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Feast of Seven Fishes

All of Christendom knows the Feast of Seven Fishes, or Festa dei sette pesci, as the celebratory meal the night before Christmas.

In Italy known as La Viglia – The Eve – the meal is a melting pot of seafood and fish alike. Recipes are not set in stone, but rather steeped in family history. Each family serving the “catch” from their region. The Pirone Family hails from the Molise region of Italy – seated below the knee of the boot. Their ancestors coming from the province of Campobasso along the high basin of the Biferno river surrounded by the Sannio and Matese Mountains.

scamorza cheese

Although its northeast coast lies on the Adriatic Seat, most of the cuisine relies on livestock that graze its mountainous terrain, a variety of cheeses, herbs and vegetables like Carciofi (artichokes), Pepperoncini, tomatoes and lots of basil grown in its rich soil. In season, the area becomes fragrant with the sweet smell of blossoms, as it is famous for the luscious pears they cultivate. The dairy cows that graze along the mountain sides ensure the perfect production of Scamorza – a stretched-curd cheese used over mozzarella in most of the region’s dishes. The taste dominates over its cousin, mozzarella, and has a reputation of melting smoothly when baked.

Shaped in rounds and hung for 2-weeks to ripen, Scamorza is a semi-soft white cheese with a stringy texture much like mozzarella, but has less moisture. There is also a smoked version call “Scamorzi Affumicate” . . . enough about cheese, let’s talk family and feasting!

The Pirone Family Feast started with Mrs. P.’s maternal Grandmother – Franjustine. She was for Mrs. P. a cooking mentor who imparted to her the many wonderful recipes from her days in Italy. The two would cook in the basement of their home in West New York, NJ – an Italian enclave in the north-eastern part of the state.

Things Mrs. P. remembers are making fig wine from the trees in her father’s garden, and spending hours watching and learning how to clean their garden vegetables, simmer sauces, make pasta, and prepare everyday meals for the family, who’s main meal was often eaten in the basement.

You ask why the basement and not the kitchen of the house, because the kitchen was in the basement! The stone walls of the basement kept it cool in the summer and warm from the oven in the winter. Actually, ground level, the basement was in close proximity to the family garden which supported a good deal of the daily menu, it also hosted the Cantina (wine cellar) where fruit was fermented to make wines and vinegars, and its size ensured that the extended family could be seated and fed at one time.

 

Children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, all joined Franjustine around a 12’ long table made of various materials covered lovingly with brightly colored plastic tablecloths, which were changed for each season and each holiday. This was most certainly not the fine dining experience Mrs. P. creates for our family and the Inn’s guests, but most importantly, it was an experience of culinary delight each and every day for the family that gathered to cook and bless the table for the meal.

The picture painted, we talk now about La Viglia and the Pirone Family’s holiday Feast of the seven fishes. The story is told that the feast took seven days to prepare. Each family unit would gather their home-grown/homemade ingredients and deliver them to Franjustine for ultimately becoming part of their holiday meal. Mrs. P.’s father, Jimmy, owned the neighborhood vegetable truck, so there was always a crop of over-ripened fruit and vegetables that needed special care and most times a prayer to ensure they would be included in the feast. Ripe tomatoes and zucchini became poumontaisse sauce for the cod, mature eggplant created the jumbout (a vegetable stew) to compliment seafood, garlic and onions were sautéed for the most wonderful clam sauces featured over linguini, while the fruit was transformed into wines, liqueurs, pies and other Italian sweets.

The following Christmas Sweets are the creation of Mrs. P.’s Grandchildren, show that the tradition will live on . . .

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Ben’s Gingerbread Tree
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Orange Olive Oil Cake
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Mikie’s Vegan Cookies
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Sarah’s Apple Walnut Cheesecake
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Breakfast for Champions

The Breakfast for champions consists of:

• Banana pudding
• Brownie Crisps
• Crepe Cake
• Top left: bacon jalapeno cornbread
• Top right: Biscotti

The Christmas Eggs and Ham also made an appearance at Mrs. P’s Christmas morning table.

The following Christmas Sweets are the creation of Mrs. P.’s Grandchildren, show that the tradition will live on . . .

Perhaps, mussels fra diavolo, fried calamari, baked or smoked salmon, or whatever the local fishmonger was offering for the holiday. The tradition of the feast has continued in the Pirone Family as it has grown in number and new locations around the country. Today, Mrs. P.’s Christmas Eve table is clothed in linen, set with fine china, adorned with silver, and filled with her children, her grandchildren and great grand-children. As a family we are truly blessed and looking forward to the Festa dei sette pesci 2022.

Here is what’s on the menu for Christmas Eve at Mrs. P.’s House . . .

  1. For Lewy – the oldest son-in-law who grew up in Maine – lobster – true to his heritage, over a dozen lobsters are boiled with lemon and served with barrels of drawn butter.
  2. Son-in-law, Andy’s favorite – poached salmon on a bed of sauteed spinach finished with fresh lemon. But he eats all seven!

    Her Grandsons’ Favorites:

  3. Nick – crab claws again like his father boiled and served with drawn butter.
  4. Rick – Gnocchi is his true favorite, but he complements it with lobster.
    Cat
  5. Michael – Dr. of food science, he eats every fish on the table!
  6. Ben – white clam sauce over linguini.
  7. Daniel – Calamari most times fried, but sometimes in a fisherman’s salad with shrimp, celery and a cistus vinaigrette.
  8. For granddaughter, Sarah – shrimp scampi, or parmigiana over pasta.
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Cat napping at the counter . . . after making 6 lbs. of gnocchi were made for the feast dinner 2021.
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Daughter, Barbara – not a fish fan will eat the shrimp, but makes her meal on the many vegetables including artichokes, and her favorite angel hair pasta with creamy pimento sauce. A recipe created by Mrs. P. for La Viglia.

  1. for good luck . . . Mrs. P. loves the Baccala Aglio e Oil – salted cod that soaks for days then on the Eve, she sautés it with garlic and oil. And, again fresh lemon.

As for me, the oldest daughter, the feast is really more about cooking with my mom and seeing the family around the table, as Christmas Eve and Day are the only holidays we are not serving guests at the inn . . . and I practice a vegan diet much to my mom’s dismay!

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Not a creature was stirring not even Mrs. P. . . . after a long day of cooking and feeding the family her feast of the sever seas. To all a buona notte!

Send us a message if you would like a recipe for any of the seven fish dishes at the Pirone Family Table on Christmas Eve.

From our house to yours . . .

Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday Season!

feast of seven fishes 009

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