Vigilia Dinner with Sixty

This evening my lagotto Teddy and I stopped in the foyer of the apartment building of my history teacher who lives a block away, so as to leave a Christmas card in his mailbox.  The hour was 5 PM, the sky darkening and streaked with pink as sunset claimed this Christmas Eve.  

All year I wait for this evening, because there is in Rome a special stillness that I love on Christmas Eve, as nearly every Italian family sets itself to the serious task of preparing Cena della Vigilia, Christmas Eve dinner.  Traffic slows to a halt.  Everyone seems to be at home.  Apartments, many with balconies decked with festive lights, are brightly lit, especially in their kitchens.  The traditionally meatless Vigilia is the kick-off for the Christmas time feasting season, and precedes Christmas Day lunch (which has its own culinary canons), Santo Stefano lunch (Boxing Day lunch), New Year’s Eve (more specific rules governing what you should be eating) and then a hearty lunch menu on New Year’s Day.  The sixth holiday meal is on the day of Befana, or Epiphany.  

The only elements that bind all of Italy in terms of constancy of menu are that dome-shaped panettone will appear for most of these feasts — and that seafood is the focus on this evening’s Vigilia menu.

Earlier today I had joined neighbors and friends is queuing patiently at the market fishmonger, watching with interest as clams…

eels and countless other varieties of fish were selected by eager customers.  

The fishmongers’ scale no sooner recovered from wild bobbing until another fish was popped onto it and then swiftly passed to the two longtime fish cleaners, younger men in long white aprons whose job it is to scale, clean and rinse the fish.

Tightly packed with parsley into brown butchers paper, fishy parcels disappeared into market baskets and bags.

And here that very fish was now in skillets, in pots, in ovens.  Teddy and I ventured into the foyer and stopped fast in our tracks, so tightly were we engulfed in the scents of 60 apartments apparently cooking fish.  My teacher’s building dates from the early 1930s; the two stairwells, each with 30 apartments, converge where we stood.

My card in hand, I sniffed deeply.  Teddy, a truffle dog with an outstanding sense of smell, did the same.  All of the building’s cooking fragrances were funneled into the very spot where we stood.  We discovered that if we moved to the left, near the artificial Christmas tree, we had a different heady odor (the combined smells of the left stairwell) and if we moved to the right were offered a different scent combination.  All rich fish odors, but with nuances. 

Teddy licked his chops as I set about trying to catalog what I smelled. Seafood — with shell, without shell, boneless, with bones — carried by onion, tomato, garlic, cloves, lemon.  White wine. Parsley.

Seafood does not appear just once on the Vigilia menu, but numerous times — generally in no less than three different courses (often more) each requiring a unique preparation.  I watched a man stride briskly in through the doorway and to the stairwell on the left.  He was carried a net bag of clams.  

Scents of potatoes, celery. Lentils. Rosemary ! More garlic.  Such an elixir !

Eventually, Teddy and I looked at one other, then reluctantly departed for one last walk before full darkness settled. But as we crossed the square and proceeded toward the park, I continued to enjoy the fragrances …and realized that through just five minutes in the vortex of the Vigilia kitchens, Teddy and I had become two potpourris.

Saffron, there was saffron too, I told Teddy.  And we entered the park gate, the unbidden, appreciative guests at 60 Vigilia tables.  

Buon Natale ! 



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