VENTNOR – The Christmas holiday starts one day earlier for many Italian-Americans. La Vigilia de Natale, or Christmas Eve vigil to most Italians, starts early in the morning on Dec. 24 with preparations for the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Long-gone are the days when Roman Catholics were prohibited from eating meat on Friday or on the eve of Holy Days of Obligation, but for local Italian-Americans, the Christmas tradition endures. Fasting is observed all day long until dinnertime, when everyone eats at least seven different kinds of fishes to celebrate the arrival of the Christ Child.
Not all who practice the ritual are Italian, however. Rosemarie Fitzgerald of Ventnor and Haddon Heights is Irish and makes the fishes for about 14 family members at her Haddon Heights home.
“There’s hardly an Italian at the table,” she said. “But no one ever turns down the invitation.”
She first started eating the fishes at the home of Evelyn and Jack Howell of Longport when she first started dating her husband, who has since passed on.
“I was married at age 19 to Ed Fitzgerald, whose mother was Italian and from South Philly,” she said.
At her first vigilia at the Howell residence, she couldn’t get over the “sheer volume of food,” she said. She returned year after year, later with four children in tow, first going to the beach to look at the ocean and then to the Howells for dinner at 5 p.m.
“She always served a thin crust pizza with anchovies, soaked the baccala (salt dried cod) for days, and served linguini with clam sauce and platters of flounder,” Fitzgerald said.
When the Howells passed on, Fitzgerald took up the tradition, serving many of the same foods to family and friends, some with only a smidgeon of Italian heritage. She makes many of the same dishes but added an antipasto platter of tuna and anchovies, spaghetti with crab sauce, and mussels and clams. She also added zeppole, or little pieces of fried bread dough, as the only bread on the table.
“I still make the smelts, although no one ever eats them, and my version of the thin crust pizza comes from Dominos with anchovies in the four corners,” she said. “Believe it or not, it’s the closest to what my aunt would make.”
For those who would rather wrap presents than spend eight to 10 hours in the kitchen, the Red Room Café on Dorset Avenue will be serving up a limited edition of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve.
Owner Maria Gatta’s mother Madeline Picariello, who was born in Italy and emigrated to the U.S. from Bari on the southern part of the boot near the Adriatic Sea, said it’s an Italian tradition not to eat meat the day before a religious holiday.
She named a list of dishes that her sister in Northeast Philadelphia provides each year, including fritto misto; broccoli rabe; merluza, which is whiting; and capitone, which is fried eel. Some say it tastes just like chicken.
“My mother used to roast it on skewers with a little bay leaf,” she said.
According to Maria LoPinto and Milo Miloradovich, who published their cookbook, “The Art of Italian Cooking” in 1948, the holiday is ushered in with dinner served late, before midnight Mass.
“In many households, it has become the custom to eat only capetone, a species of large thick eels. This meal is not an elaborate one and it has an air of solemn festivity,” they wrote in the chapter on customs and festivals.
Barbera’s Fish Market in Atlantic City is the “seven fishes headquarters,” owner Dominic Alcaro said.
He will be supplying eels, cleaned and cut, starting on Thursday for $13.99 a pound. Alcaro said he ceremoniously cleans the slippery eels for his customers.
“I put them in the freezer for about five minutes to slow them down a bit. Sometimes I have to bang them around a bit in the sink, so I can handle them. It’s kinda sad, but that’s what you’ve got to do to be able to skin them and gut them,” he said.
No one knows the meaning behind the number seven, but Picariello’s son-in-law Jack Gatta, who helps his son Vincent, the chef, in the kitchen at the restaurant, said it could be for a variety of reasons.
“They say it’s the seven sacraments or the seven deadly sins,” but the Feast of the Seven Fishes is more American, than Italian, he said.
Some believe the number seven represents the number days it took God to create the world, the Seven Hills of Rome or the number of Apostles who were fishermen. But one thing is sure, no meat will be consumed on Christmas Eve and the central dish is always fish.
“It’s not seven fishes in Italy,” he said. “We just made a lot of fish. People didn’t have a lot back then, so on holidays they would splurge and buy the fishes.”
He didn’t like fish as a child, so at midnight, after the vigil was over, his mother would bring out the meatballs, he said.
Gatta, who’s been cooking at the restaurant for the last 10 years, including making his own soppressata, an Italian dried salami, said he will not be eating the seven fishes at home on Christmas Eve.
“We’ll be here. This will be our home for Christmas,” he said.
Capitone Fritto from “The Art of Italian Cooking” by Maria LoPinto and Milo Miloradovich
2 ½ lbs. thick eels
6 T. olive oil
1 C. Flour
1 tsp. chopped rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
Have eels skinned and cleaned. Cut crosswise in 3-inch pieces. Dry; roll in flour; add salt and pepper. Sprinkle with rosemary. Fry over medium flame about 10 minutes or until golden brown on both sides. Serve hot with lemon slices.
Serves 4 to 6
This is a Christmas Eve specialty.