Feast of the Seven Fishes or Festa dei Sette Pesci

Mr. Row Home Eats checking in. My parents were high school sweethearts. What does that have to with a food blog? A lot actually, in a somewhat round about way. Let me explain. They grew up in East Haven, CT, so growing up both sets of my grandparents still lived there. Being only about 3 hours away from our suburban Philly home, we made many a visit to East Haven over the years. I believe my first 15 Christmas mornings I woke up at my grandparents. Obviously, as a kid the presents were the highlight. Looking back now, the real presents were delivered the night before. My mom’s mother was a tiny woman. I never got the official measurement but I’m guessing somewhere around 4’ 10” which, as a child, was wonderful because she was on your level. Because she was Italian, Christmas Eve dinner was always the Festa dei Sette Pesci (Feast of the Seven Fishes.) The cooking began in the morning. My sister and I would be eating our Lucky Charms but our noses would be full of chopped garlic, fresh seafood and tomato sauce. My grandmother was in constant motion, stirring, chopping, draining pasta; Pavarotti’s big, bold voice coming from the record player. I am instantly transported as I write this. On that day I think the only time she sat down was to eat.

When we got older we were pressed in to service. I recall being on the fish batter detail. In front of me would be a huge stack of flounder filets and two big bowls, one filled with eggs and the other breadcrumbs. The goal was to use one hand for the dry ingredient and one for the wet. That usually didn’t work out and by the end my hands were encrusted in a thick paste and it was the best! A positive spin on playing with your food! Eating the food that night that I helped create gave me a deep appreciation on the craft of cooking and on a path to my love my food! It helped that she was constantly encouraging us to ‘Mangia, mangia’!

Recently we created our own version. Here are some highlights:

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Prepping stuffed calamari

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Shrimp cocktail is a staple

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Cucumber boats stuffed with smoked salmon cream cheese

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Stuffed calamari

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Baked scallops

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Fettucine and clams

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Other dishes included fried cod, crab “gravy” and broccoli with lemon

Thinking about doing it yourself? Here are a few pointers:

-Check out this article to read more about crab gravy and a suggested recipe

-If you’re in Philadelphia, you can (and should!) get all of the freshest seafood, along with suggestions, tips and great service at Ippolito’s Seafood in South Philly. If you go during the holidays, it will be packed but festive

-Two other Seven Fishes staples are fried smelts and baccala salad but we skipped them because we aren’t fans

-Give yourself lots of time to prep the stuffed calamari. It’s labor-intensive but worth it

-Crusty bread is a necessity to sop up all of the sauce and juices

-We weren’t initially going to share this last tip but…Trader Joe’s sells frozen fried cod and it’s not too bad

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