Leave it to the Italians to turn a day of fasting into a day of feasting, says Patrick DePula. DePula, who grew up in New Jersey and owns Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, says the Feast of the Seven Fishes is one of the most anticipated meals of the year in his Italian family, as it is also for two of his close Italian American friends and fellow Madison chefs, Daniel Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat and Joseph Gaglio of Gotham Bagels and Gotham Provisions Co.
For Italian Americans, this feast follows the Roman Catholic custom of fasting on La Vigilia, or Christmas Eve. Families abstain from meat, serving only fish on the night before Christmas. “But somehow,” DePula says, “as Italians always do, abstaining always turns into, ‘Well, let’s just eat all the seafood.’ ”
DePula, Bonanno and Gaglio sat down over coffee recently to talk about the feasts they remember. They all quickly agreed: “We never counted dishes,” said Gaglio, who spent the first 30 years of his life on Long Island in New York. “No one ever really called it [the Feast of the Seven Fishes]. We ate a lot of fish, though.”
They remember the baccalà, the antipasto plates, shrimp cocktail, the seafood tomato sauces and, even one year, the surprise 7-pound octopus from the fish market. “I remember the bucket with the salt cod in it in the basement. I remember my grandma chopping eels one year, and the eels were alive,” DePula says.
Over coffee at Madison Sourdough, the three chefs dove headfirst into details about how they remember the dinners from the past, the Italian dialects thickening as one fond memory followed the next.
Here’s a portion of the conversation that paints a picture of the Feast of the Seven Fishes tradition:
How many people does it take to put together the feast?
Bonanno, DePula and Gaglio in unison: One mother/grandmother.
DePula: My grandmother used to do it all. She’d do it all over the course of a week before Christmas. She’d start soaking the salt cod in the basement.
Gaglio: They’d break every sanitation rule you could imagine. The calamari and tomato sauce would sit on top of the stove for, like, 12 hours. Nobody ever got sick.
Bonanno: Absolutely not—Jesus protected you.
Gaglio: It’s a religious feast, there’s no food poisoning allowed.
Have you always helped prepare the meal?
DePula: I always helped and was fascinated and wanted to help as a kid. These guys probably did too. I was always more interested in spending time with my grandma making dinner than watching TV with everyone.
Gaglio: My aunt—God rest her soul—my Aunt Marie, she passed away. She was sort of the younger generation who kept it going. So [after that] it kind of died. When I got older and started cooking, it became the most important meal of the year. We’d drive Christmas Eve morning to Fulton Fish Market and all the vendors would be there and it was like a ceremony.
Bonanno: I always remember the biggest thing was making pasta. Our mom and grandma would just have pasta laid out everywhere. [The pasta would be drying] on broomsticks. I remember helping them make that. Then we’d have a seafood sauce. My mom would make an amazing tuna, caramelized onion tomato sauce that was beautiful, it was bright. When I got involved, I got more gourmet … I wanted to do more seafood stuff, like let’s do lobster, let’s do octopus.
Was your family’s feast pretty fancy?
Gaglio: Well, my immediate family didn’t do it because we couldn’t afford it. But my father and my mother thought it was really important to—we lived on Long Island. We would drive to Brooklyn and [visit] my grandmother and my aunt and her daughter … 20 or 30 people were crammed in this 1,200-square-foot house in Brooklyn. They’d have all these different dishes. And women did all the cooking. The only thing the men did was—my Uncle Joe. He made rice pudding, and according to him, that was the best thing in the whole meal.
What's one of the non-seafood items that was always part of the feast?
Bonanno: Ours was lasagna. My grandma made like a 20-layer lasagna, super thin.
DePula: We’d make ravioli. My grandma would sit at a table and she’d get all us kids, my cousins and I, sitting around the table helping make ravioli. But our meals were always dictated by my grandfather. If he didn’t like it, we didn’t have it. Period.
Gaglio: It’s funny that it was always ravioli for you. In my family it was baked ziti. It was like, today’s Thanksgiving, what are we having for an appetizer? Baked ziti! We’re having a ham on Christmas Day. What’s the appetizer? Baked ziti! It didn’t matter. Fourth of July, hotdogs and hamburgers. What else we got? Baked ziti! Even before breakfast, baked ziti! It was always in the refrigerator or the freezer.