OUT TO SEA: One Fish, Two Fish

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Why the East End is ideally suited to staging a pre-Christmas tradition from southern Italy.

MATTITUCK—A fine rain is drifting down onto Love Lane, but inside Love Lane Kitchen, candles are burning on woodentopped tables that have been set for a feast. It’s Christmas Eve, and owner Michael Avella and his wife, Patti, are bringing the Italian tradition of La Vigilia to Mattituck, in the form of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

For Catholics, the night before Christmas is a vigil, a day to fast before the birth of Christ and the celebration attending it. And fasting calls for refraining from eating meat.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a feast. “You don’t leave an Italian table,” says Mr. Avella, “unless you’re full.”

Thus the residents of southern Italy, where the tradition predominates, turned an obligation for fasting into a meal that celebrates local fish and keeps the family at the table for a long time. Why there are seven fishes, no one can say. In some areas the feast features nine or 13 courses. But Ms. Avella has a ready answer.

“Each fish represents one of the seven sacraments,” she says. (Which leads to a race of who could name them all—baptism, communion, confession, marriage, holy orders, anointing of the sick and last rites.) But that doesn’t mean some of the other famous sevens are not invoked in the meal—the seven deadly sins, and seven cardinal
virtues, and the fact that God created the earth in seven days. For Mr. Avella, the menu is about working with local ingredients, keeping true to the tradition and using the format for the creativity his kitchen is known. And keeping it affordable.

Back in his Wall Street days, a former career, Mr. Avella’s feast would have included more lobster, some caviar and stone crab claws. And although he didn’t include baccala—dried, salted cod—something poorer families all over the Italian peninsula have in their diet, he is adamant about serving eel, which appears in the fifth course, seared halibut in West Coast-–style cioppino. The soup is based in a spicy shellfish tomato broth and includes mussels, calamari, the eel and shrimp.

For the feast Mr. Avella pairs local wine with each course and finds some worthy companions for his dishes. A dry riesling from Paumanok’s 2007 vintage balances the first course of citrus-cured gravlax, garnished with caperberry vinaigrette and pumpernickel toast points. And the seafood soup’s spiciness is enhanced yet soothed by Castello di Borghese’s 2005 Estate Pinot Noir. Both come from good East End vintages, when heat and dry weather allowed grapes to gain full maturity. Not an easy feat for a winegrowing region that faces the specter of hurricanes that can arrive just as harvest approaches.

But to keep the Italian flavor Mr. Avella serves Prosecco, the Italian sparking wine, to start the meal and to finish it. For the aperitif, a negroni sbagliato is poured. Translated it means a “mistaken negroni,” as in one mistakes the gin in the traditional drink for Prosecco and ends up with a sweet-tart version of a Champagne cocktail. To make the aperitif, combine a dash of Campari and a dash of sweet vermouth in a champagne flute. Fill to the rim with Prosecco. The Prosecco returns again to accompany the dessert course’s pôts de crèmes of chocolate and hazelnut.

Christmas of 2008 was the first year the feast was held at Love Lane Kitchen, but the Avellas have been celebrating it throughout their 21 years of marriage. The tradition comes from Ms. Avella’s family, the DiLeos from Brooklyn. Always active in the kitchen, Mr. Avella picked up on the opportunity to turn a holiday into an occasion for eating and a yearly ritual was born.

“It’s my wife’s favorite meal of the whole year,” says Mr. Avella. “There’s no way I couldn’t do it.”

The crowd in the restaurant includes novices of a seven-course Yuletide meal based on fish—my family always had Chinese food on Christmas Eve—and those who have only celebrated the tradition in the privacy of their own home.

My nostalgia for Chinese food is taken care of by the second course, which features steamed local little neck clams in a spicy Chinese- style tomato nage. Black beans, ginger and scallions and tomatoes cover the sweet clams and are cooled by Paumanok’s riesling.

While waitresses serve the courses, Mr. Avella is busy pouring the wine and making sure everyone has enough to eat; no problem there. After serving the coffee he roasts right in the store, he brings out a liqueur he makes by infusing 120-proof vodka with cranberry and orange. Almost strong enough to make you forget how much you ate.

“I’ll do this every year,” he says. “Whether here or at home. It’s her favorite.”

To learn about this year’s dinner, visit lovelanekitchen.com or call 631.298.8989.

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