A restaurant family celebrates the holidays with a traditional Italian seafood spread tailor-made for the Lowcountry
In Charleston, South Carolina, December is seriously festive. No matter your religious persuasion (or lack thereof), it’s hard to resist the holiday spirit when handmade magnolia wreaths abound and palmetto fronds glitter with tiny diamond lights. On Christmas Eve, if you walk down King Street and branch off onto quieter Beaufain Street, toward the end of the block you’ll spy the courtyard of Italian restaurant Le Farfalle all aglow with bulbs strung between crepe myrtle branches. Through a tall privacy hedge emanate sounds of a holiday feast well underway: glasses clinking, forks scraping, and the hoots and chuckles of an extended family—in this case, Le Farfalle’s restaurant family.
At Le Farfalle, a restaurant named for butterflies or “chasing dreams,” Executive Chef Michael Toscano and his wife, Caitlin, have gathered together members of their staff plus significant others for a seafood-centric meal of epic proportions. Platters of delicacies pass from person to person: a molten salt cod dip, blue crab tamales, squid-shrimp-scallop salad, spicy lobster, fried clams, blackened octopus, and whole branzino. It is no coincidence the dishes number seven in all, for this is Toscano’s annual take on the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian-American Christmas Eve ritual with deeper roots in Italy. Though you won’t find anyone in Italy calling the meal by the same name (there, it is simply La Vigilia or Il Cenone), you will find that Italians both here and abroad make fishmongers work especially hard prior to Christmas. Ever since the Church decreed in the fourth century that Catholics should eat no meat on Christmas Eve, Italians got creative. A meat fast does not dictate a fish fast, and after all, there is a fine line—only one letter of difference—between fast and feast!
Despite his Italian name, Toscano did not experience his first Feast of the Seven Fishes until he was a young adult working for Mario Batali’s restaurant Babbo in New York. Subsequently at Manzo, then Perla, he staged many variations on the holiday extravaganza over the years. Now at Le Farfalle, he elevates modern Italian cuisine with finesse. Clearly Italy runs in Toscano’s blood, yet he came to embrace his roots in a roundabout way.
Toscano can trace his ancestry further than some of Charleston’s oldest families. His ancestors left their home near Florence in the early 1700s bound for Mexico, where they stayed for roughly a century before migrating up to Texas. Although the Italian name prevails, Toscano grew up in Houston identifying with his Mexican heritage, as fortified through the amazing Mexican meals prepared by his mother and father, both great cooks. Although he briefly considered a career as a pro golfer, the professional kitchen called to him. Not one to do anything halfway, he tore through culinary school, took on extra classes to graduate early, mastered French cuisine, and landed a position in Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, California. While there, Toscano met and hit it off with the chef at Babbo who eventually found a position for him. At Babbo, Toscano worked his way from tournant to sous chef by the tender age of 21. It was there he was tasked with cooking his first Feast of the Seven Fishes, and he found himself enamored with the breadth and extravagance of it. In subsequent years, he has produced countless such feasts for paying diners, often as seven-course tasting menus.
But tonight is personal. This meal served family-style by Michael and Caitlin, their two children on their laps, surrounded by their extended restaurant family, is a true expression of celebration, gratitude, and heritage—a clever twist on an Italian ritual peppered with flavors from Toscano’s childhood Mexican cuisine, all interpreted through the lens of Lowcountry ingredients—a feast, Toscano-style.