This Port St. Lucie Couple Serves The Feast Of The Seven Fishes To Celebrate The Christmas Season
The story of the meal varies. “People say it’s an Italian thing; it’s more of an Italian-American thing,” Jim Brandano explains. “Depending on what part of Italy you come from, the number changes, and the reason changes. In my family, it’s always been the feast of the seven fishes, and the seven stands for the seven stations of the cross.”
The tradition for this grand meal comes from southern Italy, where it is known as “the vigil,” or “la vigilia.” It marks the wait, or “vigilia di natale,” for the birth of the baby Jesus at midnight on Christmas Eve. Those following the Roman Catholic faith abstained from meat on the eve of a feast day—in this case Christmas Day—and would instead eat fish. Jim and his wife, Phyllis, have been hosting the celebration at their Port St. Lucie home each holiday season for the last eight years. The couple, both of whose grandparents came to the United States from Italy, moved to Florida from Massachusetts. They celebrated the feast there each year with Jim’s family and transplanted the tradition with them when they relocated.
That first year the Brandanos welcomed 10 guests, including Jim’s brother, Paul, who also lives in the area. Over the next year, as Jim would be outside, people would walk by and ask about whether they were having the party again. The number of guests increased to 20, then 25, and then 30. It’s allowed the couple to expand their social circle and meet the neighbors. “You see them walking, talking, but you don’t really get to socialize with them, except during these kinds of things,” Phyllis says.
For Jim, a gathering such as this stirs memories of cooking with his “nonna” as a boy. “I remember standing up on a milk carton next to the table, and she would show me how to make different kinds of pasta,” he recalls. Being able to share this tradition has not only allowed me to keep those connections to the past alive, but also forge new friendships and a sense of belonging within a wider community.
The seafood, supplied by New England Fish Market, is the star of the show. Jim is the creative one in the kitchen. He tests and tweaks, coming up with ideas, then changes them when given new inspiration. Phyllis acts as sous-chef, helping with prepping, decorating and clean up. The recipes are a mix of repeating family favorites passed down and collected over the years, and new spins on classic dishes. Each highlights the flavors and freshness of the seafood.
Baked stuffed clams are served each year in honor of Jim’s brother, Peter, who passed away in 2014. The dish, which Peter made each Christmas, is included in a family cookbook, which each of the six Brandano brothers contributed to.
Some dishes can be prepared in advance, making the day of easier, while others are made on the spot right before serving. The baby octopus in marinara sauce, Jim’s
contribution to the family recipe collection, can be prepped as many as three days before serving. It was inspired by a restaurant outside of Boston where another one of his brothers worked. “Anything with tomato sauce, if you make it ahead of time and keep it in the refrigerator, it actually tastes better,” he says.
The baccalà salad requires an early start. Baccalà is dried salted cod, and it’s a famous dish for southern Italians. It needs to be soaked for four days in water that is changed three to four time daily in order to soften. The Brandanos serve this for the more adventurous palettes each year.
Certain dishes are classic staples, such as the shrimp scampi and scallops. Recipes for these dishes are passed down, or picked up over the years, and evolve so that no real source is recognized. This allows Jim to experiment with new flavor combinations, such as adding vermouth to the scampi for an extra layer of complexity.
The shrimp with guanciale and rosemary was a new addition to the menu this year. Guanciale is cured meat prepared from pork jowl or cheek, whereas pancetta, a more well-known cured meat, is made from the pork belly. Jim paired the guanciale with shrimp and pasta in an oil-based sauce.
“You put the guanciale in with the oil, and you let it cook down until you render all the fat out. Then you take the guanciale out, you put the shrimp in the pan with some lemon juice, you cook that and put the guanciale back in at the last minute to meld it all together and then put it on the plate,” he explains. The result is an original dish rich in flavor that is just outside the norm for Italian-American fare.
Crab stuffed mushrooms, Italian tuna with cannellini beans and vinegar peppers, and some variation of seafood pasta are also regular staples. For guests who don’t eat seafood, there are options available to fit within any dietary considerations as well. Tomato and mozzarella caprese and tomato bruschetta keep guests fed while the hot dishes are being prepared. Phyllis also puts together a traditional antipasto platter, including roasted red peppers made on the grill.
While the Brandanos focus their efforts on the main courses, their neighbor, Linda Bachman, steps up for dessert. Of Italian heritage herself, Bachman makes 10 dozen biscotti cookies from scratch, including ones shaped like fish as a nod to the nature of the meal.
The feast of the seven fishes has become a highlight of the holiday season. Neighbors gather, they bring wine, enjoy the company and intermingle in a meaningful way that has become sacred in today’s digitally driven culture. It’s an evening spent honoring the long traditions of the past, and connecting through food and friendship. In short, it’s a celebration of family, both chosen and by blood.
The recipes are a mix of repeating family favorites passed down and collected over the years, and new spins on classic dishes. Each highlights the flavors and freshness of the seafood.