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Chef Joey Baldino prepares sautéed shrimp with garlic and grilled sardines with salsa verde. Cherry Hill Courier-Post

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On the night before Christmas, an array of seafood begins appearing on some dinner tables as a symbolic way to ring in the sacred holiday.

The tradition of abstaining from meat and eating fish before a holiday began centuries ago as a Roman Catholic practice in many parts of Italy, where the type and number of fish and the preparation vary by region.

However, the specifically named Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American tradition begun by Italian immigrants who left their mother country seeking jobs and prosperity in the U.S., according to culinary historians and chefs.

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Very often on the bountiful menu are the traditional cod (baccala), whether fresh or rehydrated salted and dried cod; smelts; sardines; shrimp; octopus; clams; mussels, or others. The number should be at least seven — seven kinds of seafood in soups, appetizers and entrees or one or more seafood types prepared in seven different recipe dishes.

And not just Italian-American families but other lovers of seafood can enjoy the feast whether served at a restaurant or made at home.

At home for the holidays

Usually Chef Joey Baldino can be found cooking dinners with fresh ingredients at his intimate Italian restaurant Zeppoli on Collings Avenue in Collingswood or at the private Palizzi Social Club in South Philadelphia, but not on Christmas Eve.

Zeppoli, a BYOB with a southern Italian and Sicilian-style menu, will be closed that night because the seven-time semi-finalist of the James Beard culinary competition will share his Dec. 24 feast with his Italian family and friends at a cousin's home in South Philadelphia.

There, Baldino said they freshly prepare and devour a traditional "La Vigilia di Natale" (Christmas Eve) dinner, with seven or even more seafood dishes like fresh grilled sardines with salsa verde; whole, unpeeled shrimp flash-sauteed in sizzling olive oil with drippings and all poured over white cannellini beans, and cioppino, a seafood stew with broth.

"For me, I think the Seven Fishes custom is a sacred tradition that is best observed at home with family and friends," the 41-year-old Baldino said at Zeppoli before cleaning and cooking the shrimp and beans dish that also is a regular menu choice at Zeppoli, along with a seafood stew. Baldino's family comes from both Sicily and Calabria, and both regions influence his menus.

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Zeppoli chef Joey Baldino prepares a Sicilian style barbecue for friends and family behind his restaurant in Collingswood, N.J. Cherry Hill Courier-Post

"My Aunt Mary always did all the cooking for 20 people and now my cousin Al, her son, does it since she passed on. I bring the fresh fish," he explains, adding he developed his love of cooking from his Calabrian aunt.

"For us, the baccala that night is salt and dried cod that we cook after soaking it for two days," the chief said.

Baldino said the immigrant tradition began more than 100 years ago when many Italians arrived in America although exactly where, when or which families started it remains a mystery.

And the number seven's importance also is up for discussion although that number— repeated in the Bible hundreds of times—may refer to one or more of the following: the seven sacraments, such as baptism and marriage; the seven virtues; the seven days of creation, or even the seven deadly sins.  

Baldino devotes a section to the feast in his newly published, first cookbook, "Dinner at the Club: 100 Years of Stories and Recipes from South Philly's Palizzi Social Club," where he is the president. Co-authoring the book is food and travel writer Adam Erace, also of South Philly, who served for 10 years as restaurant critic for the Courier-Post.

Baldino is making an exception this year by agreeing to cook a special Seven Fishes feast in New York City but not on Christmas Eve.

Earlier: Zeppoli’s Sicilian Barbecues: An Italian summer tradition in Collingswood

The James Beard Foundation has invited Baldino and two chefs of a New York City restaurant to prepare the annual dinner at the Beard House in Manhattan on Dec. 17 to showcase global holiday cuisine  .

"This year, we’ve invited seven-time Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic semi-finalist Joseph Baldino of Zeppoli and Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli of the lauded West Village hot spot Don Angie for their innovative, irresistible and sustainable take on this sacred Italian feast," the foundation said in a released statement.

Its programming director, Izabela Wojcik, said the Beard House has a long and rich history of celebrating the regionality of America’s cuisine and the chefs and restaurants behind that story.

"One of our favorite themes within that context is to showcase global holidays and traditions that connect diners to that regionality but that also speak to heritage and community. And of course December means the Italian-American Christmas tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes," she said, calling Baldino "such a talent.".  

Seven Fishes for everyone 

"You don't need to be Italian to throw a Seven Fishes dinner. Our neighborhood has become more diverse than ever and a lot of newcomers have adopted the tradition and made it their own," Baldino writes in his book.

Owner-chef Alberto Delbello of Il Portico Ristorante Italiano in Burlington City could not agree more.

"The seven-fish dinner is no longer just an Italian-American tradition but has become an American tradition to be enjoyed by anyone." he said. "And you can substitute tilapia or other more popular types of fish here for traditional ones like cod, or you can offer some meat choices as well because America is not all Italian."

His restaurant is among those offering the elaborate dinner at his price of $50 or higher at some restaurants.

One of the entrees on Delbello's menu of Roman-Jewish cuisine will be fettuccine with assorted seafood in a light tomato sauce. There will be six main entrees offered with one chicken dish for those who cannot or prefer not to eat seafood.

On Dec. 24, minestra di pesce, fish-based soup, is a must entree in Rome, Italy, where Delbello was born. He also owned restaurants there and around the world, often serving celebrities. His feast soup at Il Portico will be lobster bisque and the baccala in dishes is never the salt-dried type popular in southern Italy but always fresh as in Rome.

Meanwhile, DiPaolo's Italian Ristorante in Penns Grove also will offer meat entrees of beef, ham and pork along with seven fish dishes, including crab cakes and octopus served buffet-style.

Nunzio's in Collingswood and La Girasole in Atlantic City also are among those restaurants offering the Christmas Eve feast. Reservations are recommended at all the restaurant feasts.

Pannetone, a sweet bread with raisins and other dried fruits, is one of the traditional desserts of La Vigilia. It is house-made at Nunzio's, where feast dinners begin as early as 1:30 p.m.

'Keep the Italian custom going'

John Alexander of Edgewater Park is half Italian and a regular customer at Il Portico, but on Christmas Eve he hosts his own seven fishes dinner at home.

"My Ulissi family from Abruzzo ate baccala and smelts when i was little. I picked it up again myself over 30 years ago after reading about it in food magazines. It is expensive with tricky recipes and hard to do, especially since fish can’t easily be cooked ahead," he said, "but I like to have friends and all the family over from older members to the children and keep the Italian dinner custom going.".

"My dinner revolves around shrimp (cold cocktail usually but hot, too, on cannellini bean bruschetta), scallops, clams and pasta, and baked flounder or monkfish."

For smaller, traditional dishes, he features fried oysters, fried calamari, lobster/scallop fritters and smelts but also adds eel sushi he learned to prepare from the Japanese restaurant Sagami in Collingswood.

"I make baccala from dried cod and red sauce with bread every year because it's the old tradition — and every year only one or two people eat it," he continued, alluding to the very salty taste that appeals to few of his guests.

"The next morning I have Champagne and caviar for breakfast, bagels and lox and latkes with apple sauce — the perfect birthday brunch to celebrate the birth of little Jewish boy Jesus!."

Carol Comegno loves telling stories about South Jersey history and our military veterans. Her book, “The Battleship USS New Jersey: From Birth to Berth” is the definitive history of the battleship. If you have a story to share, call her at 856-486-2473 or email ccomegno@gannettnj.com.

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