Christmas Eve Italian Cooking Tradition
Susan Bimbo Nazzaro
“Statagitt, lasciami en pace, ”my grandmother says to my uncle Billy who is teasing her while she tries to roll out the dough for ravioli. It is Christmas Eve and she is making ravioli and spaghetti for Christmas Day Dinner. However, her grown son is always driving her crazy when he says, “Speak English!”, and generally being a pain, just because. There have been times when he pushes her too far and she hauls off and slaps him across the face, and all he does is laugh. All 4 of my uncles were teasers and no one was immune. Even though they made me cry sometimes, I loved being with them.
I learned the Christmas Eve tradition of making ravioli and spaghetti and having the seven fish dinner by watching my grandmother. My mother was very impatient with me. For instance, she would ask me to shred lettuce for antipasto and as I was doing this she would come over to me and say, “What is wrong with you, that’s not how you shred lettuce.” I would say, “Is there a special way to shred lettuce?” She’d come back with, “Don’t be a wiseass, Susan.” So I would drop what I was doing and leave knowing anything I did would not be good enough. My two brothers and three sisters would just take over my chore.
The Christmas Eve tradition for Italian Americans is having seven fishes for dinner and it is still my favorite time of year. The tradition of seven fishes comes from Southern Italy where my maternal grandparents came from in the early 1900s. There are several different stories about the seven fishes and the one I was told was that the number came from the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church. But it is also said that the number seven is used in the bible over seven hundred times, or that God rested on the seventh day or, maybe the Seven Hills of Rome.
It is the afternoon of Christmas Eve and I am at my sister, Annemarie’s house, in the kitchen. My sister and her husband had a new kitchen put onto his family’s old farmhouse. The kitchen has stone walls and the floor and the beams are made of wood from their 88 acre farm. We are preparing to make ravioli and spaghetti for the Christmas Day meal. On any given holiday, we Italian Americans really have a lot of food. First there is antipasto, then ravioli with meatballs in tomato sauce, then comes the whole turkey dinner with wine, of course. After all of that we have apple, custard or pumpkin pie and pizzelles (waffle cookies) and an assortment of other cookies. Not done yet; a little later, after the football games, we have eggplant parmesan and steamed artichokes stuffed with bread and covered in tomato sauce. Believe it or not we have fruit and nuts to munch on all day. This scenario is what I grew up with. However, it has been modified a little bit. At my sister’s there is always discussion of some sort. My twin nieces have been helping since they were seven or eight years old and now they are sixteen.
“Susan, remember to turn the thickness from four to eight when the dough goes through a second time.” I say, Yes, Annemarie, I’ve done this before.” You’d never know I am the older sister. Then she must also remind Emma by saying, “Don’t put too much ricotta on the dough.” Frustrated Emma says, “I know, Mom.”
“Rachel, have you done your chores?”, her Mom say.
It’s not my day, Mom, it’s Emma’s”, says Rachel.
Emma starts to protest when her mother tells her to look at the chore chart.
“Rachel get over here and work on the raviolis!”, Emma shouts.
We make the dough from scratch and basically it’s just flour, eggs and a little water. The dough is split into a bit smaller than baseball sized portions which are put into the pasta machine that, when cranked, rolls out the dough in a specific thickness. Then you lay out the 4X12 inch long piece of dough and drop about a teaspoon of prepared ricotta cheese (there is parsley, grated Romano cheese and eggs in the ricotta mix) about an inch apart on one side of the strip. The other side of the strip is then folded over the ricotta mixture. Each bump is cut with a wavy sided cookie cutter dipped in flour. Since I cannot have cheese, I make either a mushroom or spinach mixture for my raviolis. The dough is not made in a bowl. The flour is put on a wood table and you make a hole in the middle where you put the eggs. With your hands you gather together the ingredients with a little water and start kneading the dough. However, in this age of technology, the ingredients are mixed in a Cuisinart where the dough is kneaded. What I remember the most was when my grandmother would roll out the dough. Here was this short, round Italian woman with a huge wooden stick about 4 feet long and about 2” round. She would take the whole piece of dough and start rolling it out. Once the ravioli and spaghetti are done they are placed on a cookie sheet which is first covered with corn meal so the ravs don’t stick. Usually, the cookie sheets are put in a cool place until the pasta hardens a little.
The next part of our Christmas Eve cooking is the best! Now we prepare seven fishes for Christmas Eve dinner. My sister changed the tradition and makes a fish stew instead. The stew has a light tomato sauce base with clams, white fish, scallops, shrimp, and muscles. We also make stuffed
squid. “Susan, you put too much stuffing in the squid.” says Annemarie.
“Are you sure, Annemarie, because I’ve been doing this for half of my life.”
The squid is stuffed with a bread crumb mixture of cheese, parsley, salt and pepper and closed with a toothpick, then cooked for a short time in a light tomato sauce. If you cook squid too long it will become tough. Large shrimp are the last to be done. The shrimp are stuffed with a Ritz Cracker and walnut stuffing and is it good. Spaghetti aglio which is made with anchovies, olive oil and a little water is my absolute favorite!
Every year on Christmas Eve I would go upstairs to my grandparent’s and as soon as I stepped in the kitchen door there was a metal pan filled with water and two eel were swimming around. They were huge! The eels were part of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve. I guess they were good because I ate them.
Despite some family ego boxing, I am grateful and happy to have been born into this family and culture. I’ve know many other cultures, including Greek and Russian and they also have interesting Christmas traditions
All the recipes we have for stuffing for raviolis, and fish were given to us before my mother died. She typed several pages of recipes from pizza dough to the stuffing for shrimp and gave each of the six of us a copy. A few years ago sister, Theresa put them in a book and gave the book as Christmas gifts. Also, if you are interested in more recipes you can find them in “The Eve Of The Seven Fishes” by Robert A. Germano. The recipes in his book are somewhat different but still worth trying.
I would like to share one of the recipes she gave us.
Baked Stuffed Shrimp
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put butter in a fry pan, cook the onion.
In a mixing bowl, add crumbled up the crackers, mayonnaise, celery, walnut meal, Worcestershire Sauce, and cooked onions. The consistency should be such that you can form a ball about the size of a golf ball. Place raw, large shrimp in a baking dish, and place the ball of ingredients on top of the shrimp.
Bake for 20 minutes or until the shrimp is pink.
Do not overcook or the shrimp will be tough.
1 stick of butter ½ tsp celery salt
½ medium onion chopped 1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
2 cups of Ritz Cracker-crushed 16 large shrimp
3 Tbsp mayonnaise
 “Shut up, leave me alone!” translation courtesy of my Aunt Grace