Christmas Eve is a big deal for families of southern Italian descent, not so much for the gift giving as much as the food.
My mother's family would always celebrate with what is often called the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I remember the dinner as always an exciting affair that would precede the opening of at least one of the gifts beneath the tree before attending midnight mass.
Many Italian Catholics still fast from meat and dairy on Christmas Eve as they used to on Fridays and still do during Lent. The fish feast is historically and symbolically tied to the wait before the birth of Jesus. The number seven is reoccurring throughout the Bible, but why it's used to count fish is the subject of much speculation. My mother told me it's okay to use three, five or even nine types of fish or seafood, as long as the number is odd.
When I was a kid, my grandmother, Isabel Micucci, would spend hours in her kitchen cooking one course after another that included anchovies, fried smelt, salt cod known as baccala, eel, calamari and an assortment of fresh shellfish. The cod was cooked in a thin, spicy tomato sauce that included raisins and tossed with vermicelli, thin spaghetti. The spicy hot, sweet and salty dish is unforgettable.
I gave up trying to locate all the old world ingredients needed to cook all the courses when I moved to east side of the mountains many years ago. Where do you find fresh smelt and sardines, eel, salt cod, fresh mussels and clams, and a big, beautiful whole red snapper in Wenatchee?
But I still honor the tradition each year in one way or another. I started making a Christmas Eve cioppino several years ago. The delicious fish stew — similar to a bouillabaisse but with more tomato — is an easy and impressive way to entertain holiday guests. The most important part is picking the freshest fish and seafood you can find. The dish can get costly if you're feeding a lot of people. I sometimes ask the people I invite to each bring a different fish or seafood to add to the pot — a crab, pound of mussels or clams, shrimp, lobster, salmon, halibut, etc.
Here's a good recipe courtesy of Giada De Laurentiis and Food Network. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/cioppino-recipe/index.html
There's lots of other recipes to be found on the Internet and they're all different, so don't worry if you want to swap ingredients. I make it a little different every time. In addition to the white wine, I always add a splash of Pernod or anisette to the saute pan to get a little more anise flavor that also comes from the fennel if used.
Serve with a simple green salad and crusty Italian bread. There are many great wine choices including chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, a young rose and lighter reds like pinot noir, zinfandel and sangiovese. Sparkling wine is a great choice too.