Seven Reasons for Fish Fans to Love the Season

Bacalao alla Vesuviana-Salt Cod with Roasted tomato, capers and olives.

By Annette Hinkle

The rule of three may apply to jokes, fairy tales and Wise Men, but when it comes to putting your faith in a truly mystical number, seven, it turns out, is truly where it’s at.

Think about it. There are seven seas and seven continents. Seven is the number of sacraments, deadly sins, heavenly virtues, gates of hell, days of the week, and, of course, it was on the seventh day when God finally got to rest after all the heavy lifting involved in creation.

Seven is one of the most frequently used numbers in the Bible and scholars say that it denotes perfection.

If you’re a seafood lover whose idea of perfection is a fishy feast, you’ll be pleased to know that this Saturday, Page restaurant in Sag Harbor will host “Festa dei sette Pesci” or “Feast of the Seven Fishes” — a seven course Christmas Eve tasting menu prepared by Executive Chef Craig Attwood.

Though it may have its roots and inspiration in old Italy, this feast is really an Italian-American invention and it’s all about celebrating family and seafood on Christmas Eve.

“It started when the Italian immigrants came here. It goes back to the absence of meat for the Catholic holy days,” explains Mr. Attwood who, for the record, is Irish, but grew up alongside many Italian kids in his South Shore, Long Island neighborhood.

“I had a lot of Italian friends. I’d go to their houses, they had the plastic on the couches and the floor,” he recalls. “You couldn’t leave the place until you were so stuffed you couldn’t eat anymore.”

Sicilian Stuffed Sardines-lemon, olives, chilis, sultanas, pine nuts with shaved fennel and orange

Chef Attwood came to Page seven months ago after running the kitchen at Jedediah Hawkins on the North Fork. He cut his teeth at several eateries in the city, including the now defunct Pico, which was named for an island in the Azores.

“That was a great experience. The basis of the menu was the trade route of the Portuguese through Asia and sailors bringing back the spices,” explains Mr. Attwood. “The executive chef was Italian and the owner was Portuguese. We were getting the fish from his cousin in Portugal — like dorade and octopus.”

Chef Attwood was inspired by the flavors he cooked with at Pico and he’s brought that influence to Page by offering dishes that incorporate the flavors of products sourced throughout the Mediterranean, not just from Italy.

“Sicily, Sardinia, across to Morocco, I love the whole region — the spices, the olives, preserved lemon from Morocco. I love that flavor.”

He also loves fish. Chef Attwood created his first seven fishes feast on Christmas eve two years ago. It was a private affair for family and friends and one of the starring dishes was cioppino, a fish stew that originated on the West Coast and is often found on seen fishes feast menus.

“It’s from the late 1800s and the North Beach area of San Francisco. It has it’s basis in Genoa and came from immigrants who worked on the fishing boats,” explains Chef Attwood. “They could make it on the boat from tomatoes and broth and a mix of different fish.”

For the Page feast, Chef Attwood is hoping to expand palates and introduce some new flavors, starting with Sicilian stuffed sardines, which will be prepared with lemon, olives, chilies, sultanas (dried grapes), and pine nuts, topped with shaved fennel and orange.

“The first couple ingredients are grouped up and packed on the sardines,” he explains. “You take the head off the sardine, butterfly it, rub on the mixture, pan sear it skin side down, and finish it off in the oven to color.”

Though he’s an aficionado himself, Chef Attwood understands that sardines suffer from a serious image problem.

“I try to be an ambassador for the sardine. When I talk to people, I say ‘You have to try this,’” says Chef Attwood. “The problem is, people haven’t had fresh sardines enough. There’s no comparison between canned and fresh.”

Which is why the sardines that will grace plates at Page on Christmas Eve will be super fresh — flown in directly from Greece.

“They pack them in Styrofoam and ice and they’re so delicate, once the skin is no longer firm, they’re done,” he says.

Next up on the menu will be Frutti di Mare, chilled rock shrimp, scallops, calamari, shaved celery and pickled peppers.

“All the seafood is cooked separately and chilled,” he explains. “It’s topped off with pickled peppers, some Serrano chilies, and shaved celery. That celery gives it a nice texture and bite.”

Some of the fish on the tasting menu has historical significance throughout the world as a food source, specifically the Bacalao alla Vesuviana, which is salt cod served with roasted tomato, capers and olives.

“Traditionally, they salted the cod and dried it in the sun. Cod was so plentiful from the north to the south,” says Chef Attwood. “You could rehydrate it with water until it was not salty and they would cook it a hundred different ways. The French have brandad, potatoes with cream, but there are so many different versions.

“This one is Italian-Mediterranean. Since the cod is salted, you have to put in water every day until it has the right saltiness,” he explains. “Then you can poach it in fish stock, milk, or cream, or slow roast it.”

While he won’t be making cioppino this time around, Chef Attwood will offer up cacciucco, a fish stew native to coastal towns in Italy, particularly Livorno in Tuscany. His is a combination of stewed octopus, clams, mussels, shrimp and monkfish cooked with white wine, garlic and parsley.

Another distinctly Italian offering on the menu will be pasta alla chitarra with crab and sea urchin.

“I’m going to make fresh pasta,” he says. “I love it and as an Irishman, I learned how to make it from very good Italian cooks.”

Other items on the seven fish menu will include vongole oreganata (little neck clams with bread crumbs, oregano and lemon zest) and scungilli alla sorrentina (scungilli braised in white wine with lemon, thyme and peppers. The meal finishes up, not with fish, but with something sweet — struffoli, which is fried honey balls with toasted hazel nuts.

No matter what the weather outside on December 24, inside Page, the flavors of the Mediterranean will surely be brightening the holiday spirits of local fish lovers who will have seven good reasons to celebrate this Christmas eve.

“It’s taking good super fresh ingredients and putting them together,” says Chef Attwood. “That’s what Mediterraneans do. They grow amazing produce, cook it really simple — but it’s amazing.”

Just like the number seven.

The “7 Fishes Christmas Eve Seafood Feast” at Page Restaurant, 63 Main Street, Sag Harbor, is $75. To reserve call (631) 725-1810.