Talking 7 Fishes with Brooklyn’s Daniel Paterna
Daniel Paterna is considered the “Pope of South Slope” (by me) due to his decades-long presence in the neighborhood in general and at local Italian eateries in particular. These days, his unofficial headquarters is Flora, a caffe/ristorante/alimentari on the corner of 11th Street and 8th Avenue. The young owners are from Campania, and Paterna, of Neapolitan descent, appreciates the authenticity of their regional cuisine. The cuisine that Paterna was raised on, though, was very much of the Italian-American variety proudly served in the ethnic enclave of Bensonhurst where he grew up.
His passion for not just the food of his upbringing but also the culture and community in nourishment is on full display in his book, The Feast of Seven Fishes: A Brooklyn Italian’s Recipes Celebrating Food & Family (powerHouse Books, 2019). In hardcover only and at a whopping 255 pages, this hefty tome, formidable enough to pound cutlets, features 60 recipes for all seasons, but it’s not just a cookbook.
It’s also a memoir and a neighborhood chronicle and a tribute to local purveyors, all enhanced by Paterna’s talents as a photographer, creative director and archivist. That said, for my purposes here “at Brooklyn Tables,” it’s all about the food. In fact, since we are publishing this week’s column on the eve of Christmas Eve, I went to Flora in South Slope to talk seven fishes with the Pope.
Andrew Cotto (AC): As noted, your book is not just a cookbook, nor is it just about the feast of seven fishes, but tell us why this particular meal is the book’s namesake?
Daniel Paterna (DP):
My publisher suggested it based on the popularity of the Christmas Eve tradition. It also coincides with one section of the book dedicated to this particular feast. I was concerned that it would seem one dimensional, but I was wrong. The book is now in its second printing and has become a surprise holiday gift.
AC: Can you walk us through the process for your particular feast?
DP: First, we buy air dried Arctic cod (that we call “stocco”) that takes two weeks to hydrate. Then comes the more familiar salted cod fish or baccala, which take 3 to 4 days of soaking to desalinate. I also pick up an eel if I could find one. The traditional eel is fried and marinated with mint. The baccala I serve as a room temp salad smothered in sweet fried peppers. The stocco is baked in the oven with onions, celery and olives. The rest is pretty straight forward: Frutta di Mare (seafood salad), stuffed calamari, Fritto Misto (fried fish platter).
AC: What’s the most challenging part of the preparation?
DP: Timing. Prepping the courses and pacing is always a challenge especially for the Fritto Misto. Pacing the meal and accepting its lengthy progression is essential. Our non-Italian guests often top out on the first dish, Frutta di Mare, not understanding that this meal is more like a marathon!
AC: What brings you the most joy?
DP: I always see this meal as a play reenactment. For as long as we celebrated the Vigila, which has been my whole life, it’s been more or less the same meal but with new changing faces. Time never stands still, and I thrive on how the food we serve
reminds me of my grandparents, parents and those who are no longer at our table. It gets to me all the time.
AC: What’s your favorite fish of the seven to eat?
DP: Probably the Insalata di Baccala. It’s Christmas to me.
AC: What do you drink with seven fishes?
DP: Falanghina for white and Lacryma Christi for red. Both are wines from Campania compliments of my pals at Flora.
AC: How long does a typical Paterna Christmas Eve last?
DP: Anywhere between 4-5 hours depending on whether or not gifts get opened in between courses. Regardless, guests all hang in there for the crown jewel of my Mom’d Torta di Ricotta!
AC: What time should I be there on Saturday night?
DP: You can hang your hat up around 6:30!
Andrew Cotto has been eating his way through Brooklyn for 25 years. As an author, the food of our borough has been featured extensively in his novels and journalism. In his new column for the Daily Eagle, Andrew will tell the tales of Brooklyn eateries, from the people behind the food to the communities which they nourish.
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