Sam Wholey has never hosted his own Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner, but that doesn't mean he can't tell you how to put one on. For decades, the owner of the Strip's popular seafood shop has been helping locals select the right fish for the Italian Christmas Eve tradition.
Wholey says the feast originated in Southern Italy. Catholics weren't allowed to eat meat on Christmas Eve until after midnight, so they ate fish. "From there, it grew into this huge meal that many Italians observe," says Wholey, who gives a presentation on how to host the dinner on Saturdays leading up to the holiday. "It's certainly not a fast anymore, that's for sure."
Despite its name, Wholey says the dinner can feature anywhere from seven to 13 fishes. There's ongoing debate as to what "seven" signifies -- some say it represents the seven sacraments, others say the seven days it took God to create the earth.
"I think each faith or sect has their own explanation of it," Wholey says. "The feast features a lot of food, but you normally have small portions and take your time with it. You eat slowly, drink wine, talk -- just enjoy the family and the holiday."
The dishes themselves can be open to interpretation, says Wholey, and you can use a lot of different seafoods. The more traditional dishes include salt cod (baccala), eel, smelts, lobster, clams and mussels.
Wholey suggests first-timers avoid making the meal too difficult. The preparation of salt cod, for example, can take days. "It can be difficult to work with," he cautions, "as can eel."
For first-time feast, Wholey recommends fried smelts and fried calamari. A baked fish dish -- cod, flounder, grouper or red snapper -- is ideal, along with a simple pasta dish, such as linguini with mussels and clams. Shrimp scampi is another traditional item, which can be followed by either scallops or Pittsburgh (not Maryland, insists Wholey) crab cakes.
And what about the seventh dish? "Lobster, it's got to be lobster," says Wholey. "It's traditional and it just adds that nice, festive touch to the meal."
But regardless of what dishes you try, adds Wholey, the Feast of the Seven Fishes "makes for a really nice holiday tradition."
Wholey's Seafood, 1711 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412-391-3737 or www.wholey.com