FEAST TIED TO OLD COUNTRY; Fish Dishes Fill Italians’ Tables On Christmas Eve

The Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA.)
December 21, 2005, Wednesday

FEAST TIED TO OLD COUNTRY; Fish Dishes Fill Italians’ Tables On Christmas Eve

MARK PETIX, THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE
FOOD; Pg. D05

On Christmas Eve, Italians give up meat and absolutely nothing else.

Christmas Eve brings the feast of the fishes, a table-crowding chorus of shellfish and seafood that, for Italians who hail from the regions south of Naples, is better than anything they’ll find under the tree.

“It’s a bigger feast than the day itself,” said Jay Minchilli, president of the Sons of Italy chapter in Rancho Cucamonga. “We get together and eat and the day goes into the night.”

The number of dishes is up to you.

Some serve three, to represent the Holy Trinity. Others choose seven, one for each of the seven sacraments. Some choose 12, for the Apostles. Some even choose more.

And some just lose count as the fried calamari and stuffed clams and salt cod and seafood pastas pour from the kitchen.

It’s a given, says Joseph Dattilo, owner of Dattilo Ristorante Italiano in Hemet.

“We’re from Calabria,” he said. “We do the fish.”

There are always the must-haves on Dorothy Rathfelder’s Christmas Eve table.

The president of the Sons of Italy chapter in Fontana, Rathfelder’s choices show her roots are still firmly planted in Calabria.

“The vermicelli and the anchovies,” she said. “The smelt. And we fry the calamari.”

She expects perhaps 20 at the Christmas Eve table. She said the more the merrier.

“It’s the tradition,” she said.

A Sicilian feast is on tap at Karen Saldanha’s home in Corona.

“The sardines are a big deal around Christmas time and a lot of time the smelts,” she said.

Shrimp scampi is another favorite, although Saldanha has a small confession to make.

“We also have ham,” she said. “Fish is really important but not everybody likes it. I like to keep the tradition, but . . . ”

Minchilli, who was born in the central Italian region of Molise, remembers the dishes that filled the family table in New York over the years.

“They used to do the eggplant,” he said, “the baccala fish. They put it in a batter and cooked it. We’d have the broccoli and they’d batter some squid or sometimes scungilli. Sometimes they’d just saute them in some oil.”

Minchilli still has a taste for clams oreganata, stuffed with breadcrumbs and herbs and maybe a little garlic, but at his house, the rest of the dishes his family loved will remain a memory.

“I just eat the lobster and shrimp.”

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