A Fishy Christmas Eve

Masseria owner/chef Nicholas Stefanelli prepares many fish courses for his traditional Feast of Seven Fishes. Photo by Celeste McCall

‘Tis the season for holiday traditions, and what better way to celebrate than with good food and friends? For the second straight year, on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, Masseria owner/chef Nick Stefanelli will recreate a beloved family tradition: Festa dei Sette Pesci, the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The Italian/American culinary observance will be held at his newly Michelin-starred dining destination, tucked behind Union Market. Other Italian restaurants will celebrate as well.

Originating in southern Italy, Festa dei Pesci commemorates Vigilia di Natale, the midnight birth of Jesus. The practice of consuming seafood (no meat) on Christmas Eve dates from medieval Roman Catholic laws of abstinence on certain days, including Christmas Eve. (Growing up Catholic in the 1950s, I remember this well, although our seafood dinners were limited to tuna noodle casserole and fish sticks.)

Why seven dishes? One theory points to the Church’s seven sacraments. Another possible explanation: the number seven appears in the Bible more frequently, more than 700 times, than any other number. However, many households serve more than seven fish courses; some as many as 13.

A Christmas Eve culinary staple is baccala(dried salted cod). Cod has always been cheap and plentiful, and much of that southern region, including Sicily, has been impoverished. Other dishes like smelts fried in olive oil (butter used to be a no-no), shrimp, eels, calamari, octopus, shellfish with pasta, and other seafoods have been incorporated over the years. Accompaniments might encompass kalepatties, homemade breads, and of course plenty of vino. Popular desserts are tiramisu or baci di dama, little hazelnut meringue sandwiches filled with chocolate.

Stefanelli, 36, grew up in Beltsville and often visited the Eastern Shore. There his Italian grandparents introduced him to fresh fish, olive oil, capers, and spices. Some of these ingredients will probably appear on his Christmas Eve menu. Stefanelli took a circuitous route to the restaurant business. After a broken foot derailed his dreams of playing pro baseball, he turned to men’s fashion. While working for a tailor, he traveled to Puglia, the region of southern Italy where his grandfather was born. (His grandmother came from Sicily.) He was enchanted by Puglia’s “masserias,” centuries-old agricultural estates.

Back in the States, Stefanelli graduated in 2001 from L’Académie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. He worked for Roberto Donna’s (now defunct) Galileo, Fabio Trabocchi’s Maestro, and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry (Napa Valley). After a stint at Trabocchi’s Fiamma in New York, he returned to Washington to help Ashok Bajaj develop the menu for Bibiana (which is also celebrating Festa Dei Sette Pesci). In August 2015 he unveiled Masseria.

Stefanelli’s Dec. 24 menu will showcase linguine al farouk (curried pasta with saffron, ginger, and mixed shellfish); poached cod with tomatoes, onions, and potatoes; and fritto misto (fried prawns, calamari, cauliflower, oysters, and lemon). Dinner will end with delizia al limone, limoncello sponge cake with lemon Bavarian cream. In the spirit of giving, he will send every guest home with house-made panettone, a traditional Christmas bread.

Beginning at 5:30 p.m., Masseria’s Feast of the Seven Fishes is $95 per person excluding tax, gratuity, and alcohol; five wine pairings are an additional $72. Masseria is located at 1340 Fourth St. NE. Reservations are essential; call 202-608-1330 or visit www.Masseria-dc.com.

Other local restaurants are also celebrating Festa dei Sette Pesci. Prices are per person sans alcohol, and most include six or more fish courses plus dessert, served for dinner on Dec. 24. Hours vary. Among them are:

  • Al Dente, 3201 New Mexico Ave. NW (202-244-2223), $49.95, minimum two orders per table
  • Bibiana, 1100 New York Ave. NW (202-234-5015), $65 per person
  • La Tomate, 1701 Connecticut Ave. NW (202-667-5505), $50
  • Centrolina, 974 Palmer Alley NW (CityCenterDC, 202-898-2426), $65
  • Dino’s Grotto, 1914 Ninth St. NW (202-686-2966), served Dec. 15-24; $49 on Dec. 15-23; $59 on Christmas Eve; kids half price; regular menu available
  • Fiola, 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (202-628-2888), $150
  • Fiola Mare, 3100 K St. NW (202-628-0065), $150 for four courses; $145 for three
  • Lupo Verde, 1401 T St. NW (202-827-4752), $65


Braised Baby Octopus

A few years ago I talked my neighborhood gourmet group into celebrating Seven Fishes for our annual Christmas Eve dinner. My contribution was braised baby octopus. I found the recipe – which probably originated in southern Italy – on the internet and tweaked it slightly. Baby octopus is available at Southern Maryland Seafood at Eastern Market.

Serves 6:

  • Olive oil as needed to saute
  • 4 anchovy fillets
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 pounds baby octopus, cleaned
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
  • Splash of white wine
  • 1 cup good-quality canned Roma tomatoes, crushed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chili flakes (optional)

In a large skillet, heat olive oil; add anchovies and garlic. Do not allow garlic to burn. Add octopus and sear both sides. Turn down heat and cook about two minutes. Add remaining ingredients, cover pan, and heat about 20 minutes; turn octopus over and cook another 20 minutes. Hint: if you place all the octopuses facing one way, it will be easier to turn them over. Taste and adjust seasoning, allow to cool slightly, and serve with pasta.

Warning: Do not reheat octopus in a microwave or it will get rubbery.

Sepia cuttlefish with squid Ink is served at Masseria. Photo by Scott Suchman