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The tradition of the Italian Christmas Eve Feast

Monday, December 20, 1999

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor

It's difficult to precisely pin down the origins of the "seven fishes of Christmas Eve" that many Italian-Americans serve, but Rizzi DeFabo has tried.

The restaurateur, whose family owns Rizzi's Malabar Inn in Crabtree, says he always heard the seven fishes talked about for Christmas Eve dinner, but there was never an explanation. Three theories:

The Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church -- baptism, penance, Holy Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and the sacrament of the sick.

The seven sins of the world -- pride, envy, anger, gluttony, sloth, lust and greed.

The seven days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.

"Some say it's the seven hills of Rome, some say it's the seven winds of Italy, or the Seven Wonders of the World," he says.

DeFabo says the northern Italian people "don't really know about this custom. It's from Naples on down, a southern Italian tradition."

Many Italian families will serve many more than seven fish -- up to 21 types of various preparations.

As for the fixed number of dishes, DeFabo Rizzi says, "Southern Italians are very superstitious. I'm very superstitious." His roots are in the south of Italy, too, his father from the Abruzzi region, his mother's town in the Molise region.

"No expense was spared to buy the fish for Christmas Eve," DeFabo says. His own family will be host for 32 family members for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner at their home near the restaurant. This marks the 85th consecutive year the family has gathered.

Family togetherness is important, DeFabo says, if you want to follow the popular Italian saying "Natale con I tuoi; Pasqua conchi vuoi," which means "Christmas with your family; Easter with whomever you wish."

Through Thursday, the restaurant is serving smelt, calamari, , shrimp, eel and baccala three different ways -- stewed, in a salad and deep-fried. It is accompanied by spaghetti with raisins, walnuts and breadcrumbs with garlic and oil. His grandmother always made cauliflower battered and deep fried./. The signature dessert is panettone, a holiday cake.

DeFabo considers baccala, which is dried cod, the most popular holiday fish.

Lou Dell'Aquila of Leet Township also includes baccala at his traditional Christmas Eve party for family and friends. He says many cultures besides the Italians enjoy dried cod, including Scandinavians, Portuguese and the Spanish.

"They salt it right on the boat," he says. "The key man on the boat was the man who knew how to salt -- too much destroys flavor, too little salt and it would rot."

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