At my family’s Christmas Eve feast, before anyone can eat we go around the dining room table and do a final count of the many different seafood dishes set in front of us. Shrimp with rice, stuffed calamari, fried shrimp, seafood salad, fried eel, filet of sole, linguini with clams … and the list goes on. Usually we land somewhere between nine and 16 different fish and always laugh at how we overdid it — again.
And it would be a shame if we didn’t, considering our access to the best fresh seafood in New York at Randazzo’s Seafood on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. The “fish store,” as we refer to the business, has been in our family since the late 1920s when my maternal great-grandfather and his brothers opened the business.
Having grown up learning the trade in the fishing village of Sferracavalo, Sicily, my great-grandfather and his brothers were quick to set up shop in the Italian enclave of Arthur’s Avenue soon after emigrating from Sicily to New York. Over the last century, the business has been passed down through generations to my uncles, Joe and Frank Randazzo, who continue to run the business today the way their father and grandfather taught them — offering friendly service and an old-world Sicilian charm. And they, my aunts, and mother all cook the way their mother taught them, with only the freshest ingredients, lots of garlic and olive oil, a trusty wooden spoon, and a whole lot of love.
My uncles, who have been helping customers almost their entire lives, provided some background and, more importantly, recipes, to help you with your Feast of the Seven Fishes this year. Here are the seven things you need to know:
Italian families do not adhere to the title of one of the most popular feasts. The meaning of the number seven is different depending on family tradition. In my family, we were always told that the number comes from the seven sacraments, but we almost always had more than seven dishes on the table anyway. Other traditions believe that 10 or 13 dishes should be prepared, symbolizing the Stations of the Cross, or the 12 apostles, plus Jesus.
While the exact origins of the tradition are not known, the celebration is believed to have originated in Southern Italy and is also known as La Vigilia (The Vigil), a celebration to commemorate the wait for the baby Jesus’ birth at midnight.
In parts of Italy, Christmas Eve is a time for a partial fast when you cannot eat meat. Leave it to Italians to cook seven or more seafood dishes as their method of fasting.
A lot of Christmas Eve fish are great fried, but you don’t want to undercook the fish. Here are Frank Randazzo’s tips: “You want to use about a half inch, or three-quarters of an inch, of oil in the pan so the fish is almost floating in it.” The best way to test this out? Dip a piece of the fish in the oil and, if it sizzles, it is ready to fry.
If you are attempting the feast for the first time or want to try a new seafood recipe, make sure to ask your fishmonger how to prepare it. Chances are they will have recipes, suggestions, tips, and seasonings that you are going to need.
The three to four days leading up to Christmas Eve are the busiest time of the year for seafood stores. My cousins, aunts, and uncles all pitch in and help out during this time, but the lines still form.
Fried eel, stuffed calamari, baked clams, and baccala salad are staples (and favorites) at our family feast. Try these recipes from the Randazzo family cookbook. (Special thanks to my grandmother, mother, aunts, and uncles for sharing and teaching these recipes).