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For many Americans of Italian Catholic descent, Christmas Eve is all about fish. Shellfish counts too, as do eels and squid. It’s one of American-Italians’ most persevering traditions — the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

No one has uncovered exactly how the popular custom became known by this name, though there are obvious antecedents in both Catholic canon and Italian culture. But one thing is certain: The ritual is hugely popular in Philadelphia.

Just ask a fishmonger.

“Dec. 23 and 24 are our busiest days of the year, by far,” said Anthony D’Angelo, fourth-generation owner of Ippolito’s Seafood at 13th and Dickinson in South Philly. He estimates business nearly doubles on those days, and he’s noticed that fish-seeking customers come in all ages.

“If you’re a young foodie, you’ll stop in and buy things spur of the moment,” he explained. “But if you’re an older Italian-American, you’ve been preparing for a month. You’ve got everything already ordered.”

Anastasi Seafood is similarly busy. “We probably do five percent of the entire year’s business this week,” guessed Andrew Steckman, a fifth-generation fish merchant. His family’s market on Ninth and Washington contains a dining room with liquor license, and on Dec. 24, the bar opens at 8 am so customers can have a holiday breakfast tipple while waiting for their take-home stuffed “galamad” and scungilli salad.

“My family has a longstanding Seven Fish tradition,” said Philly food writer and Green Aisle Grocery co-owner Adam Erace. “From when I was born till probably about 25, we did it every year at my maternal grandparents’ house. Then mom took it over and expanded the party to include my dad’s side and family friends. We roll about 50 deep these days.”

Erace’s feasting on Vigilia di Natale is even more impressive now that he’s married — his wife’s family also does a Seven Fishes dinner, and so he spends half the night in South Philly and the other half in Bucks County, doubling down on the oceanic epicurean adventure. Put simply: “It’s nuts.”

‘What Italians do instead of fasting’

The tradition of going meatless the night before Christmas harks back to the Catholic Church’s penitential rule of “mangiare di magro,” which dictates lean eating on days before religious holidays. In most of sea-surrounded Italy, meatless equals fish. (As Mario Batali once remarked to Epicurious, eating seafood is “what Italians do when they say they’re fasting.”)

And what to make of the seven?

“The number seven is pretty important in not only the Judeo­-Christian tradition, but also in pagan rituals,” pointed out Francis Cratil Cretarola, co-owner of East Passyunk’s Brigantessa and Le Virtu. There’s the seven deadly sins. The seven days of creation. Seven sacraments. Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit — aka the seven virtues — and even the seven veils danced away by Salome.

That being said, the number has absolutely nothing to do with how much or how many types of seafood you eat during one of these ritual Christmas Eve spreads. Some families have a tradition of three (the Holy Trinity), 10 (the stations of the cross), 12 (the apostles) or 13 (the apostles plus Jesus). Others don’t count courses at all.

“I usually have 30 people at my house and cook…but it’s more like 8-10 fish,” said Marc Vetri, who grew up eating the seafood feast at his grandmother’s and aunt’s houses in South Philly.

“My father’s family always had fish on Christmas Eve in Italy, but not always seven,” said Carlo Sena, whose family owns Ristorante Panorama and the Penn’s View Hotel. “When they came to the US they started to incorporate seven. We now tend to make more than seven — never have to worry about not hitting that mark.”

Still, “Seven Fishes” is what everyone calls it, no matter how many courses they serve. Why? Maybe because it just sounds good.

“Seven is a lucky number!” observed Anastasi’s Steckman.

Baccala and more

Dried salt cod is a must at most Seven Fishes dinners

Exactly what is served at these Christmas Eve feasts also varies, although baccala (dried salt cod) is almost always included. That’s likely because while in most of Italy, meat-free means fresh fish, it’s different in the central, mountainous regions, where the only seafood historically available was something dried and easily transportable. (The other courses in those areas would have been vegetables, pasta and grains.)

At Mamma Maria, one of East Passyunk’s few remaining old-school red-gravy spots, the Christmas Eve menu sets out this strict list of the “traditional” seven fishes:

1. Baccala (salt cod)
2. Gamberi (shrimp)
3. Calamari (squid)
4. Sogliola (sole)
5. Merluzzo (smelts)
6. Conchiglia (clams)
7. Salmone (salmon)

At more contemporary Fork in Old City, the multi-course meal includes amelia oysters, lobster pici and parsnip-stuffed bass — plus baccala croquets, of course. At Little Nonna’s in Midtown Village, the baccala comes carpaccio-style, along with grilled octopus and squid ink pasta with Maryland crab. The most popular dish at South Philly’s Bomb Bomb BBQ Grill, which has been offering Seven Fishes takeout for nearly half a century, is stuffed calamari.

Chef Brad Spence cooks three separate Seven Fishes dinners this year: A high-end affair served in the upstairs dining room at Vetri Cucina (Dec. 22), the annual blow-out event that packs the floor at Amis (Dec. 23), and his own party at home on Christmas Eve proper.

“At home, I like to do a mix of traditional and untraditional. For example, this year I’m doing a Mexican-style shrimp cocktail,” he divulged, adding: “I’m a chef, so I think about my menu for months — if not all year — but really the food is secondary to simply enjoying each other’s company.”

The real meaning

Seven Fishes may have its roots in religion and be rife with culinary rituals, but these days, it’s all about people.

“It’s never really been about the food for me,” said Adam Erace. “My grandmother is a phenomenal cook, but seafood was never her forte, so I grew up hating almost everything that was served. I’d sit there and eat a pound of shrimp cocktail and oyster crackers and nothing else. It’s more about the tradition and keeping it alive.”

“Christmas Eve has always been the bigger holiday for us,” noted Panorama’s Sena. “It’s the day the extended families get together and everyone brings their kids, exchanges gifts and takes some time to celebrate our good fortunes.”

As Frank Barbato of Bomb Bomb BBQ remarked: “Good food always brings together good family and friends.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...