Cucina Enoteca will celebrate the holidays this year with a week of nightly specials to honor the Feast of the Seven Fishes – the most beloved meal of the year in Italian-American households.
As the name implies, the feast presents seven different seafood dishes, typically served on Christmas Eve.
We asked culinary director Tim Kolanko to describe what he and executive chef Cesar Sarmiento are preparing for this year’s specials, which run Dec. 18 through Christmas Eve at the Irvine Spectrum Center restaurant.
What are the origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes?
It’s a beautiful story. It was created by Italian American immigrants who, as Roman Catholics, often stayed away from dairy and meat on the eve of major holidays. The diet of Southern Italian immigrants already centered on fish. Fish was available here, and it was celebratory.
What is the format of the feast at Cucina Enoteca?
It evolves. Last year we did seven antipasti on a single platter for two. This year we are doing seven nightly specials, each night an appetizer and entrée featuring different fish and shellfish.
What was your favorite dish last year?
The same dish I presented when interviewing for my position! It’s a gently poached mussel, topped with the Italian spicy sausage nduja and breadcrumbs, then crisped and served in the shell on a base of fennel confit. There’s a good chance it will be one of our specials this year.
Which was the most popular dish?
The salt cod was a fun one. Our salt cod fritters surprise people – the fish is not that common in American cooking, and it’s one of my favorites to work with. They’re another likely candidate this year. The tuna conserva, in a little jar served with toast, was also very well received.
Does the menu offer festive dishes not on the feast?
The whole branzino. It’s often finished with lemon and herbs, but we recently did an escarole and puttanesca relish. We get the skin all charred and crispy in the pizza oven. We constantly change what goes with it, but we always have it, and it always feels festive.