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Food & Entertaining

A Sicilian Celebration

Author: Christina Barrueta
Issue: December, 2017, Page 70
photography by Rick Gayle

Lobster Fra Diavolo, click on image for recipe
The Feast of the Seven Fishes Embraces Old-World Holiday Traditions

Chef and restaurateur Tomaso Maggiore remembers celebrating Christmas Eve as a child back in Italy. “My mom used to go crazy cooking,” he says, his eyes lighting up as he recalls cherished memories of “La Vigilia di Natale,” the eve. At the heart of his family’s gathering was “La Festa dei Sette Pesci,” or Feast of the Seven Fishes, a seven-course seafood celebration.

“The table was always so festive. Even if you ate an hour before, looking at that food on the table made you hungry all over again,” Maggiore laughs. “If there had been some arguments going on, on that day it would all stop. All the aunts, uncles and cousins; everybody’s talking, everybody’s festive. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience growing up to see all of that.”

Photos - From left: Uova di Ravioli, Scallops With Risotto

The centuries-old tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve is rooted in the Roman Catholic custom of abstinence from meat on the eve of certain holidays, and the seven-course repast, most popular in Southern Italy, alludes to the number seven in Catholic symbolism.  Though some families may celebrate with 10 or more courses, it is believed the seven may represent the seven sacraments or the seven days of Creation.

“Food in Italy is an important part of the festivities, and my love of cooking came from the family. My mom was my inspiration. It fascinated me how this woman could take simple things and turn them into those delicious flavors,” Maggiore reminisces. “There would be three generations cooking. My grandmother, my mom and my sister. They would all be in the kitchen preparing something, giggling and talking. That was great, that family warmth. And the smell when they cooked! Even a blind person would know it was Christmas.”

Chef Tomaso Maggiore has been sharing his Italian culinary traditions with Valley diners for more than 40 years. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a holiday celebration his family never misses.
Originally from Palermo, Sicily, Maggiore arrived in New York in 1971. His first job was cooking at a restaurant on Arthur Avenue, the heart of Little Italy in the Bronx. “I was very impressed by the Italian-Americans and how they preserved their traditions from back home,” he recalls. “It was something I really admired, and I still visit good friends and the same restaurants back East.” However, warmer weather beckoned, and when a friend invited him one winter to stay at his home in Fountain Hills, it didn’t take long to make the change. “I remember, the minute I landed at Sky Harbor Airport, I saw the sun, it was beautiful, and I asked myself, ‘How long has this been going on?’ I called my brother and said, ‘Listen, you better come over here.’ He came, we spent about 10 days, and right there and then we made up our minds that this is where we wanted to be.”

His Sicilian culture and customs traveled with him, and he’s instilled these sacred traditions in his family. “I am so proud to say that both of my kids, Joey and Melissa, are big time into Italian tradition,” says Maggiore, “and of course, the grandchildren are, too.” Part of that observance includes gathering around the table every Christmas Eve for the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Gamberi alla Francese and Lobster Ravioli
“It’s an Italian tradition mostly from Rome to down south, not as much northern Italy, though I don’t know why,” Maggiore explains. “The reason why they do fish is officially for religious beliefs, but, to me, it’s really about gathering friends and family and enjoying great food—a time for family to celebrate. Sometimes we come together at my house, but the meal has become so popular at my restaurants that we often have to work. So in the last few years, we’ve gathered at the restaurant and gotten a nice table for all of us. We never skip it. It is very important to me.”

The Maggiores always begin with clams first steamed in white wine, shallots and garlic and then transformed into baked clams oreganata with an oregano-scented cap of breadcrumbs and freshly grated pecorino Romano. Grilled octopus and mussels are embellished with sweet tomatoes and roasted potatoes, and balsamic-glazed sea scallops join broccoli rabe on a bed of risotto decorated with parmigiano cheese crisps. “After that is finished and the table is cleared, we do a pasta course,” Maggiore shares. It makes an appearance as a briny platter of indulgence in lobster fra diavolo with clams and crabmeat over handmade squid ink pasta tossed with white wine and fresh tomatoes spiked with pepperoncino. There is also a crustacean component of gamberi alla francese (shrimp in a light egg batter) soaking up a lemon-caper sauce paired with lobster ravioli in which Tomaso veers from tradition by infusing the dough with beets to create rosy pink stuffed-pasta pockets. A whole crispy-skinned sea bass arrives to the table simply, and perfectly, finished with lemon and fruity extra-virgin olive oil. Ending the meal is uova di ravioli draped in a creamy seafood sauce. Picture decadent ravioli enclosing a whole egg yolk nestled in herbed ricotta, the golden yolk oozing out when cut to form a rich sauce.

Baked Clams Oreganata, click on image for recipe
Maggiore shares other memories of this beloved culinary ritual. “We would go to church, and my mother would dress us to the nines. Nice white shirts, best behavior and everything; that was beautiful.” Dressing up to celebrate the family holiday is still important to him today. “Oh yes, I command that,” he says with a chuckle. “After church, we would sit down to dinner, which would last a long time. We’d have espresso and dessert and make the famous cassata Siciliana (a sponge cake brushed with maraschino liqueur, layered with cannoli cream studded with chocolate chips and covered in marzipan and candied citrus). Then we would play tombola until about 3 a.m., both the kids and the adults. It was always special and so much fun.”

This Christmas Eve, the annual Feast of the Seven Fishes menu will be offered at Maggiore’s two Valley restaurants, Tomaso’s and Tomaso’s When in Rome. But with these recipes lovingly shared by Maggiore himself, you can also create your own wonderful culinary traditions and celebrate Italy’s heritage at home.

“It’s tradition, passion, family and love,” says Maggiore when asked to describe the feast. “You watch everybody hugging and kissing, because love is in the air, and you feel it too.”

Sea Bass With Fennel, click on image for recipe

Wood Fire-Charred Spanish Octopus with Mussels, click on image for recipe

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