Home » Features » This Port St. Lucie Couple Serves The Feast Of The Seven Fishes To Celebrate The Christmas Season


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 Menu

The Menu

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.

baccalà salad

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.

The Feast Of The Seven Fishes

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.

Italian-American food

“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.

freshness of the seafood


seafood salad

Phyllis and Jim Brandano
An old-time photo of Phyllis and Jim Brandano


Jim Brandano
Jim Brandano is the creative one in the kitchen, testing and tweaking, coming up with ideas and changing them when given new inspiration.


More From Publisher

The Meridian Marina Martin County Christmas Boat Parade Is All Set To Bring Holiday Cheer

If last week's Stuart Christmas Parade wasn’t enough to get you into the holiday spirit, the Meridian Marina Martin County Christmas Boat Parade might just do the trick. 

The festivities are set to kick off Saturday, Dec. 12, at 6 p.m.

The parade will begin in “The Pocket,” south of Sandsprit Park, and end at the Stuart city docks. The celebration will wrap up with a night of live music at the Riverwalk Stage.

So far, there are about 20 boats registered, but organizers say they'll have a final count after the captain's meeting on Friday.

The good news is that it's not too late to join in on the fun. Registration is free, and there's a $1,000 cash prize. 

Feel free to go all-out with those decorations, too. There's not really a theme, so much as just "light up and let's have some Christmas cheer," Meridian Marina representative K.C. Ingram Traylor said. 

The panel of judges includes Florida Sen. Joe Negron, Martin County Commissioner John Haddox, Stuart Mayor Kelli Glass Leighton and CBS 12 reporter Jana Eschbach. 

So, where's the best spot to catch the action? Ingram Traylor recommends heading downtown, where there will be a Jumbotron streaming footage from a camera on the judges' boat. But she said spectators can also catch a glimpse along the Evans Crary Bridge and at Sandsprit Park. 

If you can’t make it out, the boat parade will be live-streaming the event online here.

(Image via Facebook/Meridian Marina And Yacht Club)

3 Holiday Cocktail Recipes For The Gin Lovers

Celebrate the holiday season with festive cocktails using The Botanist Gin, a speciality craft spirit and the first and only dry gin from the Scottish island of Islay. All recipes and photos provided by The Botanist.

Holly Down 

1.5 ounces The Botanist Gin

1 ounce fresh-pressed apple juice

3-4 fresh basil leaves

1 ounce fresh lime juice

.5 ounce simple syrup

1 dash of orange bitters

soda water

apple and fresh basil leaf for garnish 

  1. In shaker, add all ingredients with ice
  2. Shake and strain into a highball glass with ice
  3. Top with a splash of soda water
  4. Garnish with an apple fan and fresh basil

Tiki Santa Sleigh

1.5 ounces The Botanist Gin

1 ounce pineapple juice

.75 ounce fresh lime juice

.5 ounce simple syrup

.5 ounce Cointreau

.25 ounce maple syrup

.25 ounce Mount Gay Rum Black Barrell

5 dashes of Angostura bitters

apple, cinnamon stick and mint for garnish 

  1. In shaker, add all ingredients with ice
  2. Shake and strain into highball or Tiki glass
  3. Garnish with apple fan, cinnamon stick and mint sprig

Northern Lights

1.5 ounces The Botanist Gin

.75 ounce fresh lemon juice

.75 ounce simple syrup

.5 ounce fresh pink grapefruit

2 fresh basil leaves

  1. In shaker, add all ingredients with ice
  2. Shake and double strain into coupe or martini glass
  3. Garnish with fresh basil leaf

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The Christmas Pudding Recipe You Need To Add To Your Holiday Meal

The holiday tradition of Christmas pudding, or plum pudding as it is commonly called, was once deemed illegal. This might not have mattered, as most people I know have never had it, don’t care to try it and have never heard of it past Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” myself included. That was until I decided to create my own version. With the addition of this sauce, you just may acquire a taste for the tradition.

Steamed Pumpkin Pudding

1 1/2 Cups all-purpose flour

1/2 Teaspoon baking powder

1/2 Teaspoon salt

1 Cup sugar ( I use 1/2 cup white and 1/2 cup brown)

1 Teaspoon cinnamon

1 Teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1 15-ounce can of pumpkin purée

1 Cup whole cranberry sauce

2 Eggs

1/4 Cup melted butter (Plus an extra 2 tablespoons for buttering the dish)


1 1/2 Cups melted vanilla ice cream

1/2 Cup sour cream

2 Tablespoons brandy or rum

1/3 Cup powdered sugar

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 F, placing a casserole dish or sheet pan with water on the bottom rack. Butter a 6-cup bowl or a metal mold, and set aside. In another bowl, add the pumpkin, cranberry, eggs, melted butter and spices. Stir well. Add in the flour, sugars, salt and baking soda. Do not over mix. Pour the batter into the buttered pan and place on the oven’s top rack. Bake for 1.5 hours. Remove from oven and let sit. Once cool, dust with powdered sugar. Mix the vanilla ice cream, sour cream and alcohol of choice together, and pour over sliced pieces. Enjoy!

Christmas Gift Guide Featuring Products From Local Companies In Martin County

'Tis the season in the tropics. Though the temperatures stay much the same, South Floridians ring in the holiday season with lower humidity, near perfect beach days and seasonal touches that remind us that we do live in paradise.

Big box stores and online juggernauts continue to vie for top position, but shifting priority towards shopping local offers more bang for your buck by keeping those dollars within the community and supporting local retailers. From unique pieces made by an artist’s hand, to casual wear and accessories made with our coastal culture in mind, you don’t have to look far to find that perfect holiday gift.

For the Mother of the Year

The Cat’s Pajamas Mommy & Me sleeping set in Sweethearts short-sleeved pajama, $92; and kids Sweethearts long-sleeved knit pajamas, $56

Simple Pleasures Bath and Body; 306 Colorado Ave., Stuart; 772.288.3710; simplepleasuresfl.com

For the Fashionista

Moisture wicking, anti-microbial, sun protective athleisure wear from IBKUL, Keleigh print long sleeve polo (Available in sea foam and navy, or black and white), $94

Juno Shoe Girl; 11766 SE Dixie Highway, Hobe Sound; 772.675.4877; junoshoegirl.com

For the Jetsetter

Large sailcloth duffel bag (Available in white and navy, or Nantucket red and navy), $285

J. McLaughlin; 3738 SE Ocean Blvd., Stuart; 772.286.7930; jmclaughlin.com

For the Art Connoisseur

Norfolk Island Pine Bowl made by Sebastian-based artist Joe Montagnino, $450

Rare Earth Gallery; 41 SW Flagler Ave., Stuart; 772.287.7744; store.rareearthgallery.com

For the Fisherman

Bubba Blade freshwater gift set, including 5-inch folding fillet/gutting knife, $50; sculpin pocket knife, $60; 7-inch tapered flex fillet knife, $55; and fishing pliers, $55

Snook Nook Discount Bait & Tackle; 3595 NE Indian River Drive, Jensen Beach; 772.334.2145; snooknook.net

For the Gardener

Wind Dancer wind chime by Stuart-based artist Jeff Hinkley of JLH Copper Designs, $62

The Jazz Market; 101 Melody Lane, Fort Pierce; Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Stuart Green Market; City Hall Parking Lot 121 SW Flagler Ave., Stuart; Sundays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; etsy.com/shop/jlhcopperdesigns

For the Foodie

Olive oil gift set, $3 for 200ml size, $3.50 for 375ml size in addition to cost of oil or vinegar product. Oils/vinegars start at $13 for 200ml size, $20 for 375ml size

2 Olive Trees; 2452 SE Federal Highway, Stuart; 772.219.8228; 2olivetrees.org

For the Vino

Alligator wine bottle holder, $40

Bottle Shock; 1707 St. Lucie W. Blvd., Port Saint Lucie; 772.224.2317; facebook.com/Bottle-Shock-Port-St-Lucie-815977355181029/

For the Businessman

Sport tweed blazer, $425

Marcello Sport; 3744 SE Ocean Blvd., Stuart; 772.888.3620; marcellosport.com

For the Philanthropist

Pura Vida wave bracelet, $15; Pura Vida wave ring, $12; every piece purchased helps support more than 150 artisans worldwide

Zeke’s Surf, Skate & Paddle Sports; 205 SW Federal Highway, Stuart; 772.205.6920; zekessurfandpaddle.com

Let This Willoughy Home Designed By Patty Downing Interiors Be Your Inspiration For Holiday Decorating

Six table settings
Six table settings were inspired by a hand-painted porcelain set from Herend.

The baby-sized bird’s nest next to each place setting cradles a cute clutch of little golden eggs, as well as the name of a guest invited to dinner. Six of them perch beside their accompanying plates.

The plates hail from the historic Herend porcelain producer and feature the Rothschild Bird pattern. The hand-painted scene, commissioned by the Rothschilds in 19th-century Europe, tells the tale of the family baroness who lost her precious pearl necklace in the garden, only to be found a few days later when two birds were spotted fiddling with it in a tree.

“The china is what gave us direction,” says Patty Downing of Patty Downing Interiors, the firm responsible for decorating the Willoughby home of Hope Jochem for the holidays. “It’s where we took our ideas.”

Acorns, berries and pinecones nestle in a centerpiece comprised of boxwood that runs down the middle of the table. Above, pine leaves adorn the chandelier. Small wreaths with green streamers hang off the back of the white slipcovered chairs. A pair of topiaries anchors the scape. For a moment, the baroness’ sweet story comes to life.

Small wreaths with green streamers
Small wreaths with green streamers hang off the back of the white slipcovered chairs. 

“The nests on the tables, the natural elements—we were trying to portray a feeling of that environment,” Downing says. “What we do as designers is play around with it.”

Because the dining room leads to an outdoor patio, a Christmas tree was placed behind the exterior glass doors to tie everything together. As for the staircase, it is visible from the dining room, so the handrail was wrapped with a longer version of the centerpiece.

“It’s meant to be a clean presentation,” Downing says. “What we wanted is to have an elegant design, but comfortable elegance.”

How does she want invitees to feel when they arrive for the festive meal?

“I’d like them to be comfortable and say, ‘Wow,’” Downing says. “I’d like them to be surprised when they walked in, yet be able to just enjoy themselves.”

Patty Downing Interiors’ Katie Astras describes the concept for the dining room as creating a feeling of organic depth while establishing the mood of a garden party.

Baked apples
Baked apples filled with turkey-sausage stuffing and seasoned with sage and pecans

“As designers, we are trained to take all the elements of a space and meld them together to develop a cohesive overall look,” Astras says. “The pops of white, the greenery, the metallic elements—all of those little touches are very intentional.”

The metallic elements include a collection of silver ornaments provided by Kathy Sue Tranter, another member of the firm.

“The silver ornaments have a story,” Tranter says. “My mother has given each of her children an ornament going back to the ’70s.”

The vintage Sleigh Bell balls from Wallace Silversmiths mark its 48th edition this year.

“My earliest silver Sleigh Bell dates back to 1973,” Tranter says. 

“It is an amazing tradition that continues today.”

golden eggs
Baby-sized bird’s nests  with golden eggs and the names of a guest invited to dinner.

In the Kitchen

The project also involved the kitchen. While not a hint of red was used in the rest of the house, the vibrant color jumps out of the cozy wooden breakfast nook and dramatic wrought-iron cabinetry.

“We wanted to give it some personality for Christmastime,” Tranter says. “By mixing stripes and plaids, the red ribbons in the cabinetry, we did just that.”

The nook features woven rattan chargers, red and white dishes, and pewter flatware. Its focal point is an arrangement bowl filled with red balls and ringed with greenery. More greenery is tucked inside the napkin rings.

“Our goal wasn’t to go overboard,” Tranter says. “It was to highlight the food.”

The food, all gluten-free, comes from Jessica Addams of DeLITEful Kitchen. Avocado toast with heirloom tomatoes, pea tendrils and everything-but-the-bagel seasoning will please those with savory taste buds, and the blueberry-pistachio oatmeal with chia seas, edible flowers and sprouts will satisfy the sweet tooths.

“It’s healthy,” Addams says. “It’s delicious. It’s pretty. People eat with their eyes.”

Christmas dinner

Turkey-sausage stuffing fills baked apples seasoned with sage and pecans. Cranberries and feta cheese flavor the roasted butternut squash. Garlic and bacon give the green beans flair.

“I just feel like Christmas is a time for everybody to be happy and come together and eat really good food and have quality time,” Addams says. “People can still eat really good food—healthy food—and not feel like they are.”

The welcome drink, served in a Champagne flute and garnished with pomegranate seeds, is a mixture of cider, Sambuca, seltzer, spiced rum and a splash of grenadine.

“It smells like Christmas,” Addams says. “It tastes like Christmas. I picked the ingredients that went well with the holiday theme and combined them. It was simple.”

Balance and Symmetry

The cabinetry, where the homeowner’s neatly stacked glassware is kept, received 10 topiary wreaths tied with red ribbons that are strikingly visible through the clear paneling. The result is balance and symmetry.

“The intent was an inviting environment without going over the top,” says Isabelle Miller, the fourth interior designer involved with the project. “The house and furnishings are already so lovely that we opted to complement the existing decor rather than overwhelm it. In the end, creating an elegant simplicity and allowing the home’s beauty to shine through was our goal.”

Dining Room

Get the Look:

Dining Room:

China-Herend, Rothschild Bird Pattern

Chair Wreaths-Napa Home & Garden

Nests-Napa Home & Garden Garlands and Berries-NDI


Silver-Designer’s Own

Linens-Pine Cone Hill

Mirror-Chelsea House

Floral Arrangement-Harbor

Bay Florist and Events

the welcome drink
The welcome drink served in Champagne flutes was garnished with pomegranate seeds


Metal China Display Cabinets-DKI Inc.

Boxwood Topiaries-Napa

Home & Garden

Arrangement Bowl-Napa Home & Garden

Cranberries and feta
Cranberries and feta cheese flavor the roasted butternut squash. Garlic and bacon give the green beans flair.

Luncheon Table:

Napkin Rings-Samuel & Sons

Serving Pieces-Beatriz Ball

Pewter-Designer’s Own

Red Ornaments-Napa Home & Garden


Pillows-Pierre Frey

Tree Skirt-Schumacher

Silver Bells on Tree-Wallace

Silver-Designer’s Own

The Patty Downing
The Patty Downing Interiors team


Patty Downing

Kathy Sue Tranter

Isabelle Miller

Katie Astras

*A special thanks to Bob Schell from Wallcoverings by Bob Schell and Glenda Toney from Patty Downing Interiors