It doesn’t matter where the nonnas were  born. On Christmas Eve, they serve the same dishes in South Brooklyn as their families  served  in Naples or Sicily or Calabria. The mouthwatering aroma of fish anointed with garlic and olive oil, capers, raisins, and crispy, crunchy crust fills whole neighborhoods, as the nonnas and their families prepare not just a dinner but a vigilia. It’s a traditional vigil that takes place while they await the birth of the Bambino Gesu. Before the midnight church service, before the opening of the gifts, before the placing of a tiny Jesus statue in a manger under the tree, but after the tree-trimming and the shopping marathon ends, the relatives and guests arrive, and the feasting begins.

The  nonnas and  their families live in neighborhoods where other people from their hometowns — on the other side — live. So  the cooking of a particular region lives on in  different parts of  Brooklyn.  And therein lies the tiniest bit of friction in what is otherwise a joyous holiday. The one thing the dishes have in common is fish — and lots of it. But some nonnas elect to cook a different kind of fish for the feast of the seven fishes. In the days leading up to the Eve, the nonnas meet most often at the fish market.

“The eels, the eels, nice fresh ones, please,” shouts a  nonna  to make sure the fishmonger hears her.

“O fa,”  says another nonna quietly. “Eels? Doesn’t she know about whiting, merluzzo, shrimp, baccala?” She shakes her head in disbelief and turns to her companion. “And eels, they’re so fatty, so fatty, no matter how you cook them. Bah!”  She catches the eye of the fishmonger and says,  “Three pounds of merluzzo, please.”

Overhearing this exchange, the first nonna pipes up. “So, you’ll use anchovies in the pasta, not sardines, right?” She answers her own question “Because sardines are too tough to clean,”she says bitterly.  “Eh, merluzzo and alici, they’re lazy people’s food.”

“No, they’re not” says the nonna, as she picks up the brown paper bag holding the merluzzo.”They’re holiday food; that’s why they’re special. I rermember my mother cooking them as she told me about her mother, who made the same dishes in Italy. ”

And soon each is telling a tale of mamma — her mamma — and her Christmas Eve exploits.  They laugh at some of the stories, nod their heads knowingly, and dab at their eyes as they reminisce.

“They really knew how to celebrate,” one says, “and they had nothing. we hve everything, and we  argue over serving eel or whiting.”

The subject is closed, the bickering forgotten. “We meet on the corner at 7:30 tonight to walk to church for the novena.”

Pasta With Sardines (Sicily)

Serves six

  • 2 pounds sardines, skinned and boned
  • 2 bunches fennel
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup dried currants (soaked 5 minutes in hot water  to cover)
  • 1/2 cup toasted almonds
  • 8 anchovy fillets
  • 1-1/2 pounds bucatini or perciatelli
  • 2 cups toasted fresh white bread crumbs
  1. Trim the fennel of some of its fronds; wash it well; slice thinly
  2.  Boil fennel — in the salted water that you will use to boil the pasta– 10 minutes or until it is tender.
  3. Heat 1/4 cup  olive oil add onions, nuts, drained currants and almonds; saute until onions turn golden. Set ingredients aside. Wipe out skillet.
  4. Sauté sardines until golden in remaining 1/4 cup oil 
  5. Remove sardines from pan; add fennel and stir to coat with oil.
  6. Boil pasta in fennel water until done to desired bite. Drain pasta. Stir nut mixture into fennel.
  7. Top with toasted bread crumbs.


Pasta with Anchovies (Naples)

Serves six

  • 3 cans best-quality anchovy fillets
  • 1 tablespoon capers, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, quartered
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Red pepper flakes to taste
  • 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs ground from good quality white bread
  • 2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
  • 1 1/2 pounds spaghettini
  1. Put salted water on to boil for pasta.
  2. While pasta is boiling, in a skillet heat olive oil until it shimmers.
  3. Add garlic and cook until it is golden; add red pepper flakes and anchovies with their oil. Stir rapidly to break up anchovies; reduce heat.
  4. Stir in bread crumbs and parsley. Toss in pasta.  Serve.

Baccala (Naples)

Serves eight

Purchase dried cod several days in advance to have time to soak it.

  • 1 1/2  pounds dried cod
  • 1 large white onion diced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons anisette or pernod
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • Pinch of salt
  • Sprinkle fennel seeds
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Red pepper flakes to taste
  • Bay leaf
  • Package Pomi strained tomatoes
  1. Two days before serving: Place fish in a large bowl of cold water in the refrigerator.
  2. Rinse fish and change water every 4 hours, or as often as possible.. 
  3. On serving day: In a heavy, nonreactive pot, sauté the onion in oil; add spices. Reduce heat and carefully add the wine and anisette.
  4. Over a medium flame, allow the alcohol to evaporate. Stir in tomatoes. Simmer sauce until thick and reduced by half–about 30 minutes.
  5. Drain fish. Rinse well. Dry on paper towels. Cut into serving pieces. Add fish to simmering sauce. Partially cover pot.
  6. Simmer 25 minutes or until fish flakes easily.


Baccala (Sicily)

Follow above recipe for sauce.

  1. Add 1/2 c. toasted pine nuts and 1/2 cup currants to the sauce.
  2. Serve with friselle biscuits.


Fritto Misto (popular all over)

Serves 12

  • 1 1/2 pounds baccala, soaked and dried
  • 3 pounds calamari, including tentacles, cleaned and skinned
  • 1 1/2 pounds whiting (merluzzo) fillets, skin left on, rinsed, dried
  • 2 pounds large shrimp, deveined,  rinsed, dried
  • 2 pounds scallops,  rinsed, dried
  • 2 pounds lemon sole or flounder fillets,rinsed, dried
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 to 4 cups olive oil (NOT extra-virgin)
  • Coarse salt to taste
  • 4 lemons sliced in quarters
  1. Keep the fish refrigerated up to the moment of preparation. Make sure fish is  washed  clean and dried.
  2. Heat two large  frying pans, preferably nonstick; place  two large cookie sheets with rims (jelly-roll pans)  in a 170 degree F oven.
  3. Add enough oil to completely cover the bottoms  of the pans with a layer about 1/8-inch thick.
  4. Place the flour in a paper lunch bag.
  5. While pans are heating begin to flour fish. Flour only a few pieces at a time. Fry fish in hot oil, making sure there is enough room between pieces to ensure even browning. As fish is fried place it on baking sheets in oven.
  6. Add more oil as needed to pans. If flour forms a heavy coating in pan, wipe out pan, add fresh oil, and start again.
  7. Salt right before serving with lemon slices. 


Fish Salad (Naples)

Early in day:

Select one of the fishes above, not the seafood, fry according to recipe above.

  • Fried fish  (see recipe above)
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Thinly sliced onion rings
  • Small quantity vinegar.
  1. Place fish in a single layer on platter .
  2. Sprinkle with remaining ingredients.
  3. Serve at room temperature.




Serves four

  • 4 pounds cultivated mussels, clean, debearded
  • 6 cloves garlic quartered
  • 1/2 c. olive oil
  • Freshly grated pepper
  • Pinch salt
  • 3 tablespoons anisette
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf Italian Parsley
  1. Scrub and debeard mussels.
  2. In a deep nonreactive skillet, sauté garlic in olive oil, add salt and pepper, wine and anisette.
  3. Add mussels. Cover closely. Shake pan occasionally until mussels open. Discard any that do not open.


Baked Red Snapper (Naples)

Serves four

  • 1 whole red snapper, slit down one side, cleaned, gutted, head removed, well washed and dried
  • 1 large onion
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup freshly made bread crumbs from good quality white bread
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 pound large shrimp, cleaned, deveined, washed, dried and diced
  • 3 tablespoons white wine plus 3 additional tablespoons
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degreesF.
  2. Rub fish all over with some of the oil.
  3. Add a tablespoon of the oil to a large nonreactive baking dish. Rub the dish with the oil
  4. Heat the remaining oil in a skillet. Sauté the diced onion until it is slightly golden and translucent. Add salt pepper, bread crumbs. Stir until crumbs begin to turn pale gold. Increase heat, add shrimp. Saute shrimp until cooked through.
  5. Add  3 tablespoons wine. Stir; remove from heat. Mix shrimp, onion, and crumbs together to form stuffing for fish.
  6. Stuff cavity of red snapper with mixture. Hold fish closed with toothpicks if necessary.
  7. Sprinkle remaining 3 tablespoons of wine over and around fish.
  8. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until fish flakes easily and skin is golden.


Sicilian Christmas Pie or Escarole Pie

Serves six

  • 2 pounds  pizza dough, homemade or purchased.
  • 3 heads escarole, well washed, chopped, steamed 3 minutes
  • 1/2 pound mozzarella diced
  • 12 anchovy fillets cut in pieces
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons  olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper.
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degreesF.
  2. Divide the dough into four parts.
  3. Oil two 9-inch pie pans with a bit of the olive oil. Line each pan with one fourth of the dough, stretched and rolled to fit with a slight overhang.
  4.  Se aside 1 tablespoon olive oil to brush top crust.
  5. Combine all remaining  ingredients.
  6. Fill pie shells and roll out remaining dough; place crust on top, sealing it to bottom crust. Pierce top crust with fork or knife.
  7. Brush top crust with olive oil
  8. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. 


Neapolitan Spinach Pie

Serves six

  • 2 pounds  pizza dough, homemade or purchased.
  • 8 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
  • Crushed red pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup olive oil plus 1 tablespoon
  • 2 pounds spinach,  chopped, steamed, squeezed dry
  • 1 pound ricotta
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degreesF.
  2. Divide the dough into four parts.
  3. Oil two 9-inch pie pans with a bit of the olive oil. Line each pan with one fourth of the dough, stretched and rolled to fit with a slight overhang.
  4.  Set aside 1 tablespoon olive oil to brush top crust.
  5. Combine all remaining  ingredients.
  6. Fill pie shells and roll out remaining dough; place crust on top, sealing it to bottom crust.
  7. Brush top crust with olive oil
  8. Pierce top crust with fork or knife.
  9. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.


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One Response to The Christmas Eve Feast

  1. minijuniormints says:

    Mmmm…the snapper and the frito misto are TO DIE FOR!!

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