Family's traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrates Christmas Eve vigil

Joyful Night

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Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette photosHerm Tomer carries his dish of pasta, broccoli and shrimp to the table at his Natrona Heights home. His extended family gathered to make their traditional Christmas Eve food.
Vince Valeri makes thin slices of prosciutto during a family gathering at Herm Tomer's home in Natrona Heights.
A bowl of smelts is ready to be filleted, breaded and fried for a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner.
The family gathers around the Tomer kitchen for their traditional Italian Christmas Eve food.

PLAN YOUR OWN FISHES FEAST

Try it yourself:
The Strip: Find baccala (dried cod) and a range of anchovies at Pennsylvania Mac. Wholey's has baccala, eel, smelts, octopus and cuttlefish. Benkovitz has most of these, plus prepared salads and breaded calamari to sizzle in your Fry Daddy.
Whole Foods: Some fish items, seafood salads, stuffed calamari.
Worth a trek: One-stop shopping at Delallo's in Jeannette.

Stocking stuffers:
"Mario Batali Holiday Food" by Mario Batali. Clarkson Potter. Beautiful essays, photography; accessible recipes. $16.
"Feast of the Seven Fishes, The Collected Comic Strip & Italian Holiday Cookbook" by Robert Tinnell. Art by Ed Piskor, Alex Saviuk. Allegheny Image Factory. Down-home recipes by Tinnell's wife, Shannon Colaianni Tinnell, native of Bloomfield. Herm Tomer says, "I felt Tinnell had somehow seen our family's many Christmas Eve preparations past and had put our story into his book. We could easily rename the characters!" $14.95.



Italy celebrates Christmas Eve with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a meatless meal honoring the wait, La Vigilia de Natale, leading up to the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. Meatless it is, but joyless it isn't.

Centuries have refined this triumphal but homey cavalcade of seafood dishes that draws on the bounty of the Boot's long coastline and fuels a boisterous party over many hours among family and friends. The seven fishes used in the celebration are popularly thought to reflect the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

The components are age-old. Choose any seven: anchovies and sardines, dried salt cod and eels, squid and octopus, shrimp, mussels, oysters and clams. And there are plenty of pasta and vegetable dishes, finishing always with the family's signature sweets and, until recently, a walk to midnight Mass. If the feast is nurtured in its most traditional form around Naples and south, it may be held dearer still in landlocked Pittsburgh.

The yearlong buildup to Christmas
It is heart and soul to Italian Americans such as Herm Tomer, 56, of Natrona Heights.

"It was the whole experience, the year-long buildup to Christmas made it so special. Making sausage the winter before, pressing the grapes for the wine the autumn before," he said.

"Christmas Eve starts early for our family as it did with my mother, grandmother and four aunts in the kitchen making fresh pasta and breads. My mother would clean the 'sards,' 8-inch sardines, sarde in Italian, a job she hated because they smelled so bad, but she always did it.

"My dad would take his three sons to breakfast at DeLuca's in the Strip, to Pennsylvania Mac and to local shops for the freshest fish and produce. I do the same with my six kids, or as many as can come."

Shopping on the Eve?

"That's the fun -- everybody's in such a good mood," Herm said.

Tomer grew up in "the huge Italian enclave" of Allegheny River communities northeast of Pittsburgh, New Kensington, Arnold and Tarentum. These were the days when the Sunseris delivered to Arnold.

Herman? Tomer? Italian? The blue-eyed, apple-cheeked property developer doesn't look it. His father was German-Hungarian. But his grandmother Dosalina Grimaldi -- yes, related to those Grimaldis who owned Monaco -- emigrated from Genoa (because times were hard even for some Grimaldis) to marry his grandfather Francesco Olivo, a native of Salerno, outside Naples, who was already here working in Sharpsburg.

And it was Dosalina, "Nonna," and Francesco, "Nonno," who laid down the template for the way Herm, youngest of 17 grandchildren, and his wife, Barbara Corsi, who grew up a few miles away from him and whose folks are from Umbria, make the hospitality flow for 50 or 60 relatives and friends who come to their home to cook and eat together every Christmas Eve.

Proximity helps. Herm grew up with aunts and grandmother living next door. His wife has had sisters within walking distance all her adult life.

"These are long-term people with deep associations. We've known them 40 or 50 years. Business partners. A boy I met as a 4-year-old next door in New Kensington. A fraternity brother of 30 years ago," he said. "We try not to focus on gift-giving. It's about having your family around you."

Herm is a Vietnam vet and a former "tech guy" for two Pittsburgh Fortune 500 firms. He found he wasn't attuned to big companies and started his own tech consulting service, selling it in 1990 to invest in property. He owns River Forest Country Club in Freeport and a number of golf and fishing properties in the Carolinas, all with food service components.

He is proprietor of Enrico's, an Italian brick-oven bistro in Shadyside that initially was a joint venture with Larry Lagatutta of Enrico's Biscotti. Herm is often a genial presence there at dinnertime, and his son Neil buys the restaurant's seafood.

Changes over the generations
So have things changed over five generations?

Herm invited the Post-Gazette to a warm-up on the Friday after Thanksgiving to see how his family approaches the seven fishes. "We like it to stay consistent. There are slight tweaks."

Tweak No. 1 is two pounds of butter melting in an electric skillet in the Tomers' big kitchen. "That's for the bagna cauda," says Barbara's brother Fred Corsi. This is his project. The Seven Fishes Feast is perhaps the single day of the year when the men invade the kitchen.

This mountain of gold, along with olive oil, sliced garlic and a 1-pound tin of Roland anchovies, will melt into a delicious "hot bath" -- literal translation of "bagna cauda" -- for raw baby fennel, cabbage, green pepper and celery spears. Butter creeps into things more in the northerly Piedmont with its grass and cows, and this dish honors the Corsis, who are from Umbria.

Geno Lubatti of the handlebar mustache, married to Barbara's sister Rose, shows how it's done. He swooshes celery through the aromatic sauce, takes a bite with a piece of bread held under it to catch the drips. Then he eats the bread. Oh, that is good. How could it not be?

"We never mention the anchovies, says wife Rose, "and everybody loves it."

Geno prepares the baccala, salt-dried cod, every year, a must for Christmas Eve. You've seen slabs in bins outside the entrance to Pennsylvania Mac. He soaks his fish to soften and desalinate it, "for five, six, seven days, the longer the better." (FYI: Mario Batali only soaks his 48 hours.)

He has lightly floured and sauteed the cod chunks before dousing them with marinara for the "red," and herbs and wine for the "white," and then popping them in the oven.

The finished product is firm, silky, with no bones, and only the mildest herby fish flavor. But Geno doesn't really like it. "It's not worth the trouble. It sucks," he whispers.

"We all hated it," the men chime. "That's why I brought the cauliflower," Herm's friend Vince Valeri, says. "I had problems with cod and eel when I was little."

Cauliflower, a child's antidote to anything? Taste a breaded floret deep-fried, and believe.

Tweak No. 2. There will be no battles with repellent creatures of the deep. Countertop combat with 10-armed squishies and eels that refuse to die will not happen today. The squid, calamari to Italians, are six-inch size, just the "hoods" or heads, sans eyes and beak and tentacles. They are tubes as flat and unthreatening as clean white plastic. Eel disappeared from this family menu some years ago.

The men are doing most of the cooking, but this is a mellower affair than yesteryear.

Herm's son Neil, 30, has the worst job, inherited from his grandmother: cleaning the "sards." Deft and patient, he slits the 8-inch fish along the belly, removes the innards with a finger, slits the other side and separates the filets from the bones. These, tossed in seasoned flour, he sautees in a cast-iron skillet. The kids love them.

Neil does the squid, too, cutting it into rings, tossing some in fresh bread crumbs, some in seasoned flour. He sizzles them in hot oil less than a minute, drains them and shakes on parmesan and fresh parsley. They are irresistible, chewy and sweet, with a dried red pepper afterburn.

Now comes the sausage, sopresatta. SOUPressata, as we say hereabouts.

The spicy "pressed" sausage is made by the hundreds of pounds in Vince and Sis Valeri's vast second kitchen in the basement of their Murrysville home. The Tomers and Valeris make wine and sausage together each year. "We make 50 pounds and Vince makes 500," Herm clarifies. "A thousand," corrects Sis.

Vince's, made last February, is elegant, almost juicy, with red pepper heat. We taste Vince's admirable prosciutto, air-cured ham hung for more than a year, too.

The homemade wines appear and affectionate insults fly. There is Vince's "rotgut" in two vintages, "Bold and "Bolder." He pours the beefy 70 percent Zinfandel, 30 percent Alicante. Herm's is a lighter red, "wussier" -- a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese and 20 percent zin.

The Tomer wine is labeled with a dignified rendering of Barbara's paternal grandfather's villa in Terni. Vince's shows his own deadpan mug. These wines are a match with this food. The noise level rises, drowning out the opera floating in from the other room.

It's easy to see why Barbara Tomer, her sisters -- Rose, Patty and Jeannie -- and the Tomers' daughter Danielle were cast in the Christmas Eve Seven Fishes scene in "The Bread My Sweet," Pittsburgh's film tribute to its Italian community. They live it.

If you are scorekeeping, we counted the baccala as two (red and white). We had shrimp cocktail and shrimp pasta with broccoli in aglio e olio, garlic and olive oil, counted as one. We never quite got to Herm's project, the oyster stew.

And don't be shocked if you peek into the Tomers' kitchen Dec. 24 to see lobster bisque simmering. That's a modern tweak, along with Carnegie Deli's biggest cheesecake, overnighted from New York, a relic of holiday family shopping trips to the Big Apple. There will be 30 dishes in all, including a ham honoring Herm's Eastern European dad, who died in 1972.

"It's a lot of work, and I wouldn't miss it for anything," Herm says.

"My wish is that our six children remember the experience of this special evening and pass it along to their children, too."

RELATED RECIPES

NEIL'S DEEP-FRIED SQUID
Italians have a prettier name for squid: calamari. By either name it rocks, prepared Neil Tomer's minimalist way. He rapidly deep-fries the flour-dusted rings and sprinkles on fresh parsley and grated parmesan. Purchase squid cleaned and frozen.

  • 4 cups peanut oil
  • 12 to 16 ounces cleaned squid bodies, "tubes" only, cut into 1/4-inch rings
  • 2 cups flour, seasoned with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Heat oil in a deep pot to 375 degrees or use a Fry Daddy.

Rinse, drain and pat rings dry. Lightly dust with seasoned flour. Deep-fry, a handful at a time, for 45 seconds. Separate any that stick together. Rings will scrunch to sweet, tender nuggets. Drain on paper towels. Offer with lemon wedges if desired.

Serves 6 if other appetizers are served.

Neil Tomer


SPICY BACCALA ALLA VESUVIANO
This is cod, dried and salted, using a technique developed in the 1500s. Mario Batali says to choose the thickest fillets in smaller portions with bones removed. Soak the fish in 2 gallons of water in the refrigerator for 48 hours, changing the water at least twice a day.

  • 2 pounds dried salt cod, as evenly thick as possible, soaked
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, cut into 1 1/4-inch dice
  • 3 tablespoons capers, rinsed three times and drained
  • 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 28-ounce can tomatoes, juices drained and reserved, tomatoes crushed by hand
  • 11/4 cup dry white wine
  • 11/4 cup chipped fresh Italian parsley
  • 3 tablespoons fresh mint cut in thin ribbons

Drain soaked baccala and cut into 2-inch pieces; set aside. In a 6- to 8-quart pot with sides at least 4 inches high, heat oil until smoking. Add onion, capers and pepper flakes and cook over medium-low heat until soft and light golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, their juices and white wine and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add baccala pieces and simmer gently for 25 minutes, turning fish once very carefully. Sprinkle with parsley and mint and serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 8.

Mario Batali


SPICY SPAGHETTI WITH MUSSELS
Mussels are an inexpensive choice that is too often overlooked, Mario Batali says. This delicious and dramatic presentation is Christmas-y with flecks of green and red.

  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 24 Prince Edward Island mussels, scrubbed and rinsed
  • 11/2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons salt. In a 12- to 14-inch saute pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add garlic, bell peppers and pepper flakes and cook until soft, 7 to 8 minutes. Add mussels and cook 1 minute, stirring regularly. Add wine and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, drop pasta in the boiling water and cook according to package instructions. Cook mussels until they have all opened, about 3 minutes.

Drain pasta well and toss into pan with mussels. Cook together for 30 seconds, add parsley, toss well and serve in a warm serving bowl.

Serves 4 to 8.

Mario Batali


Virginia Phillips is a Mt. Lebanon freelance food writer.


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