An Italian-American Christmas Feast

Chef Marc Forgione fondly remembers the Feast of the Seven Fishes he enjoyed as a child with his Italian-American family.

Chef Marc Forgione of Restaurant Marc Forgione in New York shares memories of his family’s Christmas Eve celebration, the Feast of the Seven Fishes, in this guest post. Of all the seafood on the table, whipped bacalao was the first Marc reached for. Norwegian Bacalao continues to grace many Americans’ holiday tables during this festive time of year.  

As an Italian-American growing up on Long Island, Christmas Eve was always spent at Granny and Pop-Pop’s house, enjoying the festa dei sette pesci, or Feast of the Seven Fishes. I grew up in your typical Italian-American family: big, loud, and always arguing about who was better, the Yankees or the Mets, Democrats or Republicans. The one thing we never argued about was how much we enjoyed food and getting together. 

I remember sitting at a table that seemed as big as the Titanic, piled high with what looked like enough food to feed an army. Not a lot of eight-year-olds would get excited by a table filled with seafood, but I was a kid in the candy store—except instead of grabbing Hershey’s Kisses, I reached for bacalao (salt cod) on a piece of grilled bread. In fact, I sometimes got teased when I told other kids that one of my favorite foods was cured fish. 

One of the first things that came out on Christmas Eve was whipped bacalao served with crunchy grilled bread and radishes. That was a signal that the feast was beginning, soon to be followed by grilled squid with arugula and onion pickles. Because my dad was a chef, he was the only other person besides my grandparents who was allowed to contribute to the meal. He would always make fried halibut cheeks with a lemon aioli (the other kids at school couldn’t believe I even ate something like that). 

After the squid and the cheeks were the bigger, heartier dishes. Out came big bowl of zuppa di pesci, made from the bigger fish: salmon, cod, halibut, clams and mussels. On the side (and I know this isn’t traditional, but hey, we’re Italian-American, not Italian), were big bowls of spaghetti. We’d put spaghetti in our bowls and ladle the zuppa di pesci over it. 

Today I still enjoy serving bacalao during the holiday season, in my “fish and chips” (beer-battered brandade fritters using Norwegian Bacalao, served with tartar sauce and radish chips) or bacalao dip, pureed with potato and served with warm pita. Though the dishes are less traditional than they were when I was a kid, the taste of bacalao still brings me back to sitting around the dinner table with my family on Christmas Eve, arguing and eating.