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Vigilia di Natale Christmas Eve

Vigilia di Natale Christmas Eve

By Katie Parla

*excerpted from Food of the Italian South: Recipes for Classic, Disappearing, and Lost Dishes

In Italy, there’s no such thing as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the popular Christmas Eve meal enjoyed by many Italian American families. Somehow, the Vigilia di Natale, the December 24 fish bonanza, got whittled down when it reached American shores. In the south, serving a mere seven fishes would be sacrilege—snag an invite to a Christmas Eve dinner for proof, and if you can, get in on the days of prep that go into this elaborate holiday meal.

The reason for eating fish for the Vigilia is, naturally, related to the Catholic Church, which used to mandate lean, meatless meals on sacred holidays. Although these rules have loosened considerably, the custom of eating fish on Catholic holidays has stuck around. Today, however, the concept of eating moderately on those days has vanished, and instead, families go all out, serving a huge amount of food and many dishes for the purpose of celebration rather than solemnity.

In Bari, Puglia’s largest city, Christmas Eve starts with a lavish spread of crudi (raw fish), and crustaceans like oysters, cozze pellose (the local “hairy” mussel), tartufi di mare (meaty warty Venus clams), followed by Insalata di Polpo con le Patate, baked scallops, fried baccalà, spaghetti with seafood, and whole baked and fried fish and eels.

In Reggio Calabria, zeppole alle acciughe (anchovy-studded fritters), are a typical starter, while in Naples, the classic Christmas Eve dishes include marinated anchovies, seafood salad, spaghetti with clams, Insalata di Rinforzo and, of course, fried eel and baccalà, two items that are enjoyed on virtually all tables in the south during the holidays.

Regardless of where it’s celebrated, you’ll be impressed by how moderate the Feast of the Seven Fishes seems by comparison.


Fried Marinated Sardines with Saffron

Serves 4 to 6

1 cup white wine vinegar

¼ cup water

6 to 8 saffron threads

Neutral oil, for frying

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 pounds whole fresh sardines, cleaned

Sea salt

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar and water and heat over low heat. Just before it boils, remove it from the heat and add the saffron. Set aside to bloom.

Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with paper towels.

In a medium frying pan or cast-iron skillet, heat 2 inches of oil to 350°F.

Place the flour in a shallow bowl. Dredge each sardine in flour, shaking off any excess. Working in batches as needed, fry the sardines, turning once to ensure even cooking, just until golden, about 1 minute. Drain on paper towels and season with salt. Be sure the oil returns to 350°F before adding the next batch.

Layer the fish in a glass or ceramic dish. Pour the vinegar mixture over the fish. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days before serving.



is a Rome-based food and beverage educator and journalist. Originally from New Jersey, she has an art history degree from Yale, a master’s degree in Italian Gastronomic Culture from the Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata”, a sommelier certificate from the Federazione Italiana Sommelier Albergatori Ristoratori, and an archeological speleology certification from the city of Rome.

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In Conversation -- With Katie Rosengren

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