Rite Before Christmas

Assimilation challenges tradition in South Philadelphia’s Italian-American population.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 29, 2008

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Eel is the oldest of old-school dishes—the one chef Mario Batali calls “almost sacrilege” to exclude. Italians who grew up celebrating the Feast describe vivid, shoulder-shuddering recollections of eels slithering, writhing and jumping in a frying pan—after being sliced into chunks. Even most middle-aged Italian-Americans, while reminiscing fondly about elder aunts’ and grandmothers’ Feast recipes, will declare: “Eel. That’s the one thing I won’t eat.”

When the jumping dies down, the eel is sauteed until the skin’s crispy and plated with gravy. Sometimes it’s boiled. Tastes like sausage, says Lucchesi.

“If you didn’t tell people what they were eating, they wouldn’t know,” he says. “That’s how my mother fooled me.”

Aunt Connie rings the register while customers check out the cases of merchandise. Glossy white tubes of squid, giant pink-orange prawn the size of baby ram’s horns, smelts shiny as polished silver and gelatinous purple blobs of octopus are splayed alongside more pedestrian types of fish on long beds of crushed ice. Baccala—triangular sheets of salted dehydrated codfish—dangle in the windows.

Though sales are brisk in early December as customers prepare for the Feast, devotion to the tradition has declined in recent years.

“The volume isn’t there like it used to be,” says co-proprietor Anthony D’Angelo, cell phone to his ear. “Every year it’s a little less and less. Like the baccala. No one knows how to do it. It stinks. There’s a process of letting it sit for a few days.”

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