Christmas Eve the Italian way

The men of the family join together to create a 12-course, all-white seafood meal

Usually at the hair salon, the customer does all the talking. As the stylist executes a buzz, bob, or blunt cut, he or she simply listens, nods, and utters an occasional "Oh, really? Tell me more." But the other day, as Leon deMagistris trimmed my layers, I was all ears.

It all started when I asked him about his plans for the holidays.

"I am originally from Avellino, Italy, just outside Naples," began deMagistris, who still speaks with an accent despite 40 years in the United States. "During the holidays, we celebrate just the way we did with my mother, especially on Christmas Eve."

That's when Leon, his threesons, and his nephew cook a 12-course, all-white seafood meal for a crowd of about 28 relatives. The family sits down to dinner at 7, and unless they're part of this team - which both cooks and serves - they don't get up from the table until 1 or 2 a.m.

This tradition is not unique to the deMagistris family, I learned later. Many Italians celebrate Christmas Eve with 12 courses, which represent the 12 apostles, and an all-white menu and table (linens, candles, plates), symbolizing the purity of Christ Jesus. But in Italy, the dishes vary slightly depending on one's region, one's town, and one's own family recipes.

Clearly, from the broad smile on his face and his excitement at talking about the event, this is a tradition Demagistris treasures. It's a way to keep alive the spirit of his mother, he explained while snipping my bangs. "She was a wonderful cook. Her meals were light, tasty, and never overly spiced. She influenced all of us."

Grandma Giuseppa (affectionately called "Giuseppina" or "Nonni") appears to have influenced Leon's son, Dante, most of all. "When I was 8, instead of doing my homework after school, I would cook with my grandmother," Dante told me later in a phone interview. Now a professional chef at Boston's blu, an upscale restaurant at the Sports Club LA, Dante cooks many of the same pasta, risotto, and seafood dishes he made with her.

Since he was 14, Dante has orchestrated the planning and cooking for Christmas Eve. He sticks mostly to his grandmother's recipes, but sometimes he will introduce a new dish for the occasion.

Specials of the day

Tonight's menu will start with fried calamari, calamari ceviche, and an octopus salad. Then, Dante and his team will serve grilled eel in a balsamic reduction sauce; zepole (potato dough) fried with baccala (salt cod); stuffed escarole; mussels cooked with garlic and olive oil; and angel hair pasta with anchovies, capers, red chili flakes, parsley, garlic, pine nuts, and golden raisins (see recipe).

New this year is a whole striped bass, which Dante will bake in a coating of salt; lemon zest, and juice; and fresh rosemary, sage, and parsley. "The recipe was invented in Italy," he says, "but it's not specific to Christmas Eve." Also likely to be on the holiday menu is a fresh sardine casserole. The remaining two dishes will be determined today, based on which seafood is freshest at the market.

Although he spends his working hours hovering over a hot stove, Dante deMagistris always looks forward to cooking the Christmas Eve meal with his father; his brothers, Filippo and Damian; and cousin Anthony. "I cook fine, pristine food every day, so I enjoy making more rustic dishes for this occasion," he says.

On top of that, cooking at his father's home is hardly as pressured as at blu. "We have a lot of fun in the kitchen together," he says, "even though we take the cooking, presentation, and serving of the dishes very seriously."

The tradition of only men cooking in the kitchen started when Grandma deMagistris was still in Italy and the rest of the family was in the US.

"Someone had to cook, and it ended up being us guys," explains Dante. "We'd make a mess, and the women wouldn't want any part of it."

His female cousins and aunt help in a pinch, however. They might set the table with the silver flatware and white china that are used only on Christmas Eve - and which were purchased by Leon and his mother in Florence.

Dante's stepmother, Grace, "manages" the big night, making sure every detail is taken care of. "This is my favorite night of the year," she says when I meet the family at Leon's home. "And not just because I don't have to cook!"

This year, eight children will be among the guests. Like host Leon, who was practically weaned on anchovy sandwiches, they are all adventurous eaters.

"The kids eat everything," says Dante, "even the octopus, squid, and eel."

It's Filippo, a sculptor, who is the fussy eater in the crowd. "I've never liked seafood," he admits. "But I still love to cook on Christmas Eve."

For this, Filippo gets teased a lot at the family gathering, especially when he sits down to his plate of pasta without anchovies. But this year he won't be the only one getting teased. His fiancée, who also steers clear of fish, will twirl her own forkfuls of anchovy-free pasta beside him.

Grandma would be proud

But whether they are serving seafood or not, this culinary crew strives for a simple but beautiful presentation, a standard set by Grandma Giuseppina. The deMagistris family will always celebrate the holiday just as they did with her until 10 years ago.

"It's a tradition that will keep on going," says Leon. "I am so happy and so proud that my sons love this event as much as I do."

And indeed they do.

"It's all about togetherness," says Filippo. "The food brings us together. That's what's most important - even more than what's on the plates."

Angel hair pasta with
garlic-anchovy sauce

Kosher salt
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 tablespoon garlic (about 3 cloves), finely minced
8 anchovy fillets
1/2 teaspoon hot chili flakes, or to taste
1/4 cup jarred or salted capers, rinsed
1/4 cup golden sultana raisins
1 pound angel hair pasta (also called capellini)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. (Pasta water should be as salty as the Mediterranean Sea, says chef Dante deMagistris, who adds 1/4 cup salt to 1 gallon plus 1 quart of water per pound of pasta.)

While the water comes to a boil, heat 3 tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add pine nuts and stir continuously until they are light brown. Add the garlic, and stir until it is golden. Add the anchovies, chili flakes, capers, and raisins. Reduce heat to low, and let the sauce simmer.

Cook the pasta in the boiling salted water, stirring until the water returns to a boil, then cook for a minute longer. Reserve about 3 cups of the pasta water in a pot on medium heat. Strain the pasta through a colander, and add it to the sauce. Add one cup of the pasta water to the sauce, and toss until the sauce is evenly distributed over the pasta. Continue cooking the angel hair pasta in the sauce for another minute. The pasta water will help finish cooking the angel hair and keep it from becoming dry. Add more pasta water if needed. The angel hair should be al dente (firm to the bite).

Take the pan off the heat, and add the remaining 4 tablespoons of extra- virgin olive oil and the Parmigiano Reggiano. Add salt if needed. Serve immediately in warmed pasta bowls.

Serves 6.

- From Dante deMagistris, chef at blu at the Sports Club LA in Boston

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