Thursday, February 29, 2024

‘Bringing exciting seafood to people on Christmas’: An Italian-American feast honored at local eateries

Seabird will have oysters as one of its selections during the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, served with a cucumber semi Fredo and a little bit of caviar. (Courtesy Seabird)

WILMINGTON — Jonathan O’Donnell has fond memories of Christmas Eves spent preparing seven varieties of fish — or seafood — for his family’s holiday dinner. It’s part of tradition that Italian-Americans nationwide celebrate, some honoring heritage, others religion.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is traditionally hosted every Dec. 24. Its roots come from southern Italy, a meal known as “La Vigilia” — or in vigil of fasting from meat until Christmas Day. How it evolved into the Feast of the Seven Fishes is up for debate, but mostly credited to immigrant families that made their way to the United States and brought some of their homeland’s traditions with them. 

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O’Donnell, of Italian-Irish descent, grew up in New England and links the seven fish served to the representation of the seven sacraments in Roman Catholicism — which his family follows.

The custom has vacillated throughout the years, some saying it must only consist of an odd number of fish items — three, five or seven — but O’Donnell sticks to its namesake.

“It always has to be seven fish items or seafood or it’s bad luck,” he said. “I remember that being emphasized when I was a kid.”

At his Monkey Junction restaurant, Junction 421, he is celebrating the feast with a five-course meal offered between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve for $70. It’s the third year O’Dell has offered the experience; though previous years it was hosted on a Tuesday night rather than Dec. 24 proper.  

“And it was very successful,” he said. “I think a lot of people hold dear a tradition they remember from their childhood and are enamored that they can celebrate it with us again and remember their fond memories.”

In New England, his family always shopped at Schermerhorns Seafood in Massachusetts for lobster, swordfish, clams and scallops. 

“Lobster was a common feature on our table particularly on holidays,” he said. “We would start cooking early Christmas Eve morning together until dinner that night. It was about sharing in the ritual.”

His family up North still hosts the dinners annually, his brother taking the lead, O’Donnell said: “Maybe one year they’ll come here and join us.”

With the change of landscape comes the change of the ocean’s bounty. As such O’Donnell has grown to love flounder, one of the fish that appears on the Junction menu this year. It will be filled with crab and shrimp stuffing — “something I learned from my Southern wife,” he said. 

The two took over the restaurant — formerly Osteria Cicchetti — from Ash Aziz in 2019. Lobster will still appear on the menu in the Pasta Newberg, also featuring shrimp, crab, and sherry cream. O’Donnell devised the menu with his chef, Eddie Anderson, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who will bring a smoked salmon salad of his own creation and a sweet ending in the blood orange cannoli. 

Otherwise, Anderson, also with Italian roots, is adhering to a few of O’Donnell’s family recipes, such as Oysters Delaney.

“It was from our family restaurant — made with Sherry, horseradish, fontina, Hollandaise and bread crumbs,” O’Donnell said. “Just a wonderful dish.”

Though the Feast of the Seven Fishes is just now beginning to catch on a bit more down South, O’Donnell said he has seen it grow in popularity since introducing it a few years ago. 

David Scott, of CraftGrown Market, attributes it to the influx of northerners that have migrated to the area. 

“And that includes me,” he quipped. Scott moved to Wilmington from New York in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Previously, he lived in Ohio and worked as a chef at a few Italian restaurants — PJ Snappers and Youngstown Crab Company. It was there he was introduced to the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

“We fried tons of smelts and calamari,” he remembered, two fish that often make appearances on a traditional seven fishes menu. 

Though not Italian — Scott said his “Hungarian mother and Catholic father” were more inclined to cook halushki and stuffed cabbage — he learned from Italian restaurateurs how to make great sauce and take leftover scraps to reinvent a dish.

“Italian food is really a romantic thing,” the culinary graduate said. “It takes a while, has beautiful ingredients, and it kind of matches with my career: taking nothing and making something with just about anything.”

Scott has owned and operated restaurants, as well as worked at them, but opened his gourmet market on Castle Street in the fall. It specializes in local, national and international artisanal foods. As a passion project he decided to host a pop-up Feast of the Seven Fishes at Salt Fish Restaurant and Tiki Bar in Carolina Beach on Christmas Eve (he said he has more pop-ups planned for January, including a Jewish deli).

Seven fishes are represented across his menu’s multiple courses, including clams in clams casino and again dunked in cioppino, also featuring mussels, crabs and langostinos.

“I’m taking ingredients from Italy off of my shelves that I sell every single day and putting them into practice with a lot of local seafood from Cheney Brothers and Seaview Restaurant,” he said.

Two kinds of octopus appear in the seafood salad, topped with local microgreens from CraftGrown Farms, which shares a storefront with Scott’s market. Local shrimp float in a creamy marsala topped with “big fat paccheri noodles from Italy,” Scott said. 

He is most excited about a fish dip made from an Italian classic: baccalà. It essentially translates to salted cod. It’s rehydrated after soaking in water for 24 hours and drained three times throughout the process.

“It’s salty — definitely unique,” Scott said. “This is a great thing to make a dip with. We’re cutting it with red skin potatoes and other ingredients before whipping it, to be served with Italian bread from Tribeca.”

Scott enlisted the help of Leslie Weiss from Blockade Runner, Reina Laws from Quanta Basta and the Salt Fish team to pull off serving about 200 plates during two seatings of 36 people each. The meal will be presented family-style at 4:30 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m.

“However, we are taking single reservations at the bar,” Scott said, noting only a few are left. 

Customers will be greeted with a negroni and there will be a cocktail menu featuring Italian classics like an Aperol spritz (alcohol is purchased separately from the meal, which is $100 a person).

“This is really just an art project,” Scott said. “This is not about making money for me. It’s just about having a good time, creating an experience.”

He said he has been hitting up thrift stores for white tablecloths and every piece of Waterford crystal he could find to create his vision of something akin to the 1920s Italian-American experience. He wants to entice the idea of an old Italian bistro — or even an Italian grandmother’s home.

“Whether it’s in Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Youngstown, all of which have high populations of Italian-Americans,” he added, “when you come to Salt Fish on Christmas Eve, you’re eating your hot peppers and oil from Youngstown, by the way.”

Downtown at Seabird, local chef Dean Neff has been accustomed to a traditional Southern Christmas Eve dinner most of his life. Basically, it looked like Thanksgiving redux — perhaps with a ham replacing the turkey. So embracing an Italian-American custom this holiday season has been refreshing, he said.

“There is something nice about looking for other traditions and experiencing things from other places and being able to kind of change it up a little bit,” he said. “And I get tired of eating turkey.”

Feast of the Seven Fishes is in line with Neff’s overall approach at Seabird, a seafood-centric establishment that highlights the freshness of the sea and land. The tie-in to focus on a meal celebrating the bounty of the sea seemed a natural fit.

“I feel like we can be a really fun version of it,” he said. “It’s what we do already.”

Though he was introduced to its concept in Atlanta years ago when he worked at an Italian restaurant, Preachy, he said this will be the first year he is executing it with his team, including pastry chef Jim Diecchio. Formerly of Benny’s Big Time, Diecchio hosted the meal at the South Front restaurant years ago.

Oysters, a mainstay at Seabird, are offered in local varieties but also will have special ones coming from Maine. A few different types of caviar, such as Siberian sturgeon from Marhsallberg, North Carolina, will be included as well. 

However, one dish he is most excited about is the triggerfish fritter. It’s similar to salted cod brandade, Neff compared, marinated in juniper berries, bay leaves, peppercorns and salt. Like baccalà, it, too, is soaked it in cold water numerous times and drained before prepared.

“It pulls some of the salt out and changes the flavor to be a really savory and wonderful, comforting fish flavor,” he said.

He makes the fritters by cooking down leeks in butter with the salted fish, adding milk and “stirring it like crazy until it becomes this really wonderful leak-butter fish fluff,” Neff said. Then cooked potatoes are riced in and it’s finished off with duck egg yolks to bind before being scooped into a fryer.

“Some people serve them with spicy tomato sauce, but we’re doing a lemony aioli,” Neff said. “This is the most comforting dish I can possibly imagine for wintertime.”

He is also serving sardines marinated in lemon, herbs and olive oil, topped on seaweed-sourdough toast, handmade by Diecchio, with salsa verde drizzled atop. A yellowtail carpaccio will be on the menu, with mains including a clam pasta with roasted garlic and mullet roe bottarga — a salted, cured fish roe pouch that provides an umami flavor when grated over the pasta.

Sea bass, he’s hoping, also will be available. 

“If we can get it,” Neff said. “When you depend on sustainable fishing, it’s all about being able to pivot at the last minute. If we can’t do that, we may do a Christmas flounder.”

An Italian squid fregula — small pasta nodes — will come with a spicy tomato sauce, something Neff said he has been churning out a lot over the course of his decades-long culinary career. It has raisins, pine nuts and chili flakes as well, finished with homemade toasts.

There also will be vegan options, such as a mushroom roulade — sticking with the meat-fasting traditions some may follow on Christmas Eve. 

“It’s a fun preparation where you’re treating mushrooms like meat, prepared like a porchetta or roast,” he said. 

While the Feast of the Seven Fishes is rooted in the idea of foregoing meat or animal fat the day before Christ’s birth — though, some families have the sausages and gravy ready to serve at the stroke of midnight, Christmas — Seabird will have a short ribs dish offered as well.

The prix-fixe menu for the seven fishes starts at $85, though the full menu is also available a la carte. The restaurant is open until 9 p.m. and Neff said reservations have been booking fast. 

“People are really excited to come out to this,” he said. “This is right in our wheelhouse — this format of bringing exciting seafood to people on Christmas.”

To learn more about reservations and the menu for Seabird, click here, Salt Fish here, and Junction 421 here.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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