Whether you are Italian-American or simply a seafood lover, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition worth embracing—especially for those of us surrounded by an abundance of fish.
The hours-long celebration of grazing on seven different varieties of seafood likely got its name in recent decades, but its roots can be traced to Southern Italy, where it commemorates “la Viglia di Natale,” the time spent in anticipation of the birth of the baby Jesus, which tradition places at midnight.
Eating seafood on Christmas Eve reflects the Roman Catholic practice of abstaining from meat in favor of fish on the eve of a holy day; and in Southern Italy, fish are plentiful. When approximately four million residents of the region emigrated to America between 1880 and 1924, they brought with them their Christmas Eve tradition, “Festa dei Sette Pesci,” which remains popular today. Why seven fishes? Some theorize it represents the seven sacraments or the seven hills of Rome, while others conjecture it refers to the day the book of Genesis says God rested.
Although Joey Fenyak and Kimmy Coveny, owners of Joey & Kimmy’s Seafood Market & Restaurant, feast on fish all year round, they cast a wider net during the holidays when they welcome guests to their home for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. “Neither of us is Italian, but fish is our business,” says Coveny about the friendly establishment on U.S. Highway 1 at 18th Street that has hooked local and seasonal residents on fresh seafood since 2009.
Fenyak, who grew up digging clams in Long Island, spent over 30 years working at New York’s venerable Fulton Fish Market before falling for Vero Beach hook, line, and sinker in 2002. He spent the next eight years wholesaling fish around the state and selling seafood directly to consumers at weekend farmers markets in Fort Pierce and Vero Beach.
“People kept asking me, ‘Why don’t you open a store so we can buy fresh fish throughout the week?’” recalls Fenyak. “By the time I opened the doors here, I already had a strong customer base.” Coveny came on board in 2010, eventually became Fenyak’s business partner, and soon enough, another name was added to the Joey’s Seafood Market sign.
In addition to an array of fresh local and Northern fish flown in daily, the market now stocks a selection of produce, homemade soups and salad dressings, artisanal cheeses, specialty crackers, French baguettes and ciabatta, boutique wine, beer, olives, pasta, and mouthwatering take-and-bake entrees such as eggplant parmigiana and goat cheese ravioli. It is open six days a week, while lunch is served every day and dinner is served on Friday nights during the season.
Fenyak’s knowledge, experience, and relationships within the seafood industry are complemented by Coveny’s passion for cooking. “My dad owned Italian restaurants in New York,” says Coveny, “and, ever since I was little, I was always at his side.” Now, armed with a treasure trove of family recipes and an ability to shuck clams and oysters like a pro, she relishes the opportunity to prepare sumptuous seafood and pasta dinners for others or teach them how to do it themselves. “Many of the great dishes we served at my dad’s restaurants, I’ve transformed into take-and-bake items that people can pick up in our cold cases. If they want to prepare it themselves, I’ll give them the recipe.”
Although there are an infinite number of seafood dishes that can be incorporated into the Feast of the Seven Fishes, Fenyak and Coveny’s holiday dinner menu will include a raw seafood sampler; mini crab and lobster cakes; Ipswich steamers; clams casino; seafood Posillipo Fra Diavolo; stuffed halibut; and salmon with artichokes, portobello mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes in a brandy cream sauce. An Italian antipasto anchors the seafood mains and appetizers, while a triple berry cobbler adds a light, festive final touch.
For their holiday decor, the couple relies on an eclectic mix of treasured heirlooms and recent finds, including a whimsical Dr. Seuss–themed tree that stands proudly on the baby grand piano. “One year, when the kids were young, I drove all over the place looking for a Christmas tree,” explains Coveny. “When I saw this one-of-a-kind display at Pier 1 Imports, I said, ‘I’ll take the whole thing, decorations and all!’”
Coveny acknowledges that the days leading up to Christmas are the market’s busiest, with lines snaking out the door. “People are generally eating more fish, but at Christmas they go all out,” she remarks. “We try to make it fun for everyone waiting in line by recruiting our friends to pour champagne.”
“Everyone has a personal preference when it comes to seafood,” adds Fenyak. “Whether you prepare one or seven types of dishes for your holiday meal, it’s always best to order ahead and plan to pick it up Christmas Eve day or the day before. Because of our relationships with commercial fishermen and major suppliers, we can get just about any fish you desire.”
And that’s no fish tale!
- Romaine and arugula
- Provolone cheese
- Plum tomatoes
- Yellow and orange peppers
- Oil-cured black olives
- Roasted red peppers
- Balsamic vinegar
- Olive oil
- Feta cheese
Place lettuces on a large flat platter. Cut the provolone and salami in half and arrange around the rim. Cover the center of the platter with vegetables in a decorative array. Salad may be prepared in advance and refrigerated for an hour.
For the dressing, combine equal amounts of balsamic vinegar and honey with a smaller amount of olive oil in a blender. Drizzle over antipasto and sprinkle with feta right before serving.
- Ipswich steamer clams (approximately 24)
- 1/2 stick salted butter
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 4–5 cloves garlic
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
Thoroughly rinse steamers to remove sand. Combine garlic and olive oil in food processor and blend gently (pro tip: Kimmy makes this mixture by the batch and keeps it on hand for many of her recipes). Place steamers in a frying pan and add butter, white wine, and garlic-olive oil mixture. Cover pan and steam 5–10 minutes until clams are fully opened.
Kimmy’s Seafood Posillipo
This Italian seafood stew originated in a residential neighborhood in Naples. It can be served on its own with a good Italian crusty bread or over pasta.
- 12 little neck clams
- 12 mussels
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 10 medium-size shrimp, shelled and deveined
- 10 sea scallops
- 3 tbsp. butter plus a splash of olive oil (prevents butter from burning)
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- Marinara sauce
- Coarse sea salt
Place clams and mussels in a bath of cold water and add course sea salt. Stir and soak for 30 minutes to remove any sand and grit.
Drain the clams and mussels and scrub well with a wire brush under running water. Remove the beard from the mussels.
In a large sauté pan, melt butter and add garlic, clams, and mussels. Add wine, cover, and simmer for about 5 minutes or until the shells open. Discard any unopened shells.
Add shrimp and scallops and simmer just long enough for the shrimp to turn pink and the scallops to become opaque.
Add marinara sauce, heat through, and serve immediately.
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 12-oz. can Italian plum tomatoes, broken up
- 6 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup Cabernet red wine
Heat olive oil in a saucepan and add onion and garlic. Sauté over low to medium heat until soft and translucent. Add tomatoes, bay leaves, parsley, and wine and simmer over low heat about 30 minutes, stirring often. Remove bay leaves before serving.
Kimmy’s Clams Casino with Tricolored Peppers
- 24 top neck clams in the shell
- 1/2 white onion, minced
- Minced red, green, and orange peppers
- 6 crispy slices of fried bacon
- 1 cup seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped finely
- 2–3 tbsp. olive oil
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- Splash of white wine
- 1/2 tbsp. butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
To facilitate shucking the clams, place them on a baking tray and freeze 2–3 minutes. Using a clam knife, pry open the shells. Discard the top shell.
In a large bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, garlic, and olive oil.
Sauté onions and peppers and set aside.
Chop bacon and add to mixture. Blend well with ingredients in large bowl.
Sprinkle the breadcrumb-vegetable mixture on top of each clam to the edges of its shell, making sure the mixture covers the clam sufficiently to keep it moist. Dab with butter and a splash of wine and bake 12–15 minutes. Serve immediately.
Kimmy’s Stuffed Fish
- 4 pieces flounder (or white fish of your choice)
- 2 tbsp. salted butter
- 2 cloves garlic and 2 tbsp. olive oil, blended slightly in food processor
- Splash white wine
- Italian breadcrumbs
- Crabcake mixture (see crabcake recipe)
- Store-bought seaweed for garnish
- 4 strawberries for garnish
Place flounder in a baking dish and add butter. Brush fish with olive oil-garlic mixture. Pour white wine into the dish without pouring onto the fish. Sprinkle fish with Italian breadcrumbs.
Form crabcake mixture into a long mound and place in dish next to fish. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 12–15 minutes.
Plate fish and top with crabcake mound. Spoon pan juices over top. Garnish with seaweed and sliced strawberries. Serve with wild rice.
- 16 oz. lump crabmeat
- 2 celery stalks
- 1/4 small red onion
- 1 cup Italian breadcrumbs
- Duke’s or Hellman’s mayonnaise (enough to hold mixture together)
- Olive oil
Put crabmeat into a bowl. Chop celery and onion very fine. Combine all ingredients and add a small amount of breadcrumbs (just enough to hold them together).
Form cakes in any size of your choice (make smaller cakes for appetizers) and coat with breadcrumbs.
Coat the bottom of a frying pan with olive oil over medium heat. Fry cakes on both sides until lightly brown. Finish in a 350-degree-Fahrenheit oven until cooked through.
Triple Berry Cobbler
- 1 ready-made pie crust
- 6 cups fresh berries (blueberries, raspberries,
- and blackberries)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
- Crumble topping
Put pie crust into a round tart dish. Prick the bottom with the tines of a fork and crimp the edges.
In a large bowl, combine fruit and gently toss with the sugar and lemon juice. Spoon into the pie crust.
Place the crumble on top of the fruit and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes.
Serve warm or at room temperature with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla bean ice cream.
- 1 cup rolled oatmeal
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 3/4 cup walnuts, crushed
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla
- 1 stick butter, room temperature
Using your hands or fork, combine ingredients until the butter is evenly distributed.