the making, consuming and enjoyment of a properly made Espresso is another
facet and time honored tradition of Italian-Americans and their culture. We do
love our properly pulled Espresso. A properly pulled Espresso is a thing of
beauty and refinement, and must be done just so. We can and do make Espresso in
our homes with either a Neapolitan or Moka brewing device, and now these days, there
are any number of expensive new-fangled home espresso makers, more on that
might be surprised but the great art of the perfect Italian Espresso has been
around for just about 110 years. Yes Italians drank Espresso before that, but
it was only developed into a “Fine Art” that it is today, just a little more
then a hundred years ago or so when Luigi Bezzera developed the first Espresso
Machine that we know today. After this landmark in Espresso history, the
consumption and popularity of Espresso grew rapidly. Caffes and Espresso Bars
popped up everywhere all over Italy. These Espresso Bars were places to have an
Espresso and socialize. And in Italy, there is a whole act and ritual to going
to an Espresso Bar for your habitual morning coffee. And it’s not just for the
Espresso but some socializing, a bit of chit-chat, gossip, political talk,
sports (Soccer/Futbol), this-that-and-every-other-thing. This morning Espresso
is quite ritualistic in Italy, and is practiced by most, and in every corner of
the country, on every other street corner in cities like; Rome, Bologna, Palermo,
Milano, Verona, all over. And it is quite the sight to see, especially if
you’re an American going for the first time. In caffes and bars in Italy it is
at the stand-up Espresso bar where all the action takes place. When you go into
a caffe (a.k.a. Bar) in Italy and have a Espresso, Cappuccino, whatever, and
sit at a table, that Espresso will cost you an additional 50% or more than it
will if you consume it standing up at the counter at the Espresso Bar. It’s a
tax thing. The caffe owners are taxed on their tables and this tax gets passed
on to the customer. Basta!
their homes and are on their way to work, but they don’t go right from their
house to their job. No they have to have an Espresso and the ritual of the
Espresso and some Chit-Chat (BS) with a quick stop at their favorite local
caffe. They might leave their house then go to an Espresso Bar near their home
before going to their job, or they may head to their job, then get an Espresso
at a favored caffe near the work-place. They might even do both, get an
Espresso in their neighborhood before heading to work, then stopping at an Espresso
Bar close to their workplace before bopping into work.
quite a ritual and amazing to see. In America, Italian immigrants to cities
like New York, Boston, Providence, and Philadelphia opened Social Clubs that
served Espresso, maybe some sandwiches, soup, soda, Biscotti, and Anisette
Toast, and Cannoli that they bought from a nearby baker. These Social Clubs
which sprung up in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side of New York or what
is now called Little Italy, in Boston’s North End, and San Francisco’s North
Beach. These Social Clubs (Caffe) were primarily of and for the working class,
and were for Italians. The clubs were for Italians, and people of other
nationalities did not go into them unless they were brought in by an Italian
guy from the neighborhood. And that’s the way it was back then.
e Dolce at home? When I was growing up and went to my Aunt Fran and Uncle
Tony’s house in Lodi, or to Aunt Helen’s for Sunday Dinner, and we ate our
meal, and it moved on to coffee and dessert, this was quite a sight that brings
back nice memories for me to this very day. And it was a wonderful ritual, and
unlike the quick grab your Espresso, Chit-Chat for a few minutes and run out
the door as is done at caffe’s and Espresso Bars in Italy, the Espresso was
anything but Espresso (Fast) at Bellino Family meals, as is with millions of
Italian-American families over the years. No, this was no quick hit-and-run
affair. The coffee and dessert course at our family gatherings was the longest
portion of our all day affair of the Sunday Meal. My Aunts and Uncles would sit
around the table, we (the Kids) would too, but we would go back and forth,
cause this sit-down at the table usually lasted about 3 hours, maybe more. We’d
sit down, and Aunt Fran and Aunt Helen had the Neapolitan going with Espresso.
The table was laden with all sorts of goodies; Cannolis of course, one or two
different cakes, and an assortment of Italian Cookies and Pastries
(Sfogiatelle, Mille Foglie). There was always enough to fill Pastry Shop
Showcase, “I kid you not!”
table full of my aunts and uncles was a wonder. They’d sit around drinking
coffee, eating pastries, and talk-talk-talk, about politics, sports, gossip,
this-that-and-everything. My uncle Frank who was the Ring-Leader could have
solved all the Worlds problems, right there at that table, filled with Cannoli,
Biscotti, Coffee (Espresso), cakes, Anisette, heated discussion, laughter, and
a “Bundle of Joy,” all over Espresso.
Neapolitan is from Napoli, Italy. It was developed so Neapolitans (and all
Italians) could make Espresso in their homes. The Neapolitan is a two-piece
device whereby, you fill the bottom of the vessel with water, the ground
espresso goes in the middle and you screw on the empty top. To make Espresso
with the Neapolitan you put the device on the stove over a flame with the piece
filled with the water on the stove. The water heats, and when it comes to the
boil, you turn the flame off, flip the vessel over so the hot water is at the
top and will then drip down through the ground coffee to make the Espresso. The
Espresso is not as good as that you’d get at a caffe or Espresso Bar with a
large machine, but it’s good enough, and adding a little shot of Anisette is
never a bad thing, something my Uncle Frank always did. This is called a Caffe
Corretto, the act of adding a few drops of your desire liquor into your
espresso. You can add; Grappa, Sambucca, Brandy, Anisette, or other liquor to
make a caffe corretto. At Aunt Fran & Unlce Tony’s, it was always Anisette.
through the pleasant little ritual of making Espresso in that curious looking
contraption, the Neapolitan. As I said, it always intrigued me, and when I took
my first trip to Italy and was in Napoli walking through a street market and
spotted a merchant selling Neapolitans and other kitchenware’s, I just had to get myself one, a Neapolitan of my own and from the great city it was invented in, Napoli. I also brought back some
beautiful ceramic plates from nearby Vietro sul Mare on the nearby Amalfi
coast, and I’ve been making Espresso with my Neapolitan (bought in Napoli), and
eating Spaghetti on those beautiful Amalfi Coast Plates from ever since, a joy,
and a way to bring Italy into your own American home. Doing so, brings back
beautiful memories of; Positano, The Amalfi Coast, Sicily, and the rest of
Italy. If you can’t be there (which is a shame), then bring Italy into your
home. And that is what we do, every time we sit down to a meal, a glass of
wine, or a simple little cup of Espresso, “we bring Italy home.”
The FEAST of THE 7 FISH is AVAILABLE on AMAZON.com
Christmas Eve Fish Dinner is, without question, the most important, the most festive, the most familial, the warmest and most memorable family gathering. For me, Christmas Eve Dinner surpasses every other holiday, As important and delightful as Thanksgiving of Easter or even Fourth of July might be, nothing approaches the ineffable depth and richness of Christmas Eve Fish Dinner offered a table unlike that of any other holiday.
But before I go further, let’s consider the name of this dinner. Among some Italians that I have questioned it is called “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” for other families, including my own, it was simply Christmas Eve Fish Dinner. There was no specific number of fish involved. Carol Field’ Celebrating Italy, a most thorough study of Italian holidays, notes that Christmas Eve dinner calls for fish but makes no mention of the number of fish dishes. Moving my investigation of the Christmas Eve dinner to Google Italy, I found that it is generally called “Il Cenone della Vigilia” (The great dinner of the Eve.) No Italian site I found made mention of the number of fish. I have the sense that the notion of seven fish may be Italian American and even here only among certain families.
The next question I considered was the type of fish. Almost every reference I found and all the people I interviewed had numerous variations. Among most Italians sites two fish appeared most often, baccalà and eel. Among traditional Italian Americans the two most common dishes were baccalà (usually in a cold salad recipe) and fried smelts. In many younger and less traditionally bound Italian Americans all the old time fish were gone. The new fish platters now included shrimp and fried fish and even fish sticks. Italian Americans are not alone in modernization. It seems that even in Italy the younger generations recoil at the notion of such fish as eel.
While what this dinner is rightly called and which fish are those to be presented seems to vary from region to region and family to family a few things about Christmas Eve fish dinner, go unquestioned. Christmas Eve fish dinner was the one dinner no one missed. Christmas Eve fish dinner was at the home of the patriarch or matriarch. Every child and grandchild was present. The power of the Italian American Christmas Eve dinner overwhelmed all other cultural influences. While the fish dinner may have been rooted in Italy it spread its branches to include and embrace not only those non-Italians who had married into the family but all those of other ethnic backgrounds who were friends beyond the family. Everyone with any association to the family was invited to the Christmas Eve fish dinner.
While all other holiday dinners gathered the family while there was still light in the sky, Christmas Eve Fish Dinner began sometime after sunset. It was and is, the only festive dinner in the Italian American tradition that is shared in darkness. All other holidays in the Italian American tradition are celebrated at the table sometime shortly after noon. Christmas Eve Fish Dinner always began sometime after six in the evening.
Christmas Eve Fish Dinner differs from all other dinners by its lack of structure. Other dinners, whether Sunday Gravy or Easter Sunday follow a certain formality. For other dinners there is always a soup course, an antipasto, the pasta, the main course and then the dessert. The Christmas Eve Fish Dinner was quite different. The Christmas Eve Fish Dinner had courses, but the courses were not single dishes. For the Christmas Eve fish dinner each course was composed of several offerings. And the whole dinner was preceded by a cold table of finger foods that allowed mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews to chatter for an hour or so before dinner began. The finger foods were set on small tables in the living room. The platters included olives, slices of celery and broccoli, and a dish of crackers. There were also plates of cooked shrimp with sides of shrimp cocktail sauce. The olives were from cans and the children liked to slide the pit wholes over their fingers as they chomped on the olives. I would guess that the shrimp and the horseradish based cocktail sauce was an influence from the fashionable restaurants of the time.
After at least an hour of nibbling on the side platters the dinner bell called us to the tables. Yes, tables. In our family there were three. In our center hall style house, the dining room table was turned towards the center hall. A second and third table were butted up to the main table. The three tables continued through the center hall into the living room. Seating was determined by age. The oldest sat in the dining room section; the younger the child the closer to the living room.
There was no soup on Christmas Eve. When we sat at the table we first saw a small bowl of whiting salad with lemon and a serving of “scungilli,” conch. When I was small there was a cold baccalà salad with tomato. These cold fish salads were followed by the pasta. Of course, we never heard or used the word “pasta.” For us the “pasta” dish was one of three possibilities. It changed from year to year. It could be either “Clams and Spaghetti,” “Mussels and Spaghetti,” or “Squid and Spaghetti.” The spaghetti were always the very thin “angel hair” (“capellini.”)
The next course is always a serving of several varieties of fried fish. My Irish background mother prepared several fish offerings in different ways. There are three central dishes. First, she made a tray of plain American fish sticks for the children and for those at the table of a less than Italian heritage. Then, as a middle ground, my mother makes the most exquisite crab cakes that would appeal to Italian traditionalists as much as to the non- Italian in-laws. For the old timers there is always the most wonderful finger food, fried smelts with lemon. There are also fried scallops, fried shrimp, fried calamari and fried oysters.
Following the fried dishes, the table is covered with several trays of broiled scallop, shrimp and clams. Then comes the main fish platter. This platter has no Italian precedent that I know of. My mother introduced this dish about thirty years ago: stuffed orange roughy papillote. The orange roughy papillote is made by splitting the fish into two pieces and filling with a layer of spinach with tomato, garlic and olive oil. The fish is wrapped in parchment and baked.
After a rest and an interlude of conversation the Christmas Eve Fish dinner is crowned by the dish everyone waits for, my mother’s tray of Christmas cookies. We began at five in the evening. After the cookies it is after 11. The culmination of the Christmas Eve Fish Dinner is Midnight Mass. Following Christmas Midnight Mass the family came home to a wonderful breakfast of eggs and bacon and, in Philadelphia, of scrapple. The special delight of the breakfast was the Christmas Bread, a wonderful brioche-like pastry shaped in a ring and decorated with multi-colored sprinkles. But Christmas bread is another page.
by TONY D MORINELLI
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