Feast Of The Seven Fishes
This elaborate feast is an enormous endeavor. One can imagine that in Italy, where it is not uncommon for extended families to live under the same roof, the workload is spread around, but it doesn't always work that way in this country. Two members of my family, for example, are very young, very wiggly, and very difficult to separate from the Christmas tree. In the past few years, then, we haven't been able to make it back to Katonah for the occasion, so I've been creating a Cena della Vigilia on my own. I've learned a lot from my father, of course. For years, I watched him duplicate my grandmother's menu: a platter with stuffed clams, stuffed mussels, fried squid, and fried whitebait, followed by linguine with crabs, cuttlefish with peas, and a whole roasted or broiled fish. One year, though, we stared down our last uneaten cod. Not only was this too much fish too late in the feast, but it was too much of a mess for a large gathering. That was the year my father got serious about tailoring his menu to Americans, who, even on holidays, don't eat like Italians. "I needed a more logical presentation, with less complicated, less rich recipes," he tells me. The art of the meal, he explains, is to feed your guests in a modest, steady flow, without filling them up. With that goal in mind, he started serving assorted antipasti on one plate, then a pasta course, and then the main dish. "For years, I thought Cena della Vigilia was a feast of abundance," says my father, "but it's not. It's a feast of celebration in restraint."
My father always starts the evening at his house with champagne and fried whitebait. While he cooks, people chat in the kitchen, help set the table, peruse his handmade menus. We're a smaller group in my home, and it's not practical for me to serve an appetizer that I have to stand over. Instead, I make a simple gravlax in advance and serve it with a dollop of sweetened mustard sauce. I know it's not Italian, but it is fish, and it works. My antipasti include four items: cappesante al pesto, seared scallops in pesto (I offer one to three scallops per serving, depending on their size); ostrice ripiene, stuffed and broiled oysters, which I prefer to clams because they are easier to open; caponata alla siciliana, eggplant salad with tuna; and insalata di scampi e peperoni arrosti, salad of steamed shrimp with roasted red peppers and mint.
For the pasta course I make linguine con aragosta, linguine with lobster sauce. I keep the proportions small, La Vigilia–size, and I merely toss the linguine in sauce and garnish each serving with a lobster medallion or two—keeping whatever lobster meat is left over for a salad the next day.
My great-grandfather used to say there is always room for two kilos of fish after any great meal, and if all goes according to plan, my guests still have room for brodetto alla san benedettese, a piquant fish stew I like to make with monkfish, whiting, shrimp, mussels, peppers, and tomatoes. I spoon it on bruschetta, the only bread I serve for the meal, because I like the textural contrast of the seafood and the toast. That makes more than seven fish, but I only count the monkfish for the brodetto. In my mind, it's the star of the stew.
For La Vigilia dessert, many Italians unveil panettone. My grandmother, however, used to make calcionetti, a fried pastry filled with chickpeas, almonds, walnuts, and chocolate and flavored with orange rind, cinnamon, and honey. That's too much for me, and I've learned that people dread being served heavy desserts after a big meal like this. So I spread crÍpes with Meyer lemon marmalade—I always make a big batch this time of year—for an elegant, sweet-tart denouement. Again, crÍpes aren't particularly Italian, but part of the pleasure of this meal is adapting it to one's personal tastes.
On Christmas Day, my father and I, each knee-high in gift wrapping, ribbons, and Styrofoam peanuts, talk on the phone. We break down our respective dinners in blow-by-blow renderings, like two sports buffs discussing a big game. During these conversations, we share not only a tradition, but also our individuality. The custom of La Vigilia is energized whenever a new generation takes it on. As it is carried on into the future, my grandmother and my father and every one of my ancestors who has added his or her imprint on the meal dines with us.