For people who live in a land-locked city, Pittsburgers sure love their fish. And no more so than on Christmas Eve, when the region's many Italian families celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional, meatless Italian meal that features seven courses (and often many more), each with a different seafood.
So many calls are coming in for fresh fish at Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District that staff carry around clipboards with pads on them to jot down orders. The orders are then taped to the wall, like some kind of seafood Santa's list. The first came in months ago, and by week's end, said owner Henry Dewey, there will be several hundred. "And that's only going to grow," he said.
Sales are equally brisk at Wholey's, where in addition to fresh squid and smelts, customers are lining up, sometimes three-people-deep, for cod, flounder, king crab legs and eel, which can be roasted, poached or braised.
"It's just a wonderful time of year, and a beautiful tradition," said Dan Wholey,.
DeLallo Italian Marketplace in Jeannette also sells all the components for a complete Feast of the Seven Fish meal: baccala (salt cod), smelts, cod, shrimp, octopus, eel, anchovy, whiting, squid, sarde, ciccarelli and orange roughy. For non-cooks, there's a selection of prepared dishes to take home, including Mrs. DeLallo's famous baccala salad and calamari soup.
There's no question the holiday feast is tied to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on Christmas Eve. But the jury's still out on why the menu includes seven courses. Some say it symbolizes the church's seven virtues; others say it represents the seven Catholic sacraments.
Don't want to cook or unable to wrangle an invite to your Italian neighbor's La Vigilia celebration? You can try for reservations to tonight's Feast of the Seven Fish Event at Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley. Based on chef/owner Sam DiBattista's family recipes, the $60 menu will include shrimp cocktail; a salad of octopus, calamari and scallops; fried smelts; braised cod with tomato sauce; cold trout stuffed with herbs; and pasta with crab. And, of course, dessert. Call 412-259-8945.