Until he was well into his teens, restaurateur and cookbook author Matt Basile had never tasted a Christmas turkey. Instead, the Italian-Canadian creator of the Toronto street food company, Fidel Gastro, spent his childhood holidays dining on Southern-Italian specialties, like fresh grilled shrimp and fettucine Pomodoro.
Basile’s family never called their holiday meal a ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes,’ but as he points out, “Italians — especially southern Italians — don’t really look to name a food trend; they just eat the best quality food.” Even among the Italian and Italian-American families who call their holiday dinner by the idiosyncratic name, there are no set rules for what must be served, although, as the title implies, seafood is appreciated.
Here are Basile’s tips for hosting a memorable and delicious Italian-Christmas dinner.
Start with Love (and Frangelico)
“Lots of love and food,” were always on the menu at Basile’s Nonno’s house, where his family would gather for a festive feast, always served family-style. “It’s just how you ate,” he says. “It forced you to be patient and to look at the person across from you and make sure their plate was topped up before yours. It taught you to share a meal with the people you loved versus just consume one.”
Before the generous meal, there was “always enough to feed an army,” says Basile — his family served Frangelico aperitivos.
Add Seafood (and Pasta, and Steak)
Grilled shrimp, grilled sardines with lemon, and crab legs were regulars on the Basile family’s holiday menu, often served alongside fettuccine pomodoro and steak. But it’s the zuppa di pesci, a fragrant seafood soup, that really gets Basile in the Christmas spirit. “The most nostalgic of the dishes was the zuppa di pesci — tomato broth with incredibly soft potatoes and carrots with clams, cod, salmon and shrimp,” he says. “It would be something I would absolutely crave every year. A few years ago when my girlfriend and I opened our restaurant, we invited both our families and I made a massive 20 litre pot of it.”
Don’t Forget to Espresso Yourself!
The Basile family capped their holiday meals with Sambuca-laced espresso, a nice alternative to dessert. But just in case you and your guests still have belly room, consider serving one of these Italian holiday favourites: panforte, a spiced chocolate cake, crisp pizzelle waffle cookies, creamy tiramisu, or a towering fruit-studded panettone.
Whatever menu you choose, remember Matt Basile’s advice: setting a festive mood is more important than serving any particular dish. “If you have to follow rules like it’s biblical, then you’re doing it wrong,” he says. “It should be fun, first and foremost.” Good times are not just for guests, either — as the host, it’s essential for you to participate. After all, says Basile, “the more fun you have, the more fun your guests will have!”