Christmas Eve dinner is a long-standing tradition in many homes throughout the world, but in most Italian homes, a special feast takes place each year on this special evening. Our traditions started at my grandmother Quagliata's home on Union Avenue in the forties and fifties. Dinner now continues at my brother Fritz's home in Chesterland, as we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, the Cena della Vigilia. It is truly a feast for both the palate and the soul.
On this evening, our family gathers to celebrate the Christmas season over a meal that consists almost entirely of fish and other seafood. Since it is against the doctrine of the Catholic Church to consume meat on certain holy days, fish is traditionally served as a main meal. The dinner typically includes seven to ten different preparations of fish.
The meal is not an ordinary supper. Rather it is a chance to forget all those troubles that have plaqued you throughout the year, and to bring a warmth that fulfills both stomach and heart. The family shares joy and love as they gather around the table
As we walk into my brother's home, I am always struck by the many years our traditions have continued. I recall the feeling I had as a young child walking into this mass display of opulence that included oysters, clams, giant breaded shrimp, frog legs and tiny periwinkles in tomato sauce( my personal favorite). You had to use a toothpick to get the mollusk out of its shell. The kitchen island featured a full spread of frutti di mare, calamari fritti, arancini and grilled octopus - who could ask for anything more? By the time dinner started, we were already satiated, yet there was so much more to come.
Dinner always begins with pasta - usually linguine - with the sauce of the lobster cooked fra diavlo style and topped with a sauté of peas and onions. For the main course, the Maine lobster is stewed in a rich, spicy tomato sauce. Bowls of baccala alla Campobasso and stuffed artichokes follow. The meal is topped off with canoli's, spinge - some with anchovies and some with a thick drizzle of honey - chocolates, torrone, cookies and biscotti. By the time you get home, you think you can never eat again, but Christmas day, you start it all over. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.