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Christmas Eve feast of the fishes

Monday, December 20, 1999

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

The side-by-side, reddish-orange front doors of Lou and Kathleen Dell'Aquila's circa-1800 log house in Leet Township are skinny. The crowd at their annual Christmas Eve dinner Friday night may be able to squeeze through one door when they arrive, but they'll probably also have to open the second door to leave.

    Related article:

The tradition of the Italian Christmas Eve Feast


The food will be that sumptuous.

"I'm like a child, and this is my time of year," says Lou Dell'Aquila. The party is a tradition that he inherited from his Italian father. "My father's birthday was on Christmas Eve, and he loved to celebrate. Growing up, it was mostly family and the neighborhood."

It was a custom that Dell'Aquila was happy to pick up and expand on. "This is a joyous time of year. I have my own flocked white Christmas tree in my bedroom. It's decorated with sterling silver and crystal."

On the 11 acres that sport their own holly trees and an herb garden that the Dell'Aquilas added after they moved to the historic house in 1989, the rural setting is perfect for such a festive event, which has drawn as many as 100 guests. "If we have 6 inches of snow, we'll have 30 or 40," says Kathleen Dell'Aquila.

This is no catered affair. The Dell'Aquilas cook, and we do mean cook.

The guests wander through seven downstairs rooms -- additions on both ends expand the original "two up and two down" wattle-and-daub house -- that the couple light that with beeswax candles and warm with three fireplaces.

This year Dell'Aquilas are cooking for 60 to 75 visitors, a group that includes all five children, age 43 to 22, save one.

"This has done a lot for the family," says Lou, "and when I say I'm going to give it up, because it's so much work, they won't let me."

He took up the feast of the fishes after his father died in 1955. "After 40 years you can do it in your sleep," he claims.

He recalls his four oldest children walking by the counter where he was making one of the evening's delicacies, squid tentacles, a handy, crunchy food that his kids could eat like chips. "You can't stop at just one," Dell'Aquila jokes. They'd eat them as quickly as he'd fry them. "I'd tell them, at least save one or two."

One part of his preparations has changed. "As a kid you cleaned squid. Now I pay a dollar a pound to have it cleaned."

Youngest of 10 children, Dell'Aquila says he never heard his father talk about the proverbial "seven fishes" that are traditional in some Italian-American homes. Of course, every region in Italy has its distinct traditions, he says. His father was Neapolitan, his mother from Sicily.

"I think it's an American tradition," he speculates.

Of course, he adds, he's not the traditional Italian: "I'm a first-generation Italian-American Republican Presbyterian Mason."

Family affair

Dell' Aquila was reared in Homewood-Brushton, where many Italian immigrants had settled.

His father, who had studied for the priesthood before leaving Italy for America at the turn of the century, ran a bakery, then a grocery store. He met Lou's mother, a widow with five children, when he was delivering groceries. He was 40 when they married, and five more children followed.

"My dad was 51 when I was born," Dell'Aquila says. In a way, his own life evolved in a similar way. After his wife Babs died from cancer, leaving him with four chidden, he says Kathleen took a chance on them and married into the family in 1976. "I was 47 when our youngest daughter was born."

Lilli Dell'Aquila, now 22, has from Rice University for the holidays. Also participating are daughters Jean Dell'Aquila of Highland Park and Denise Mersky with son-in-law Glenn and grandson Glenn Louis Mersky, of Bucks County; and son David, of Ellicott City, Md. Son John and wife Laurie are expecting and won't be making the trip from Houston with his sister.

David Dell'Aquila, who's 6-foot-6 and recently found fame in the Baltimore Sun by eating two 48-ounce steaks at Shula's Steak House in the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, will be outdoors on the patio frying squid.

"Lilli doesn't like to cook," her father says, "but she understands the nuances of taste."

As for himself, "I can look at a recipe and I can taste it."

'Lou's thing'

Lou smiles when he recalls the ghosts of Christmas Eves past. He estimates that he spends 80 to 120 hours preparing the feast. On our visit, his wife, an administrator at the Veterans Administration, where they met, says she's having a day off, but soon excuses herself, saying "this is Lou's thing."

The thing is running a week behind schedule this year, because the couple took time off for a trip to the Virgin Islands to celebrate her birthday.

An attorney, Lou is semi-retired after 37 years with the VA, though he continues to practice law in his wonderfully appointed office, where law papers share space with cookbooks. Though he estimates his cookbooks at "200 or 300," he appears to know where everything is, and when a recipe is discussed he pulls out a cookbook and out spills recipes clipped from magazines and newspapers, typed and handwritten recipes by friends and relatives -- and his own jottings. He keeps records of the menus and the guests who enjoyed them.

His knowledge of food is so extensive, I wished for a Vulcan mind meld to acquire even a tiny percentage of what he knows. In short order, I experienced food fact overload and nearly shorted out my limited food editor circuits.

Dell'Aquila is the kind of cook who served not only turkey on Thanksgiving, but a Syrian style leg of lamb as well. He has traditional pumpkin pie but also tried one with maple syrup. That secret is simple: "In pumpkin pie, you can't do it without that 1/4 teaspoon of cloves."

And if you want an example of how a loving request is fulfilled, consider the Johnny Bull Puddin' that his wife requested many years ago. There was no recipe, of course.

"She remembered her grandmother making it," he recalls, still excited by the thrill of that chase. "But all she knew was that it had fruit and it was wrapped in a bag and boiled."

After 17 or so years of thorough research, experimentation with myriad ingredients and a lawyer's downright devotion to detail, as of five years ago, he has it: 38 ingredients, including his own homemade mincemeat, a cake that is boiled in a bag for 12 hours -- "the water is the key; it's almost a sauce so it doesn't leach out the flavor." The day of the party he arises at 4 a.m. to boil the aged puddin' and reheat.

"I have found nobody -- even I who hate fruitcakes -- who doesn't like it," he says.

Of course, presentation may be part of it. "At 9 o'clock we carry it flaming through the house to serve," he says. Alight in a beautiful blue flame, it has a little sprig of holly and is served with a brandy hard sauce. He also serves his tiramisu made with his from-scratch sponge cake and Italian cookies, too.

Dell'Aquila makes a present of many gifts from the sea. He always makes linguine with clam sauce, which his wife always serves in the dining room, "so she has a chance to greet every guest."

It might be easy for someone to get lost in the big house, whose 4,000 square feet seem to go on and on over two floors, including four bedrooms. He does all his cooking on a five-burner gas stovetop and bakes in a double electric oven.

Kathleen contributes Coquilles St. Jacques, a mix of scallops, shrimp and crab, and the next day the children make sure another tradition is upheld at breakfast, the Brasadel (Jewish Coffee Cake) that their late mother used to make. It does not have 38 ingredients, and they make a little variation in the original recipe -- walnuts instead of raisins because a sister-in-law hates raisins.

And this brings up a quandary for any host.

When it comes to changing recipes to suit individual tastes, experience has taught Lou that it doesn't always work out. You don't tone down the shrimp with tomato-ginger sauce or the octopus salad for people who don't like spicy things. After all, they can dive into the salmon gravlax or the baked Brie with wild mushroom in phyllo. Other dishes include baked stuffed squid bodies, octopus and baccala, both fried and in salad.

"My wife tells me I ought to make the foods for the people who like them. There's plenty of other food for the people who don't like a particular dish."

There's an evolution, of course. "The octopus is the centerpiece, but there's aren't as many people who like it anymore as people die off," he says.

To Dell'Aquila a recipe is an "idea" and he delights in delving into cookbooks to get to the source of the dish. He's been sadly disappointed by many celebrity chef recipes, when ingredients are combined that shouldn't be in the name of trendiness. "They have beautiful presentation, but who can really beat mashed potatoes well prepared?"

He is the kind of man who can wax eloquent about the good old days of "leaf lard," when his family took a 40-pound case and rendered it down to 25 pounds. Today, he reaches for olive oil, Crisco or butter, but never margarine.

An avid antiquer by avocation, he thinks the old ways are usually the best ways. "As someone," he says with a grin, "who has gained and lost 4,000 pounds in a lifetime, I think people should create the best thing they can -- and eat less of it."

He'll have hip surgery in January, but for now there is a lot of cooking to be done. Hen I get tired, I just pull up a chair."

Though he regrets not making his own chocolate truffles and Italian cookies this year, it's doubtful any guest will go hungry.

"Everybody knows, though, I will be in bed by 10 o'clock -- in fact, it's kind of a joke for people to come upstairs to say goodnight."

Someone else in the family will have to open both front doors for the people who had their tummies warmed and their spirits lifted, Dell'Aquila style.

Related Recipes:

Brasadel (Jewish Coffee Cake)

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