This much is a given: On Christmas Eve, Italian families around the world - and here in Baltimore - will gather for feasts in which seafood takes center stage. There's no quarreling about that part of the tradition.
Ask, however, how many dishes or how many fishes are to be served and the arguments begin. Three, four, seven? Nine, 12 or 13? It all depends on who's answering the question.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in Wednesday's Taste section said Roman Catholics are not allowed to eat meat on Christmas Eve. The abstinence from meat is a cultural tradition in Italian homes, but is not church law. The Sun regrets the errors.
"This is one tradition in Italy where you can't paint a single portrait," says Sergio Vitale, whose family owns Aldo's Restaurant in Little Italy. "It changes from region to region, town to town, even family to family."
Two elements, at least, of the celebration are universal. First, Christmas Eve is one of the few days left on the Roman Catholic calendar during which the faithful are not permitted to eat meat. Thus, seafood is consumed. Catholics everywhere observe this rite, but the Italians make an art of it.
Second, the dinner is more than a meal. It is an all-out banquet that brings an entire family together for a day of cooking and an evening of eating, drinking and general merriment preparatory to attending midnight Mass.
Every Christmas Eve, says Sabrina DiPasquale of DiPasquale's Italian Marketplace, 30 to 40 family members gather at her father's Highlandtown row home to celebrate. "We eat, we drink, we dance, we stay up late," she says.
On the all-seafood menu are dishes like marinated cuttlefish and octopus salad, crespelle (fried dough stuffed with baked baccala) and merluzzo (whiting baked with fresh tomato and lemon). "The fish change according to whatever is fresh in the market," she says.
The question of the day, however, is this: How many dishes and how many fishes to include.
"Definitely seven," says DiPasquale. "It is always seven." Perhaps she's correct. In this country, the tradition is most commonly called "Feast of the Seven Fishes."
Lynne Basignani, owner with her husband, Bert, of Basignani Winery in Sparks, agrees. "We know it is seven dishes; my daughters did research for a school paper," she says. Most of the dishes on her family's Christmas Eve table reflect her mother-in-law's Tuscan origins, including chickpea soup gently infused with anchovy and poached rockfish dressed with olive oil, fresh parsley and lemon.
But the number seven doesn't jibe for Connie Bannister, a Catonsville resident who serves as secretary to the pastor at St. Leo's Parrish Hall in Little Italy. "For us, it is always 13 fishes, but not necessarily 13 dishes," she says.
She departs somewhat from the family traditions of her New York upbringing: "I'm in Maryland, so I use crab instead of baccala. And I'll use squid, but not eel." Spaghetti with lobster sauce and crab-stuffed lobster tails are now the centerpieces of her family feast.
The numbers have significance in the Catholic cosmology. Three is for the Holy Trinity, four is the number of gospels, five is the wounds of the Crucifixion, seven can represent the virtues, the days it took Mary and Joseph to reach Bethlehem or the number of fishermen among the apostles. You get the idea.
The number of dishes and/or fishes appears to increase as you head south along the Italian peninsula. In the north, above Tuscany, there is no specific number. Around Rome in Lazio, which is where DiPasquale's parents come from, the magic number is seven. By the time you reach Calabria - from whence the Vitale family hails - at the southernmost tip of the boot, you have entered the realm of 13 dishes, if not fishes.
"For us, growing up, the tradition was 13 dishes," says Aldo Vitale, chef owner of Aldo's Restaurant. He believes it would have been impossible to assemble 13 fishes on Christmas Eve in the old country.
"If you think back 100 years, you didn't have even seven fish available in Italy in wintertime," he says. "There was baccala, and maybe fresh sardines or anchovies and sometimes eel." Baccala is salted, dried codfish that must be rehydrated before it is cooked.
"In the south we had little, but we really knew how to make the most of it. Here in this country, there is so much seafood available, we have expanded. I think the seven-fish dinner is more American-Italian," he says.
Numbers aside, the "Feast of the Seven Fishes," is seeing a surge of interest as Americans explore their ethnic heritages. In recent years, broadcasts and articles on the topic have appeared in such forums as the Food Network, Southern Living Magazine and Saveur. This year, restaurant chefs, too, are weighing in.
On Dec. 12, Pippa Callendar, chef at Le Madri in New York City, cooked a version at that bastion of culinary history and trends, the James Beard House. After researching, she also concluded that it is a difficult tradition to pin down.
"It does derive from the people eating only fish on Christmas Eve," she says. "And the number seven is a holy number." But it is only American to put your own stamp on tradition: She served nine dishes that included seven fishes.