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Feast of Seven Fishes

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Feast of Seven Fishes
spaghetti al vongole or Clam Spaghetti / Photos by Ben Williams

There is nothing more humbling for Paolo Dalla Zorza than having his Italian mother take over his kitchen. And nothing more vexing for Paolo’s southern-born wife, Elizabeth, though she hides it well. Signora Dalla Zorza, otherwise known as Emma, has flown all the way from Treviso, Italy, to help prepare a traditional Italian holiday meal called Feast of the Seven Fishes. In her suitcase: her apron, a custom-made tablecloth of Italian silk, a large bottle of homemade vinaigrette, and little vials of Grappa, a potent Italian liqueur that inspires such sayings as “One Grappa, Two Grappa, Three Grappa, Floor!” It’s a miracle she managed to smuggle these past security—not the miniature vials of Grappa necessarily, but the ample concoction of aged balsamic, cabernet, and olive oil in a gargantuan unmarked dark bottle. TSA must have been distracted by Emma’s shock of red lipstick and dramatically streaked hair, a striking semblance to Disney’s Cruella De Vil.

Photo by Ben Williams
Signora Dalla Zorza / Photo by Ben Williams

Emma looks very much at home in her white apron, standing industrially over a busy stove. “Sta fumata!” she beams. Steam rises from pots of fish broth, risotto, shrimp, and caponata (a Sicilian eggplant dish similar to ratatouille). Paolo and Elizabeth flit about in preparation for tonight’s epic dinner party, weathering Emma’s strong opinions about which platters to use and whether or not to add cognac to the risotto. When Emma suggests that Paolo toast some bread, he suddenly pounds his fists on the kitchen table. “Mama!” he angrily protests. Emma’s eyes widen for an instant but she chuckles, and the tension diffuses as abruptly as it erupted. “That’s very Italian,” whispers Elizabeth. “One minute they’re fighting and you wonder if you should leave the room, the next minute they are serving each other something delicious. It took me by surprise when we first got married, but now it doesn’t phase me. It’s actually a great way to decompress. You get it out, then you move on.”

What exactly is this Feast of the Seven Fishes? It depends on whom you ask: there are constants and there are variables. This much is sure: it is a traditional southern-Italian meal (which has migrated to other parts of Italy) served on Christmas Eve with at least seven courses, all fish. It is a fast of sorts (a seven-course fast!) in that no meat should be served. As to why fish consumption is considered spiritually purifying, I can only guess, my Biblical knowledge hazy at best from an Episcopalian childhood. I do vaguely recall a miraculous tale of Jesus summoning an immense catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee for a doubting fisherman (I believe he scored a disciple that day).

As for the significance of the number seven, that’s where interpretations can vary. Some say that the number seven stands for the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Or the seven days of creation. Or the seven days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. Or the seven virtues. Or the seven sins of the world (of which, incidentally, “gluttony” is one). The seven hills of Rome. The seven winds of Italy. The seven wonders of the world. The divine number seven. Take your pick.

And to complicate (or liberate) things further, there is no rule that you stop at seven courses, so long as you can back it up with Biblical math. Some families serve ten for the Stations of the Cross. Some serve eleven for the twelve apostles minus Judas. Some serve twelve for the apostles, less Judas, plus Jesus. Or thirteen for all apostles plus Jesus. And if your head is spinning, you’ll be happy to know that it pretty much stops here, because, after all, who can eat more than thirteen fish courses in one evening?

For Paolo and Elizabeth, the tradition itself is reason enough: a unique venue for gathering their wide assortment of friends, including local Italian expats such as Sergio Fedelini, Vice-President of the Mediterranean Shipping Company and Honorary Consul of Italy. They’ve gathered as many as thirty people around their table(s) before, of all religious and political and cultural persuasions. Despite the religious origins of the meal, what matters here is friendship, appetite, and thirst—thirst for fine Italian wines and for great conversation.

Photo by Ben Williams

After introductory colorful spritzers (made with Prosecco, a traditional Venetian white wine, and Aperol, a bitter-sweet orange Italian aperitif), we are seated to a festive table of reds and greens set on Emma’s shining white tablecloth, complemented by Elizabeth’s grandmother’s silver, a nice southern touch. The fish courses come in rapid succession, the portions small enough to pace us through the evening. Crab salad for starters with radicchio (a lettuce native to Paolo’s hometown), then steamed oysters au gratin (courtesy of Elizabeth, adding a lowcountry element to a largely Italian lineup).

I find myself in the middle of a lively cross-table debate about global warming when Paolo serves me a steaming bowl of spaghetti al vongole, a deceptively simple dish of clams over pasta, flavored with nothing but garlic, fresh Italian parsley, and a kick of red chili flakes. The dish is remarkable for everything it is NOT (not oversauced, not overspiced, the noodles not overcooked), allowing the nuances of the clams and pasta to really shine and reminding me of how good pasta is in Italy. Why is that? Paolo says it’s all about sugar, or lack of it. “Americans add sugar to everything! Even their pasta. Even Barilla [an Italian company] adds sugar to the pasta it ships to America to please the American palate.” Paolo is an Italian pasta snob, no apologies. He gets his dried pastas direct from Italy. His cupboards are overflowing with packages of Pastificia Marella, his favorite artisanal family-owned pasta factory in Southern Italy. He imports it by the armful alongside his shipments of Italian-made cones and espresso for his gelato stores, but you can order it through a wonderful American company called Italian Harvest (italianharvest.com) that imports artisanal foods from under-represented regions of Italy.

As wine flows (thanks to Bruno Rosin at Palmetto Distributing who provided pairings for each course) we get a taste of different regions of Italy: crisp Vernaccia from the Tuscan hill-town of San Gimignano, ruby-red Sicilian wine to pair with the octopus, and the lighter northern-Italian Gavi which reminds Sergio of days spent near Genoa watching soccer matches. With each glass poured, the conversation gets more animated and the stories roll. Like the time Paolo kidnapped a family from Switzerland who had stopped into his gelateria on John Street, insisting that he cook them dinner at his house. “Those poor people,” Elizabeth’s eyes roll. “Between their broken English and Paolo’s thick accent, who knows where they thought he was taking them?” Just at that moment, Paolo asks me if I would like some more “fee-sha,” meaning “fish.” I get the feeling Elizabeth is always on call to assist with impromptu meals for either friends or strangers and that she does so with grace and genuine affection. Never a dull moment in this household.

Photo by Ben Williams
Paola Zorza / Photo by Ben Williams

Paolo has been described as “wild-eyed,” “Wonka-esque.” You may have seen him greeting you on TV screens at the airport where he beckons you to come taste his authentic Italian gelato or darting around town in his European “smart car” with its slogan “Follow Me to Italy!” His dark, angular features, wavy locks, and aquiline nose remind me of certain Early Italian Renaissance portraits, such as Bellini or Botticelli, except that Paolo himself could never have sat still long enough to be painted. He’s more like a circus character in a Fellini movie. He is so energetic that he can’t even handle his own brand of espresso—one sip would launch him into the stratosphere. It was that energy that propelled him from the canal-lined streets of Treviso, Italy, just outside Venice, and into the port city of Charleston.

“We would all like to be in Italy if we could,” says Sergio over a dish of Emma’s pan-fried calamari. “I came to this country at age twenty-nine with absolutely nothing, the Italian economy being what it is…” He pauses, and I can see his mind skipping across the Atlantic. “America is the land of opportunity!”  

For Paolo, opportunity came in the form of inspiration. While getting his pilot’s license in the southeastern U.S. in the mid-nineties (his grandfather was a pilot, so flying is in the blood), Paolo flew from city to city and noticed one thing: “There’s no gelato here!” The idea for a business was born, and he’s been here ever since, a walking advertisement for all things Italian.

Creating a gelato empire was not the Dalla Zorza family plan. As a teenager, Paolo was being groomed to take over the landmark historic family pharmacy in Treviso, a task which has since fallen to his sisters. But instead of learning the ropes of the family business, he very nearly blew it up. So to speak. Paolo, at the age of thirteen, was the youngest professional magician in Italy. Yes. Professional magician. And just as now his mind is constantly scheming to develop new flavors and brands for his gelato business, so then his young mind was busy devising new tricks and special effects for his performances. One day, in the back room of the family’s pharmacy, he was experimenting with theatrical explosions, in this case something involving a fan and lots of baby powder. And just as his father walked in: “BOOM!” He remembers his father removing his spectacles which were now completely white and saying, “I’ll kill him.” Paolo had to individually clean 10,000 bottles and boxes to undo the damage. Was it worth it? “Yes!”
It was these and other stories (like the time Paolo crashed his father’s Maserati within minutes of getting his driver’s license) that poured forth amidst further courses of octopus with fennel and parsley (the octopus flown in from Italy with the help of Paolo’s friend Michael Scognamilio of Bacco restaurant in Mt. Pleasant), shrimp risotto, and roasted grouper served alongside Emma’s delightfully smoky caponata.

Photo by Ben Williams
Emma’s Pan-Fried Calamari/ Photo by Ben Williams

“The only difference between this dinner and an Italian dinner is that in Italy, everyone speaks Italian,” winks Sergio after pouring me my second glass of Grappa (everyone seemed to agree that a third was generally never a good idea). Emma and Sergio’s wife, Jane, were the only ones deeply ensconced in Italian at that moment. “In Italy,” continued Sergio, “the whole family spends lots of time at the table. Emma, who is sadly now a widow, gets together twice a month with her friends for meals that last for ten hours, starting at one pm. You talk, you eat, you get up, walk around, come back, chat, eat some more. It’s a wonderful community revolving around the table.”

Our dinner party was starting to look like a game of musical chairs. “That’s why we have benches,” pipes in Paolo. “You can move around freely and start a new conversation.”
By dessert, despite having paced myself, I must admit that my stomach was struggling to make room for Paolo’s delicious gelato: a duo of Zabaione (a light custard made with Marsala wine) and sweet cranberry alongside a tall bready cake called panetone, an Italian staple. They say that Grappa is a good digestif, so I prayed it would work its magic.

Emma grabbed my hand warmly as I rose to leave, inviting me to come to Treviso sometime and she would teach me how to make bruschetta. For a split second, Italy didn’t seem so far away. Maybe Treviso, dubbed “Little Venice,” is not so different from Charleston, after all. We are both “water cities” fighting to preserve our historic buildings. We are both steeped in European history (though Treviso has us beat, dating to 89 B.C.). We are both baffled by the number of tourists who choose to visit us during the stifling month of August. We both enjoy a natural bounty of local seafood. And if global warming has its way, we will eventually both be under water! But for now, we can share our holiday traditions and feast (or “fast!”) our way to a good night’s sleep.

Zorza Family Recipes

Crab Salad
Oysters Gratin
Pan-Fried Calamari
Octopus with Fennel and Celery
Shrimp Risotto
Clam Spaghetti
Oven-Roasted Grouper