A city with deep Italian-American roots, Philadelphia is one of the best places in the country to celebrate the over-the-top feast
When it comes to celebrating with food, Italians mean business. (I didn’t know that not every family ate a full pasta course before the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving until I met my husband. “Why are we skipping the ravioli?” I asked him, perplexed and hungry.) A shining example of this gusto is the annual Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner. Traditionally served on Christmas Eve, the grand seafood meal marks the final night of “fasting” before Christmas day, which, to many Roman Catholics, means avoiding red meat. In what could be viewed as one of the greatest loopholes in the history of dining, the meal has evolved into a multi-course seafood extravaganza with a seemingly neverending parade of plates brimming with baccalà (salted cod fish), fried calamari, pasta with mussels or crab and more. Meat who? A city with deep Italian-American roots, Philadelphia has several restaurants that commemorate the occasion with Feast of the Seven Fishes dinners. Red gravy BYOBs, fine-dining spots and even non-Italian restaurants get in on the celebration. Below, find six that are worth all that fasting.
If you missed Brad Spence’s Feast of the Seven Fishes cooking class this month—where the chef imparts techniques for some of his popular seafood dishes and students eat their way through the lesson—head to the Roman-style trattoria for his annual dinner. Start with robust antipasti—crab and mascarpone bruschetta, baccalà croquettes, baked clams and octopus salad—a pasta course that includes fettuccine bolognese with tuna subbed in for the traditional meat, and the secondi with monkfish and mussels in a saffron tomato broth. Finish with an amaretto semifreddo sundae with warm chocolate and hazelnuts. You won’t need dessert, but in true Italian tradition you’ll get it nonetheless. (December 23. $75 per person, $35 optional beverage pairing.)
Known for their menu filled with classic Italian-American comfort foods, this inviting red gravy spot in chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s Midtown Village restaurant empire is hosting a family-style feast in three courses. Bring your friends and pass around dishes like the baccalà al forno (whipped salt cod with potatoes), grilled octopus with a smoked garlic aioli and carrot top pesto and rigatoni alla vodka specked with lumps of Maryland crab. Pair it with a carafe of house red or a sparkling Prosecco. (December 17-19. $50 per person.)
In a decade-long tradition, Marc Vetri hosts his own family each Christmas Eve (which also happens to be his parents’ wedding anniversary), preparing the Feast of the Seven Fishes using recipes passed down through generations. The celebrated chef’s eponymous fine dining restaurant echoes this festive spirit with its annual dinner, featuring dishes like seafood risotto and handmade fettuccine with caciocavallo and Spanish octopus. Chances are this memorable meal will outshine your Christmas dinner. (December 19. $285 per person, $150 wine pairing.)
The New American restaurant in Old City just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and—according to critics and diners alike—just keeps getting better. This Christmas Eve, seven fishes will replace the restaurant’s à la carte menu, with dishes like scallop crudo (locally-caught in Barnegat Light, New Jersey), dandelion salad with pickled sardines and blood orange, fried smelts seasoned with lemon and seaweed salt and red wine gnocchetti with braised octopus. The custom wasn’t part of John Patterson’s own childhood, allowing Fork’s executive chef to approach the meal with a fresh perspective. “Our take on the Seven Fishes Feast is based on the traditional dishes, but presented in a way that is representative of what we do here at Fork,” he says. Finish off the feast with sweets from Samantha Kincaid—Food & Wine’s Best New Pastry Chef of 2014. (December 24. $85 per person.)
The beloved BYOB helmed by chef Franca DiRenzo is known for traditional Italian dishes made with old family recipes, like the tender, house-made black squid ink pappardelle with shrimp and lump crabmeat. Each year the chef, who hails from Molise, Italy, cooks up a festive and elaborate meal with dishes like fried smelt, calamari salad and baccala stew. Past years have included an accordion player belting out Italian Christmas tunes. (December 14. $65 per person.)
If you’re looking less of a time (and eating) commitment, try the a la carte options at Urban Village in the city’s Northern Liberties neighborhood. The brew pub is serving a roundup of seven seafood classics, including clam chowder, beer-battered cod and mussels in red sauce. Pair a few plates with one of their beers, brewed on site, like the crisp Wildey Wheat Ale or year-round CPA (Citra Pale Ale). (Menu available through January 1, prices from $6.)