Whether you grew up Italian and Catholic with the “Festa dei sette pesci” forever representing the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments, or you’re a pescatarian with a love of exotic fare such as baccalà (salt cod) or scungilli (sea snail), December’s Feast of the Seven Fishes is for you.
Though typically home-cooked and celebrated with family, the Christmas Eve tradition has been expanded to an all-month party, held at several Philadelphia-area restaurants. Some stick to tried-and-true seafood such as shrimp, oysters, and calamari. Some allow themselves the adventure of fried smelts and marinated eel (my own mother drew the line at eel, while my aunts eschewed anything with anchovies). Others are preparing wild variations on the Italian meal.
There’s no wrong way to do “The Feast,” unless, that is, you skimp and only cook two or three fishes, or try to sneak meat into the meal. Here are a handful of restaurants in the area making the seven fishes their own way.
Gran Caffe L’Aquila
The grand Abruzzi-themed gelateria known for its opulent pasta dishes, boozy gelato, and house-cured meats offers both a “full seven fish of Napoli experience” or an à la carte option for its traditional Italian celebration. You can get the likes of chilled, lemon-herb-dressed salad of shrimp, scallops, scungilli, and seppie (cuttlefish); clams, shrimp, scallops, and dentice (snapper) in a tomato stew; semolina-crusted fried calamari; and octopus slow-cooked with sweet San Marzano tomatoes. There’s also a special Italian beer and wine menu to go with the meal.
Various times, Dec. 16-24, Gran Caffe L’Aquila, 1716 Chestnut St., $135 for a full feast, between $11 and $20 à la carte, 215-568-5600, grancaffelaquila.com
Marcie Turney-Valerie Safran’s cozy Midtown Village Italian eatery offers a three-course, family-style dinner (with an olive oil-poached and smoked salmon crostone to start out) featuring swordfish spiedini with charred radicchio, fried cod and calamari, cockles and spaghetti, and branzino piccata with pickled raisins.
Various times, Dec. 18-23, Little Nonna’s, 1234 Locust St., $50, 215-546-2100, littlenonnas.com
The feast of the seven fishes is near and dear to Hearthside’s Dominic Piperno; his family celebrates one every year on Christmas Eve, using Italian recipes passed down for generations. At his Collingswood BYOB — praised as one of the best restaurants in South Jersey — the chef will serve up traditional dishes like roasted Caesar salad with boquerones; campanelle pasta with baby octopus and spicy San Marzano tomatoes; spaghetti and clams; whole roasted branzino; and cioppino with mussels, clams, lobster, swordfish, and crab in a tomato broth. The meal also includes dessert.
Various times, Dec. 20-22, Hearthside, 801 Haddon Ave., Collingswood, N.J., $125 per person (parties of four, eight, or 12 only), 856-240-1164, hearthsidebyob.com
Branzino Italian Ristorante
Speaking of branzino, the Center City BYOB that goes by the same name presents a Christmas Eve seven-fishes feast that includes squid-ink tagliatelle; sea bass crudo with blood orange and watermelon radish; shrimp with burrata and tomato broth; Sicilian calamari with capers, pine nuts, black currants, and olives; and pan-roasted cod with calamari and cannellini beans. Throw in Albanian milk cake, and you’ll practically be in the hills of the old country.
5-10 p.m. Dec. 24, Branzino Italian Ristorante, 261 S. 17th St., $75 per person, 215-790-0103, branzinophilly.com
Downtown Philadelphia’s branch of the white-linen Northern Italian steakhouse gets fishy for Christmas Eve only. Here, you’re offered a three-course menu starting with chilled oysters, clams, and shrimp that moves onto squid-ink spaghettini with calamari and San Marzano tomatoes. There’s a grand “piatto della vigilia” finale of seared halibut and crab risotto with lobster butter.
5-10 p.m. Dec. 24, Davios, 111 S. 17th St., $75 per person, 215-563-4810, davios.com/phil
Ellen Yin’s Old City space takes advantage of newly appointed chef Jeremy Hansen’s internationalist leanings with the likes of English sole served with clementine and spicy butter, sturgeon with caviar and crème fraiche, Dungeness crab roll, geoduck with calamansi limes and coriander salad, and a slab of Tyee king salmon with Shinshu miso and leeks. It’s all part of a 10-course meal that also features two desserts — cannoli with chocolate-hazelnut tartuffo and honeyed struffoli, and friandise (French for little candies) like cranberry truffles, spearmint macarons, and black-and-white cookies.
5:30-10 p.m. Dec. 24, Fork, 306 Market St., $99 per person, $55 additional for wine pairings, 215-625-9425, forkrestaurant.com