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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Westerly family keeps 'Feast of the Seven Fishes' tradition alive

    Judy and Lou Toscano review their collection of Christmas Eve recipes in the kitchen of their Westerly home earlier this month. A plate of homemade "soupy," or Sopressata and cheese sits on the table. (Joe Wojtas/The Day)
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    Westerly — For as long as 69-year-old Lou Toscano can remember, upward of 40 people have crammed into the kitchen and small dining room of his John Street home, and more recently at his sister's larger home, to celebrate Christmas Eve in a uniquely Italian way.

    For many Italian American families here, such as the Toscanos, Christmas Eve is more festive than Christmas Day as family members celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes as their parents and grandparents did. There are Old World delicacies such as baccalà (dried and salted cod), fried smelts, squid and even eel. Other favorites include homemade sausage, cheeses, all kinds of nuts, Clementines, Italian cookies and limoncello, a homemade liqueur.

    And while some of the menu items have changed as tastes have evolved in recent years, the tradition survives.

    "If you talk to 50 families, most of the people of my age have kept up the traditions. The food might have changed a little but the tradition is about having your family together," Lou Toscano said recently while sitting with his wife, Judy, in the same dining room that has hosted so many Toscano Christmas Eve celebrations.

    "Getting the family together. That's the important thing," added Judy, who was introduced to the Toscano tradition in 2003. She and Lou were teachers at Pine Point School in Stonington at the time and later married.

    As they talked, the Toscanos thumbed through a journal where they have listed the menu items served each year on Christmas Eve. A separate folder holds the recipes they have made over the years. On the table was a platter of cheese, crackers and soppressata, more commonly known as "soupy," a sausage made by many Westerly families each winter and aged in their basements.

    Lou said that unlike today, when family members contribute dishes to the feast, when he was growing up his mother made all the Christmas Eve food. Much of the fish was fried, and there were all the traditional dishes.

    "She was a great cook," he said, describing how his mother used to roll out dough, spread it with walnuts and grape jelly, bake it into a loaf, sprinkle it with powdered sugar and then slice it into cookies.

    Today, the Toscanos' Christmas Eve menu features a mix of old standards and new favorites, such as lobster bisque, stuffed mushrooms and flounder, and spaghetti with squid sauce.

    One casualty of changing tastes has been the baccalà.

    "We stopped doing baccalà because no one would eat it," Judy said. "Very few people eat smelts and a baccalà anymore."

    Lou explained that baccalà came from a time when salting was the only way to preserve fish. Today, of course, cod can be cooked fresh, which tastes much better.

    Another change has been a shift away from fried fish.

    Judy said she wondered why the seafood was always fried.

    "It's unhealthy and the house reeks for days," she said.

    "But that's the way it was done," Lou said.

    In her second year attending the Christmas Eve celebration, Judy said she asked if she could bring lasagna.

    "Lou said, 'I guess so.' He was not enthusiastic," she recalled. "But it was gone."

    One of the nonfried dishes Lou makes each Christmas Eve is spaghetti sauteed with bread crumbs and walnuts in butter and olive oil. He also makes fried kale into pancakes with bread crumbs and nuts. And he simmers freshly cut squid rings in his homemade pasta sauce from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. And there's always his creme de menthe squares for dessert.

    Lou also makes two varieties of mixed nuts — one sweet with maple sugar and cinnamon and another savory with red pepper and oregano. He also roasts chestnuts.

    And then there's the limoncello, an after-dinner lemon liqueur. Lou soaks dozens of lemon peels in grain alcohol or vodka for weeks. Then he discards the peels and mixes the remaining liquid with water and sweet syrup.

    Last year, the Toscanos skipped their Christmas Eve celebration due to the COVID-19 pandemic but did exchange gifts on Christmas Day in the Misquamicut State Beach parking lot.

    This Christmas Eve they planned to be back at Lou's sister's house, which he said they are outgrowing as the family gets larger.

    "It's fun to see everyone together," Judy said. "I just like having a glass of wine, sitting back and watching what goes on."

     j.wojtas@theday.com

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