The last truly great salt cod I had was in Rome in a tiny hole in the wall place that was known for their baccala. This place has very simple tables made of wood, and just basic lighting to display the decor.
I went to Rome with my uncle at a horrid time – Pope John Paul had died – and the city was mobbed with millions of extra people who were camping out everywhere including the historic sites. Filetti di Baccala provided sanctuary, and reminded me of Christmas past.
When I was a child, we celebrated Christmas Eve like a traditional Italian family with white fish – always. There were celebrations and rituals, many of which we followed because that was what we were supposed to do. Nevertheless, these celebrations were memorable and always included the best silver in the house.
La Vigilia is the name of Christmas Eve in Italy. My father’s family comes from the town of Arpaia which is on the outskirts of Mount Vesivius and the closest major city is Napoli which is only an hour or so away. Christmas Eve dinner was by far the most important to my family, and this seems to be a regional, Napolitano, thing.
The white fish was served because you weren’t supposed to eat meat – yes, fish is not meat to Italians – fish is fish.
It was a big deal and “white fish” was something discussed days before the event. There were also some arguments, too, concerning competing household cultures (Polish squab versus Italian white fish – and the white fish always won).
Some people believe that La Vigilia is supposed to be seven fish courses because of the seven virtues – faith, hope, charity, temperance, fortitude, justice,and prudence. I’m not certain my family had any of these characteristics, but aspired towards them.
Others insist you need to serve thirteen courses, one for each apostle and Jesus. There were always loud arguments about this amongst my family members about what was the correct thing to do and why.
While I did not like some of these things when I was growing up I have grown to love them all. Traditionally there should be at least three, but really seven, seafood dishes on the table. My most memorable include:
- incredible, cooked mussels on the shell with pepper and olive oil and garlic with linguini
- heaping piles of clams with linguini or fettucini and garlic
- fried salt cod (baccala), which was always reserved for the adults only and now I just adore salt cod, but I’m sure I hated it as a child
- antipasto which could be any kind of fresh, pickled or cured repast
The most memorable aspects of this meal involve my Italian grandfather talking smack about my mother, who was Polish, about how she couldn’t make a good antipasto.
- fresh octopus salad, usually this was made by a local deli and came with olive oil and other tasty treats
- calimari – something I hated as a child, and now as an adult I find it to be just okay – but it is still my dad’s favorite
- scallops were very popular in our house, and Christmas Eve was no exception, only I’m sure my grandfather had to make it, insisting that my mom get out of the kitchen
- some kind of white fish besides the salt cod that my grandfather always cooked to his liking, and then groaned about how good it was throughout the meal.
The next day was a treat because then we could eat dairy again, which meant those delicious little buffalo mozzarella balls drenched in olive oil, a baked pasta (always my favorite), and more of the same. Also the meat platters would come out.
Antipasto really just means “before the meal” and there are plenty of recipes that you can use. Some involve tomatoes, mozzerella, basil, olive oil, balsamic and pepper. Some involve a bunch of lightly pickled vegetables. Some involve olives and meats and pestos. All should be savory, salty, pungent and delicious.
Here is a great antipasto recipe: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Antipasto-Salad-107605
And this is a link to a complete traditional Christmas Even meal Italian style (with the pannettone, even!): http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/menu/views/sevenfishes
The fried salt cod is probably the item I most enjoy on this whole menu, and the pannettone is a rather strong flavored cake with dried fruits and nuts, and is nostalgic for me, but I could live without pannettone for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, if you like salt cod, this is also a favorite among Basque meals too. Some croquetas are salt cod based, and some chicken. Leku Ona serves up a mean salt cod.
While the restaurants on the Basque block at least serve this delicacy, nothing – and I mean nothing – compares to Filleti di Baccala.