Strip District teems with shoppers for Feast of Seven Fishes

Christmas Eve tradition thrives

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Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
FEEDING FRENZY: It was standing-room-only around the cheese counter at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District yesterday.
By Elwin Green, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Forget the Wii and the PlayStation 3. For many in Pittsburgh's Italian-American community, the hot item to buy this weekend is seafood.

The Strip District was teeming yesterday with shoppers in search of eel, calamari, shrimp, lobster and almost any other waterborne creature in preparation for the Feast of Seven Fishes, a Christmas Eve meal characterized by seven meatless entrees, a number said to represent the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.

For Mike Cozza, 36, originally from Beaver but now living in Chandler, Ariz., shopping for the feast -- never mind the meal itself -- has become so much of a family event that he took a camcorder to Wholey's, Pittsburgh's largest purveyor of fresh fish, and then to the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., the century-old wholesaler of Italian foods.

"He has to come down to the Strip every Christmas," said wife Jaime, also 36. But the couple, accompanied by their 3-month-old son, Mikey, were just a fragment of the Cozza forces deployed for festal shopping.

His parents, Mike and Toni, and his sister and her husband, Cheray and Mike Jones, were all on the task, shopping simultaneously at different locations.

And spending a lot of time waiting.

At Pennsylvania Macaroni, the cheese and deli room was jammed with customers waiting to have their numbers called, among them the senior Mr. Cozza and Mr. Jones, who had been waiting an hour to buy cheese. Mrs. Jones cheerfully estimated they still had another half an hour to wait before being served.

Dave Sunseri, whose family owns Pennsylvania Macaroni, said that the feast helps to bring in about twice as many customers as they get on a normal day, many of whom supplement their seafood with such treats as pistachios and torrone, a nougat candy that "a lot of people buy once a year because they grew up with it."

Mr. Sunseri himself grew up with the feast and continues to celebrate it himself, with an extended family that includes a dozen adults and 30 children, with a different household hosting it each year.

Shoppers at Wholey's also spoke of the feast as an important part of their family history.

Nemacolin cabinetmaker Rudy Scotti, 68, grew up on the Bluff when it was primarily an Italian and Jewish neighborhood, and has celebrated the feast all of his life.

"It's different now. Now everybody's busy, always with the hustle and bustle," he said. He hopes to counteract that by enjoying a quiet feast with the family of a friend.

Frank DiCarlo, 38, of Mt. Lebanon, grew up celebrating it in Morgantown, W.Va., where "half of my neighborhood was extended family."

Mr. DiCarlo said that he is not generally a seafood lover. His mother "kind of fished me out at an early age."

"One of my first memories is of my mother cutting the head off an eel and putting it in a pot," he said.

Still, the annual seafood feast is important enough so that he is "just trying to carry on the tradition for my little ones." So he, his wife and their three children will celebrate it at their home. But probably without the eel.

In fact, by yesterday afternoon, the eel tank at Wholey's had been emptied, as the store's holiday traffic reached 10,000 shoppers a day, vs. 5,000 on a normal day, according to Dan Wholey, the seafood wholesaler's vice president of customer relations.

Mr. Wholey was in constant motion, moving from one customer to another, offering suggestions on what they might serve for the feast, that sometimes became mini-dissertations -- for instance, about cod being the original food to bridge the Old World and the New.

Even with an empty eel tank, he was beaming with cheer.

"It's a joy and it's a lot of fun," he said.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Sam Amelio, and his sister-in-law Gerrie Amelio, both of McCandless, fill a bag with smelts from Wholey's in the Strip District. The Amelios will have the traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes celebration on Christmas Eve with about 50 people at Gerrie's house.
Click photo for larger image.Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Crowds fill Wholey's fish market in the Strip District yesterday purchasing fish for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Click photo for larger image.

Elwin Green can be reached at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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