s. According to Ken Albala, author and professor of history at the University of the Pacific, avoiding meat the day before a holy holiday is common practice for Christians, and since Southern Italians had a lot of seafood available to them, that's what they would eat. “The logic of avoiding meat was entirely a medical one,” Albala says. It was believed that excess nutrition from meat would either turn into fat if you weren’t active (or sperm if you were, thereby increasing your sex drive and tempting you to sin). “It’s not because they wanted to be vegetarian or they cared about animals,” Albala says. “It’s just that they thought that avoiding meat would keep you from getting horny—that’s all there is to it.” The number seven is believed to be derived from the Bible, where it has many meanings—the number of sacraments, days of creation, and even the deadly sins.
The number in any case isn't prescriptive, and the celebratory menu varies from family to family. Some follow a rule of serving seven or 12 courses or types of fish, but many set their own precedent and present any number of fish. Music’s family likes to eat spaghetti with white clam sauce and artichoke-stuffed salmon for a couple of their courses every year, while Grace Parisi, the Culinary Director of Sitka Salmon Shares, a seafood subscription service offering a holiday gift box for the feast this year, remembers her mom serving a big batch of seafood pasta that featured a fresh tomato sauce and fish like squid, shrimp, mussels, and lobster and crab meat.
That said, some dishes, like salt cod, are staples at most families' meals. Italians refer to salt cod as baccalà, and it can be prepared a number of ways—senior culinary editor Sasha Marx’s recipe for baccalà alla Napoletana features the cured fish braised in a punchy and funky puttanesca-like sauce with olives and capers. There’s mantecato, which is very similar to brandade, and consists of the cooked, flaked fish whipped with potatoes, milk, and olive oil; crispy fried cod, which is exactly what it sounds like; and you can even incorporate it into a salad, like Music’s mother does, tossing it with cherry tomatoes, olives, and lemon juice.
Another common thread across many iterations of the feast is a focus on the importance of gathering with family. Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli, owners of New York City's renowned Italian restaurant Don Angie, do actually celebrate with some meat—sausage and meatballs, specifically—and Rito recalls her and her brother rolling meatballs in the kitchen with their grandmother from an early age.
“I start thinking about Christmas in July every year."
Preparation for the feast can begin anywhere from days to weeks ahead, with some families planning months in advance. Since Rito’s grandmother hosted the feast in Cleveland every year (where access to some fish was limited), Tacinelli started sending fish from New York in recent years.
“I start thinking about Christmas in July every year,” Rito says. “It’s all in being organized with your prep and order of operations, because it is such an undertaking,” For those hosting the feast for the first time, she suggests preparing things to a point and then refrigerating or freezing them to prolong their shelf life.
“For example,” Tacinelli says, “we’ve made the topping for our clams and put it in a Ziploc and froze [sic] it. Then, the day of, all you need to do is open clams, put the topping on them, and put them in the oven.”
There are also plenty of dishes that get better as they sit, like insalata di mare, or can be served at room temperature, like the brandade. First-timers may want to steer clear of fried dishes like calamari since frying can be a messy and time-consuming process. If you’re making a risotto, like Senior Culinary Editor Sasha Marx’s risotto alla crema di scampi, Culinary Director Daniel Gritzer recommends paying special attention to keeping it loose, since it will only get thicker as it sits.
And Music’s memories ring true—alcohol is also part of the feast, with many families serving wine during the meal and digestivos after. Rito’s grandfather serves his homemade wine, as well as a rather unexpected digestivo.
“Before Jagermeister in the ‘90s became this weird college drink, he started drinking Jagermeister as a digestivo,” she says. “He’ll line up shots of Jager on the bar, and it’s just a very convivial celebration.”
Music says her family tends to end the night with a round (or two) of Grappa, although she has a note of caution to those celebrating the meal for the first time. “If grappa sounds like a good idea, that means you definitely shouldn’t have any,” she says. “Because grappa only sounds like a good idea if you’re already drunk.”
As with the rest of the feast, there’s no hard-and-fast rule about what to serve for dessert—everything from tiramisu to Italian cheesecake, and of course, Christmas cookies, are fair game. Parisi says she serves anywhere from six to ten varieties of cookies, noting, “I don’t know if there’s any other culture that I’m aware of that is as rabid a Christmas cookie culture as Italian Americans.” Rito and Tacinelli, on the other hand, get into cannoli and honey zeppole at their celebration.
"It's a religious experience, being able to eat all that delicious, amazing fish."
Music, Parisi, Rito, and Tacinelli all look forward to the day each year, carrying on the tradition no matter what. To all of them, the Feast of the Seven Fishes serves as a celebration of food, family, and community—something sacred that’s deeply rooted in Italian culture.
“It’s a religious experience," Parisi says, "being able to eat all that delicious, amazing fish."
The Serious Eats Feast of the Seven Fishes
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a celebration with very few rules, aside from the fact that you're feasting on fishes. While there are some popular Italian-American dishes like lobster fra diavolo frequently on the table, the menu really is up to you. The recipes we’ve provided are meant to serve as a jumping off point to help you create a balanced meal. Daniel and Sasha walked us through the preparations of various courses and dishes so that you can make the most efficient use of your time and kitchen when preparing your feast. Once your menu is set, check out our guide to shopping for sustainable seafood.
Appetizers & Small Bites
“The first couple of dishes you serve are an opportunity to knock out a lot of the fish on the menu,” Daniel says, especially if you’re committed to serving seven kinds of seafood.
Don’t fret too much about making everything from scratch—this is the perfect time to pull out some of the high-quality tinned seafood you’ve been saving for something special. And if you aren't limiting yourself to serving strictly Italian or Italian-American dishes, shrimp cocktail or oysters on the half-shell are quick and easy to put together. Even clams casino can be prepped and left in the fridge until it’s time to pop them in the oven and serve.
If you don’t mind putting in a little more effort, insalata di mare is a great dish to serve that can also be made ahead of time since it gets better as it sits. Fried finger foods like salt cod (more on that soon!) and fritto misto require the most attention, but being thoughtful about the order in which you fry is helpful: the salt cod fillets should go first since they won’t gunk up the oil, while the other seafood should go last since they’re dredged in flour. Make sure to serve these fried foods immediately, as they’re best enjoyed hot.
- Clams Casino
- Fried Calamari
- Fritto Misto di Mare (Fried Mixed Seafood)
- Italian Seafood Salad (Insalata di Mare)
- Plump and Tender Shrimp Cocktail
- Shrimp Scampi With Garlic, Red Pepper Flakes, and Herbs
- Spicy Steamed Mussels With 'Nduja
Pastas & Risottos
Timing is crucial when it comes to serving pastas and risottos. “You’re making a lot of one thing and serving it all at once,” Sasha says. It can be hard to have everything ready at the right time, but the key is to choose dishes that allow for most of the prep to be done in advance, like fra diavolo, where both the sauce and the lobster can easily be made ahead of time.
Risotto can be parcooked for six to seven minutes and then placed on chilled sheet trays and left in the fridge. When it's time to serve, just add more stock to loosen up the rice and you can finish cooking the risotto from where you left off. When you're ready to serve the risotto, Daniel recommends heating your serving plates in a low oven (if it’s free) to keep the risotto from setting; this is particularly important if you're serving a lot of people, since it takes time to get the risotto on plates and get them out to the table.
When serving pasta, note that it's better to plate olive oil-based pastas like spaghetti alle vongole to avoid making a mess and ensure more even distribution of the clams among guests, while something like fra diavolo makes a nice presentation on a large platter.
- Lobster Fra Diavolo
- Pasta c'Anciuova e Muddica Atturrata (Sicilian Pasta With Anchovies and Toasted Breadcrumbs)
- Pasta con la Bottarga (Pasta With Bottarga)
- Pasta Con le Sarde (Sicilian Pasta With Sardines)
- Pasta With Swordfish, Tomato, and Eggplant (Rigatoni Con Pesce Spada)
- Risotto ai Gamberi (Shrimp Risotto)
- Shrimp Fra Diavolo (Shrimp and Pasta with Spicy Tomato Sauce)
- Spaghetti alle Vongole in Bianco (With White Clam Sauce)
- Spaghetti allo Scoglio (Spaghetti With Mixed Seafood)
Though both of the salt cod dishes Serious Eats created for this celebration (Filetti di Baccalà and Baccalà alla Napoletana) could technically fit into the above or below categories, the fish is such a staple at this meal that it gets its own. "You can find families who don't do [salt cod] for Seven Fishes," Daniel says, "but it's a mainstay for most people."
- Baccalà alla Napoletana (Neapolitan-Style Braised Salt Cod With Tomatoes, Olives, and Capers)
- Filetti di Baccalà (Roman-Style Fried Salt Cod Fillets)
- Whipped Salt Cod Spread (Brandade de Morue/Baccalà Mantecato)
Mains (Braises, Roasts & Stews)
Unlike a celebration like Thanksgiving, there’s no dish that serves as a centerpiece. “A whole-roasted fish is not a stand-in for a turkey,” Sasha says. “It’s one of many things that gets served.”
If you’re serving multiple mains, Daniel suggests choosing ones that can be made mostly in advance or offers some other form of convenience. A seafood stew like cioppino can simmer on the stove with little supervision. Piccata is a one-skillet dish that allows you to cook the fish and make the sauce in the same pan. A whole-roasted fish can be prepped on a sheet-pan well in advance and left in the fridge until it’s ready to cook—pop it in the oven while your guests are finishing their pasta course. It cooks quickly and eats well at room temperature—just make sure you know how to filet it.
- Agghiotta di Pesce Spada (Sicilian Braised Swordfish With Tomatoes and Olives)
- Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew)
- Fish Piccata
- Salt-Baked Whole Fish With Fresh Herbs
- Whole Roasted Fish With Fresh Herbs and Lemon
For dessert, it’s best to keep things simple, especially after such a big meal. Making cookies a week or two in advance is one way to make it easy for yourself. Other desserts, like tiramisu or panna cotta, can be made ahead of time. At the end of the day, you’ll have spent so much time in the kitchen preparing the other courses that you may just be better off buying dessert or asking your guests to bring something—there’s no shame in that!
When it comes to hosting your own Feast of the Seven Fishes at home—whether it’s for a few guests or a crowd—feel free to make it your own. “If you want to do this for two people, make one pasta and a fish main,” Sasha says. “The more people, the more dishes. Seven is not a magic number.”