Our take on Italy’s holiday tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes
Styled & photographed by Kara Mickelson
One of the most elaborate seafood meals of the holidays is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, known in Italy simply as La Vigilia. This Christmas Eve vigil represents the waiting before the birth of the baby Jesus. The occasion typically marks an elaborate, multi-course meal—or feast—consisting mostly of seafood and what’s considered a “fast” or no meat.
This tradition of a seafood-focused meal on Christmas Eve appears to have originated in Southern Italy. In the U.S. the event is likely a carryover tradition from Italian immigrants arriving here around the early 19th century. A definitive answer on where the reference to “seven fishes” came from is not clear, but seven is the symbolic number of charity, grace and the Holy Spirit. The number seven also is considered a physical and spiritual symbol of divine perfection, wholeness and has numerous references in scripture.
While the number seven does have religious significance, it’s not the main focus of the tradition or even a set reference to the amount of fish on the Italian-American menu. The number of courses and type of fish served is relevant more in terms of family tradition. It doesn’t have to be seven and it could be 10, 13 or some other number with a loose connection to scripture or maybe the amount of serving platters in the home. The family coming together and feasting on the eve of Christmas is really what it’s all about.
The family tradition and meal selection is often passed down through generations. The type of seafood served ranges from fresh to cured with any possible method of cooking, although lightly fried is a popular choice. The menu was based on what your family could afford and what fresh seafood was available, so the type of fish was not as culturally important as, say, a turkey is to Thanksgiving. However, some may serve lobster or eel, and a meal without these delicacies would likely spark a family feud.
The occasion is a communal setting with spiritual significance, but mostly it is a reflection of the strong ties to family, food and tradition that Italians are known for. And when it comes to delicious food and strong family bonds, you would be hard-pressed to say Italians don’t get it right.
For family-style service, use medium-size platters. They are big enough to hold a lot of seafood yet not too heavy to pass around the table. We suggest you opt for traditional Italian design or handmade pottery for a sophisticated look. We love ocean- and coastal-themed, handcrafted pottery and serving tools, alongside vintage, gold-trimmed cordial glasses for limoncello.
Love, Italian Style
Whether you are planning your own occasion or are an invited guest, perfect Italian-themed host and hostess gifts are abundant. A great gift idea is imported limoncello in a decorative bottle or a specialty set for decanting and serving.
Genuine limoncello must be produced from lemons grown in the Amalfi region. However, if you are ambitious you can make your own version and provide small bottle samples as takeaway gifts or a single host gift with a custom label or recipe card attached.
Italian coffee is a must. Traditionally, espresso is served after the meal. Illy is a popular brand that is easy to find at local markets, or shop online for Sant’Eustachio. We love stylish espresso cups, and a set is always a welcome gift and even better with some fresh Italian beans.
If you have ever been to Italy, you will likely remember the moment you sipped a dark, rich, warm, liquid chocolate that easily puts American hot chocolate to shame. With a click of a button you can purchase Dolce Vite Chocolatto online. Trust us, Italian hot chocolate is heavenly. However, Baci Perugina, Modica, Gianduiotto and Pernigotti chocolate bars and products are also worth sampling and can be easy gifts on their own or combined with a bottle of your favorite Italian wine.
- 25 chocolate shortbread cookies or chocolate wafer cookies (approximately 2 inches each)
- ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- ¼ cup dark brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon coarse salt
- ¼ cup unbleached pastry flour
- ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
- 1 large egg yolk
- extra cocoa powder and butter to prep pan
- ¼ cup toasted hazelnuts
- Chocolate Hazelnut Ganache Filling (recipe follows)
- Optional: edible gold leaves, found at specialty bake stores or online
Preheat oven to 325º. In a food processor pulse cookies, cocoa powder, sugar, salt and flour until combined. The texture should be like coarse crumbs. Remove mixture and place in a large bowl. Drizzle melted butter over cookie mixture and combine with your hands until the mixture holds together when pressed between two fingers. Add egg yolk and continue to mix completely. If the mixture is not holding together when pressed, add a little more melted butter—but not too much or the crust will be greasy.
Butter a 9-inch nonstick fluted tart pan with removable bottom and dust with cocoa powder. Tap tart pan to distribute cocoa evenly. Press cookie crumbs into pan. Dust fingers with cocoa powder to prevent sticking, if necessary. Create an even and uniform crust, using the bottom of a glass to help press down the crumbs. Bake at 325º on a sheet tray for 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool and chill in refrigerator before filling.
Lightly toast hazelnuts on a sheet tray in a 350º oven to enhance the flavor. Roll warm nuts in a clean kitchen towel to remove any loose skin. Reserve 6–8 whole nuts as top garnish, one per slice. Halve the remaining nuts and sprinkle on cookie crust.
Pour warm Chocolate Hazelnut Ganache Filling on top of nuts in crust. Use an offset spatula to smooth top and distribute chocolate evenly. Tap and move tart pan from side to side on countertop to remove any surface bubbles (and/or prick with a toothpick). Chill overnight in the refrigerator uncovered; carefully remove from tart pan before slicing. Top with whole hazelnuts (1 per slice) and edible gold leaf.
Chocolate Hazelnut Ganache Filling
- 1 ¾ cups whole whipping cream
- 2 cups 60% bittersweet dark chocolate chips
- 1½ tablespoons Frangelico liquor
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- ¼ cup toasted hazelnuts
In a medium saucepan, heat whipping cream to a simmer and remove from heat once the edges begin to bubble. Don’t leave cream unattended while cooking, as it might overflow. Place chocolate chips in a large, heatproof bowl. Pour cream over the chocolate chips. Let mixture rest for 10 seconds and then slowly stir, increasing speed as chips melt and the liquid begins to thicken. When the chips are completely melted and the mixture is smooth, add Frangelico and butter; stir slowly until incorporated.