Feast of the Seven Fishes: Italian chef shares delicious recipes for an amazing Christmas Eve - USA TODAY

Feast of the Seven Fishes: Italian chef shares delicious recipes for an amazing Christmas Eve – USA TODAY


Several dishes for the Feast of the Seven Fishes prepared at Lucciola in New York City.

NEW YORK — For many, Christmas includes a main dish like ham or turkey. But on Christmas Eve in some Italian households, fish is on the menu for or “The Feast of the Seven Fishes.”

Executive Chef Michele Casadei Massari, who was born in Riccione on Italy’s Adriatic coast and grew up in Bologna, serves seven fishes on Dec. 24 annually for dinner at his restaurant Lucciola in New York City. 

“Also known as ‘The Vigilia,’ the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a southern Italian custom in which a meal of at least seven different types of seafood is served before midnight for Christmas Eve dinner,” he tells USA TODAY. 

The Dec. 24 meal, Casadei Massari continues, is rooted in the Catholic tradition of not eating meat during the Advent period. 

“The Feast of the Seven Fishes takes place during the Christmas Eve dinner where the family gathers to eat seven courses based on seven different fish. The type of fish to bring to the table varies from family to family, the number ‘seven’ is only indicative. Indeed, several families dine on nine and up to 12 or more fish dishes.”

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The idea is to use different fish — the number “seven”, Casadei Massari says, has importance and is linked to biblical tradition. The number seven is used throughout the Bible, and in Catholicism there are seven sacraments and deadly sins.

The feast’s exact origin story is a bit unclear. Like Casadei Massari, The New York Times calls the feast a “Southern Italian custom.” Meanwhile, Atlas Obscura says it is an Italian-American invention, and Eataly notes that while the tradition is popular in the U.S., some Italians don’t follow it — and does credit America for starting the tradition in connection to the “Old Country’s Christmas” in the 20th century.

Growing up, Casadei Massari says his family celebrated the feast, because of the southern Italian roots of his mother’s family. In Bologna, which is in the northern part of Italy, the tradition, he says, is lesser known but many families still eat fish on Dec. 24th. During his childhood, instead of making seven separate dishes, they often cooked fewer including brodetto — a kind of fish stew that can include a few different types of fish. His mother still makes it, he says. 

The Feast of the Seven Fishes continues to evolve and grow, Casadei Massari says. He wouldn’t be surprised, he adds, to see the tradition grow in Italy as it has in the U.S. 

Ahead of the holiday, Casadei Massari and Dario Sanchez, executive sous chef, walked me through how to make a pasta dish called spaghettone matt felicetti with bottarga and uni and we sampled six other fish-based dishes, including:

  • Salmon tartare
  • Scampi and pomelo tartare
  • Pane burro e alici crostini
  • Branzino acqua pazza (“branzino in crazy water”)
  • Mussels alla marinara
  • Risotto alla pescatore.

All were amazing — though the spaghettone was my favorite.

Casadei Massari shared his recipes — which can be made at home — with USA TODAY. 

Salmon tartare

Makes: 2 servings

Time: 10-12 minutes (plus 4 days resting time)


  • 8 ounces salmon
  • Juice of ½ lemon, preferably a Meyer lemon
  • 2 tablespoons Bianco Giusti (or your preferred white wine vinegar)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Chives
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Cut the salmon (previously cleaned and frozen for at least 4 days) into very small cubes.
  2. Mix them in a bowl with white wine vinegar, the juice of half a Meyer lemon, chopped chives, and 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  3. Leave to marinate in the fridge for 15 minutes before serving. 

Scampi and pomelo tartare

“Scampi and pomelo tartare is an elegant dish with a defined flavor thanks to the fatty note of the scampi lightened by the acidic component of the pomelo,” Casadei Massari says.

Makes: 2 servings

Time: 10-12 minutes (plus 4 days resting time)


  • 8 ounces of any prawn tail (i.e. shrimp)
  • 1 pomelo (a grapefruit can be substituted here)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste


  1. Freeze shrimp for at least 4 days then defrost gently in the refrigerator to ensure that no bacteria can form during defrosting.
  2. Clean, removing head and shell.
  3. Eliminate the black filament on the back of the shrimp. It is the casing that, if not eliminated, could leave a bitter taste to the dish.
  4. Cut them coarsely with a knife so as to obtain homogeneous portions. I use medium-sized and do not mince them too much otherwise it would look like a mash instead of a tartare.
  5.  Put the diced shrimp in a bowl, add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and mix well.
  6. Remove the outer rind of pomelo and cut the slices with a sharp knife the same size as the shrimp, taking care to remove the white inner skin.
  7. Take some juice from pomelo, a couple of teaspoons are enough to marinate the tartare. 
  8. Mix the ingredients well and complete with a drizzle of oil and a pinch of salt. Let rest for 3 minutes before serving. 

Pane burro e alici crostini

“Pane burro e alici are quick and easy croutons with an exceptional flavor: toasted bread, butter, anchovies Armatore. Use always excellent quality ingredients, in fact, I used Beppino Ocelli butter and Armatore anchovies,” says Massari.

Makes: 2 servings

Time: 5-7 minutes


  • ½ baguette (or any slices of leftover bread)
  • 2 ounces of butter
  • 8 to 10 Armatore anchovy fillets (or anchovy fillets of your choice)
  • 1 lemon


  1. Cut bread into small classic slices, and toast the slices of bread. 
  2. Spread a nice knob of butter on each slice.
  3. Finally, add an anchovy fillet and decorate it with a grated lemon peel.

Spaghettone matt felicetti with bottarga and uni

Makes: 2 servings

Time: 5 minutes prep, 10 minutes cook


  • 7 ounces spaghettone matt felicetti 
  • 7 ounces uni
  • 4 ounces bottarga
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salted butter 
  • Pepper 
  • Shaved roe


  1. Heat the oil and garlic in a pan.
  2. Add the sea urchin pulp and switch heat off.
  3. Drain the pasta halfway through cooking.
  4. Remove the garlic from the pan and bring the spaghetti to the end of cooking in the pan.
  5. At the end of cooking drizzle olive oil, pepper and shaved roe.

Note: Bottarga and uni can get expensive. If you need to substitute, grated Bottarga can serve as an option.

Branzino acqua pazza ‘crazy water’

Makes: 2 servings

Time: 10 minutes prep, 20 minutes cook


  • 1 branzino
  • 9 ounces cherry tomatoes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 4 ounces of white wine
  • 4 ounces water
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin
  • Parsley to taste
  • Extra virgin olive oil


  1. Put the branzino, cherry tomatoes cut in half, garlic and a little chopped parsley in a large pan.
  2. Add a drizzle of oil, water, and the white wine.
  3. Season to taste with salt and pepper. 
  4. Move the pan to the heat, cover it with the lid and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes. Give it a stir from time to time and wet the fish with its cooking juices.
  5. At the end of the cooking season it with chopped fresh parsley.

Mussels alla marinara

Makes: 3-4 servings

Time: 6-7 minutes prep, 12 minutes to cook


  • 64 ounces of mussels
  • 4 ounces of white wine
  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Half ciabatta bread 


  1. Clean the mussels carefully. 
  2. Eliminate the incrustations and the byssus, if present, wash them very well under running water. Eliminate the broken or empty ones.
  3. Add extra virgin olive oil to a pot with high edges.
  4. Add the mussels to the pan over high heat.
  5. Add the wine, garlic clove, parsley, pepper and salt, and cover to steam.
  6. As soon as the shells open, the mussels are ready.
  7. Transfer them to a serving dish and sprinkle them with the cooking liquid filtered through cheesecloth. 
  8. Serve the mussels marinara immediately with slices of toasted ciabatta bread.

Risotto alla pescatore 

Makes: 6 servings

Time: 10 minutes prep, 18 minutes cook


  • 10 ounces carnaroli rice  
  • 16 ounces mussels 
  • 16 ounces clams 
  • 10 ounces calamari 
  • 16 ounces scampi 
  • 1 shallot 
  • 2 cloves of garlic 
  • 1 bunch parsley 
  • 2 tomatoes 
  • 4 ounces white wine 
  • 8 ounces fish stock
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive 
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Cook the mussels with oil and garlic and then add the white wine. Cook until they open.
  2. Soak clams in water and salt. Then, cook the clams with oil and garlic and then add the white wine and let them cook until they open.
  3. Brown the shallot in a drizzle of oil, add the rice and toast for a couple of minutes. 
  4. Deglaze with white wine. 
  5. Add the fish broth and cook the rice.
  6. Halfway through cooking, add chopped tomatoes, mussels, clams, squid and scampi, and serve with fresh chopped parsley. 

Check out these recipes to up your kitchen game: 


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December 23, 2022 at 10:23AM

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