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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Despite pandemic, Feast of Seven Fishes is Italian American holiday mainstay

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Feast of the Seven Fishes dinners can take many forms, including this from Piccolino Toscana.
Feast of the Seven Fishes dinners can take many forms, including this from Piccolino Toscana.

 

Michele Mitchell is proud of her British heritage. But because her husband is part Italian, she quickly warmed up to the Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian American Christmas tradition.

It wasn’t such a stretch.

“With my mom being born in Hull and raised in Scarborough on the north shore of Yorkshire, seafood has always been a huge part of our family,” explained the well-known Wilmington pastry chef. She’s married to Chuck Lewis, general manager of Buckley’s Tavern.

For six years, the couple has savored the feast at Piccolina Toscana in Trolley Square. Despite COVID-19, this year will be no different, and chef-owner Dan Butler is happy to host.

Butler is not the only one highlighting the celebrated feast. Several restaurants are offering the meal both in their dining rooms and for carryout.

 

American spin on Italian celebration

In Italy, families celebrate Christmas Eve with a large, prolonged meal. However, Italians would look puzzled if you asked them about the Seven Fishes. Italian Americans are the culinary force behind the feast with the numbered courses.

“My father has been doing the Seven Fishes since I was born,” said Lisa DiFebo-Osias, who owns DiFebo’s restaurants in Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach.

“In Wilmington, he had a kitchen in his basement,” she recalled. “He put a piece of plywood on this regulation pool table. Every single Christmas, we had 70-plus people.”

For cooks like Bob DiFebo, seven courses are not enough. Indeed, some Italian American families have 14 or more.

 

If you’re going to prepare the feast, head to George & Sons Seafood Market & Oyster House in Hockessin, which stocks up, so Italians and non-Italians alike have all the fixings.

“This is by far the busiest time of the year,” said George Esterling IV, whose father started the fish market and restaurant.

You’ll find fresh smelts, sardines, squid, smoked fish and baccala (typically dried, salted cod). Also, expect to see Scottish salmon, Alaskan halibut, mussels, clams and oysters

Tip: Esterling appreciates pre-ordering, so the shop knows what to order in these unpredictable times.

 

Forget DIY

Whipping up seven courses is no easy feat. Put away the pans and book a reservation at a restaurant that offers the feast.

DiFebo’s, for instance, is featuring a Seven Fishes that feeds six. Dishes include Bob DiFebo’s calamari sauce, baccala monkfish, conchiglie salad and other Italian favorites. The cost is $375.

Toscana has been offering the Seven Fishes for 10 years, Butler says. Reservations are available on Dec. 23 and Dec. 24. However, on Christmas Eve, Butler hopes to limit orders to the Seven Fishes meal. Currently, there is a waiting list, but you can order the dinner for carryout.

This year, the Stone Balloon in Newark also has dine-in and to-go options. The menu features seven fishes but in four manageable courses. One dish — cacciucco — sports mussels, clams, oysters and seabass. The price is $45 per person, $80 a couple. (Carryout is limited to couples.)

 

In Kennett Square, Hearth Kitchen is offering a Feast of the Seven Fishes for two. Items include: cured salmon with crackers and pickled carrots, clam ribollita in tomato broth with sausage, baccala fritters, grilled octopus and arancini, spaghetti puttanesca, baked flounder, olive oil-poached tuna and tiramisu. The price is $90, and you can order online.

While La Casa Pasta in Newark typically features the feast on Christmas Eve, the traditional dishes may be limited to a la carte, says Gianmarco Martuscelli, whose family owns the iconic eatery.

With a limited dining room capacity and a 10 p.m. curfew, the restaurant can’t turn over tables quickly enough if patrons linger over seven courses, he explained.

And if you only want a portion of the meal pre-prepared, consider seafood gumbo from Cajun Kate’s on Philadelphia Pike or the Feast of the Seven Fishes seafood sausage at Maiale Deli & Salumeria in Wilmington.

Add some oysters on the half shell, a few cocktail shrimp and lobster tails, and you’re good to go.

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