From mince pies to Christmas puddings, Santa Claus to mistletoe, every country has their own unique festive traditions and Italy is no different. Each year, Italians prepare for Christmas day by following the culinary traditions of La Vigilia (Christmas Eve). To purify their bodies for the indulgence of Christmas Day, they typically refrain from eating meat on Christmas Eve and instead opt for lighter dishes.
With this being Italy, even a lean meal is still a celebration for the senses and many choose to start the festivities with the Festa dei Sette Pesci – the feast of the seven fishes. While the specifics of this meal vary from region to region – and from household to household – the main focus of the feast is, as the name suggests, fish and seafood.
Follow our guide to creating a fantastic feast of the seven fishes below and learn how to celebrate Christmas the Italian way. Buon Natale!
First Course – Baccala
With seven courses to eat, it’s best to take your time and pace out the dishes accordingly, which is why the first course is traditionally a light, easy-to-eat appetiser. Typical options include fritto misto, bruschetta or a smoked fish dip, but our favourite has to be baccala, which is cod that has been covered in salt and left to flavour for up to 10 days. This results in a fish that is firm and slightly chewy with a distinctive flavour. Whether served fried, roasted or whipped with grilled bread is your choice!
Second Course – A Light Salad
Before bringing out the heavier main courses, get the mouths of your guests watering with a fresh and bright seafood salad. It’s best to serve the salad cold, with a generous helping of greens and a seafood and dressing of your choice. We recommend grilled squid or seared scallops, topped with a lemon-heavy dressing such as lemon and aioli.
Third Course – Roasted Eel
This may seem like a strange dish to most people outside of Italy, but in Italian tradition, the baked eel is a crucial part of the Sesta dei Sette Pesci. Known to locals as Capitone Arrosto, this is a relatively easy dish to make, despite its intimidating name, and has a succulent taste and fatty texture that makes it a festive favourite. Garnish with olive oil, vinegar and a little salt to really bring the flavour to life.
Fourth Course – Pasta
You can’t have a traditional Italian meal without pasta, and for la Vigilia it’s best to stick to something classic. This usually means using spaghetti as your base, combined with a fresh tomato sauce and a fish of your choice – think clams or anchovies. Add a dash of pepper, a hint of garlic and serve with grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Fifth Course – The Main Attraction
This is where the traditional main course is revealed – the most hearty and meaty dish of the evening. Usually, this means grilled, seared or roasted fish accompanied by a light sauce or soup with a sprinkling of added vegetables to help bring out the flavours. A simple and effective choice, especially for a large number of guests, is roasted salmon, coated in olive oil or lemon. More experienced chefs can also try grilled prawns or shrimp, gently spiced and served with a smoky soup or a fresh citrus-based sauce.
Sixth Course – Cioppino
This next course is a must for any Festa dei Sette Pesci. In fact, some families will forego the ceremony of creating seven courses and simply put together one large cioppino – or as it’s also known, seafood stew. This is where your personal tastes and creativity can really shine. There are no real rules defining what’s included in a cioppino, although a flavourful broth or stock and a sprinkling of herbs along with your favourite fish are a must. Clams, shrimp and mussels are usually included as standard and any extra flourishes like octopus, cod or squid are up to you.
Final Course – Dessert
The type of dessert that gets served is largely dependent on how strictly you’re following the idea of la Vigilia being about eating a light, cleansing meal before Christmas Day. If you do want to keep it light, you can’t go wrong with classic Italian cookies and if you’re feeling a little more indulgent, a plate of cannoli – pastry shells filled with rich ricotta cheese – is the perfect way to finish your feast.