“Natale con i tuoi, capo d’anno con chi vuoi” or “Christmas with your family, New Year’s Eve with whomever you like.” We have come to understand that there is a social custom for virtually every occasion in Italy. While Italians seem to have the rules encoded in their DNA, foreigners like us stumble upon the nuances every day. And holidays provide plenty of opportunities to stumble. Happily, our Italian friends new and old are an unbelievably welcoming lot with an endless capacity for warmth.
We spent Christmas Eve with longtime friends whose relatives live far away from Martina Franca. Since we’re both away from our extended families, it made sense to combine forces and become one another’s tuoi if only for a night. The plan began with our dinner invitation for the Christmas Eve vigil dinner, a meatless repast that traditionally precedes the vigilia or midnight mass. Although mass attendance has declined over time, the dinner and its traditions are sacrosanct. In southern Italy, fish is on the menu, from mollusks to merluzzo (cod) and everything in between. Some regions make sure to feature seven different varieties of fish to represent the seven sacraments; others go big with thirteen in honor of the thirteen apostles (yes, that includes Jesus). More modest homes opt for three, the holy trinity. We usually aim for seven, but lose count in our enthusiasm.
Our friends are originally from Taranto on the Ionian coast and have lived near the sea in Italy for most of their lives. Giulio, the father, is passionate about fish, insisting upon wild, just caught specimens that fairly leap off the fishmonger’s stall and into your arms. Although he was kind enough to hold back, he was preoccupied about my ability to choose the very best fish for our dinner, especially on a high-fish-demand day like December 24th. Unscrupulous vendors might try to pass off inferior farmed fish to unsuspecting customers like me, so Giulio offered to procure our fish. The catch? I wouldn’t know what he’d choose until shortly before the dinner.
Anxiety ensued. What if I didn’t have the right ingredients? How would I know what else to prepare to accompany the fish? What if he chose eel? I decided to make a few all-purpose vegetable dishes, set the table, choose the wine and hope for the best. As it happened, the worry was superfluous. Giulio, his wife Pina and their two sons arrived later than evening laden with shopping bags full of fish, miscellaneous ingredients and various kitchen tools. Pina, an exceptionally talented ceramicist, took charge, surveying the kitchen layout, assigning tasks and transforming our home into a steamy, aroma-filled temple of fish worship. It turns out she’s an artist in the kitchen, too.
We all worked side by side, juggling oven and stove top space to accommodate the array of offerings. Our dear friend Irene visiting from Portland, Oregon, documented our progress while I translated and ferreted out utensils among the bustle. With Pina knee-deep in the calamari prep, Giulio orchestrated the kitchen operation while Brian found new iPad games for Paolo, the youngest member of our group. When Pina called out “a tavola” (to the table), we sank into our chairs and tucked worshipfully into a Christmas Eve vigil dinner that would inspire religious conversion among the pagan.
The menu? We started with spaghetti alla calamari, with a rich tomato sauce infused with the flavor of the sea. Next we feasted on the piatto principale, two gorgeous sea bass surrounded by a few tomatoes, salt-packed capers, good Pugliese olives, parsley, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The sea bass created its own delicate brodetto (little broth), which we spooned gently over its snow-white flesh. My husband was instructed in the manly art of devouring the fish head, eyes and all, and much to our surprise, we consumed every last flake of this exquisite fish.
Little Paolo, apparently not a fan of sea bass, was served his own little sole-like fish called zanchetta, which was served gratinato (au gratin). Then we moved on to roast fennel, peppers and potatoes and braised leeks, my modest offerings. Next we took a break from all that eating with . . . more food. Clementines, walnuts and almonds preceded Pina’s traditional Christmas dolce, a jewel-like platter of purceddhruzzi and cartellate she had made the night before. Light and airy in appearance, these olive-oil fried treats are dipped in orange peel-scented local honey. They make their appearance exclusively at Christmas, so they’re a much-anticipated element in this traditional feast.
They don’t call this the cenone (big dinner) for nothing. We fell into our beds by 1:30 p.m., more that a little traumatized by the thought that we would get up and do it all again on Christmas Day as guests of friends in a nearby town. Forza, ragazzi! (Courage, guys!)